An old grad school classmate, James Evans, has published an article in Science that is getting a bit of attention. In Electronic Publication and the Narrowing of Science and Scholarship, Evans finds:
that as more journal issues came online, the articles referenced tended to be more recent, fewer journals and articles were cited, and more of those citations were to fewer journals and articles.
For the record, James is a wicked smart sociologist, and a generally terrific person. In fact, he responded quickly and thoughtfully when I emailed him with my concerns that his findings might be interpreted by some to argue that the increasing availability and use of online resources is leading to lower quality of research (as measured by number and breadth of citations).
To the contrary, James replied:
On the interpretation of findings, I don’t think convergence is bad…neither do I think the move from monographs to research articles is bad. If scientists are all talking about the same things, we can more quickly agree on where to go next. I think there are both individual and global (i.e., for science) benefits to this. I think there are also global costs, however. If people pick up a finding as the most important because others feel it is so, then there may be an increase in group-think, which drops diverse findings from current conversation. If something doesn’t fit the current paradigm, it is less likely to influence it.
James further notes that his research:
ironically intimates that one of the chief values of print library research is poor indexing. Poor indexing—indexing by titles and authors, primarily within core journals—likely had unintended consequences that assisted the integration of science and scholarship. By drawing researchers through unrelated articles, print browsing and perusal may have facilitated broader comparisons and led researchers into the past.
I made the argument earlier that online browsing is far more efficient than print browsing, but had not thought much about these kinds of unintended consequences. While I’m not completely convinced that serendipitous discovery of unknown and seemingly unrelated scholarship is all that common, this is the most convincing argument for the value of print browsing that I have seen. Because print browsing is so inefficient, scholars are forced to encounter books (and ideas) that they would not otherwise have encountered.