Ramblings about what I encounter within the realm of the geosciences, as well as the occasional rant about nonsense.

10 November 2008

Journal Citations and Flux Capacitor

While perusing the literature (Okay, checking out my vast, and growing, backlog of google reader...) I stumbled upon this study (sorry, subscription required).

First off, this isn't strictly speaking (or loosely speaking...really) a geology paper. It does have some interesting implications for people publishing research though.

The main thrust of this article is: As researchers increasingly use electronic search engines (like georef or geoscienceworld) the body of cited literature becomes far more condensed. Essentially, people aren't citing papers published pre ~ 1990 (or when the earliest journal is available online). Apparently, we are too entranced by Christopher Lloyd driving a flying, time-traveling train to look further back than that.
The author views this as neither a good thing or a bad thing. It is just a thing. Though, he seems to advocate that researchers should stay cautious. Mainly, because this gives the scientific community appearance of reaching consensus much quicker than it used to (whether it has or not). This can, potentially, stifle new research into competing hypotheses.
By enabling scientists to quickly reach and converge with prevailing opinion, electronic journals hasten scientific consensus. But haste may cost more than the subscription to an online archive: Findings and ideas that do not become consensus quickly will be forgotten quickly.
He also states that it is removing our respective links to the past. Our research is becoming much more obsessed with what is going on now, and we are tending to (unintentionally) ignore the old mainstays of our respective literature.
As deeper backfiles became available, more recent articles were referenced; as more articles became available, fewer were cited and citations became more concentrated within fewer articles. These changes likely mean that the shift from browsing in print to searching online facilitates avoidance of older and less relevant literature.
There is also a bit of musing about if this might have any link to the style of research being done (especially by grad students).
Modern graduate education parallels this shift in publication - shorter in years [I contest this point:ITV] more specialized in scope, culminating less frequently in a true dissertation than an album of articles.
He comments on old monographs (notably Origin of Species and the Principia) being the way research used to be published. Now (as I am sure people have stumbled upon) some of the most tantalizing titles in a search result are only abstracts from conferences. To me, this seems to make a tentative connection that the technological ADD that seems to persist in our culture today is infecting science to some extent.

He doesn't discredit the good these online search engines provide (most notably, the open access to the literature for the general public, regardless of location or time of day). Though he does have an interesting tid-bit about online article availability
Provision of one additional year of issues online for free associates with 14% fewer distinct articles cited.
It is one thing to find a paper quickly online, it is another thing to look through the stacks (in search of your elusive quarry) and happily stumble upon something completely unexpected. This can lead researchers to further focus upon their (evertightening) area of expertise, and inadvertently ignore potentially complementary research, thus narrowing the scope of individual scientific endeavors.


Cited:
Evans, James A., Electronic Publication and the Narrowing of Science and Scholarship. 18 July 2008 Science v. 321 no. 5887 p. 395-399

5 comments:

BrianR said...

Sounds like anteresting article.

When I was working on my PhD I tried to remain aware of this ... when the laziness factor kicked in when I found out the paper I wanted wasn't digital and I had to go the library (gasp!) I fought it and went. A mentor of mine who has been reviewing papers for decades says the first thing he does when he reviews a paper is to read abstract, look at figures, and look at reference list. He can usually tell if it's a younger scientist because of exactly what this article says (i.e., very few papers pre-1990s) ... and on the flip side, some older scientists haven't kept up with the literature and ONLY cite older papers.

"Modern graduate education parallels this shift in publication ... more specialized in scope, culminating less frequently in a true dissertation than an album of articles."

My PhD was definitely in the "modular" format ... that is, each chapter stands alone as a paper and there's an overall "theme". I think there are valid arguments for and against this ... one aspect that I think is positive is that it makes you prepare your work for publication from the start.

BrianR said...

oops ... first sentence should be 'an interesting'

Bryan said...

I agree with you that I prefer the modern format (where theses and disertations are prepped to go into publication). I think his comment was more directed at a new trend for grad students to publish a few papers, and they graduate. I think that practice has its ups and downs. The major advantage is real world experience in publishing papers, and generally this will efficiently set you up to achieve a position in academia (if that is your end goal). The only potential downside I see is not necessarily having an overall theme to your work. This can be countered either by the grad students sticktoitiveness or if the advisor insists on a theme. But this won't always be the case.

The main benefit I see to writing a thesis (and how I detest writing my thesis right now, so it hurts to say it) is that it forces you to go back and tie together several years worth of research into a concise and compelling narative. And I think the newer method of grad school writing/publishing shouldn't affect this point.

Really I threw that quote in because I wanted to contest his argument that grad school is taking less time to complete today than it did in the past. In my department, a MS takes 3.5 - 4 years on average.

Eric said...

I was talking to my department's librarian about that paper, Bryan, and man, did she have some things to say! Complete rage at any and all people who just use the electronic, modern references. I was lucky I was scanning a Blackwelder paper, or she might have drop-kicked me.

Bryan said...

I guess the irony that I found this paper by browsing an online database isn't something to be mentioned in mixed company then?

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