Is the web narrowing scientists’ expertise?

ONLINE databases of scientific journals have made life easier for scientists as well as publishers. No more ambling down to the library, searching through the musty stacks and queuing up for the photocopier. Instead, a few clicks of a mouse can bring forth the desired papers and maybe others that the reader did not know of—the “long tail” of information that the web makes available.

Well, that is how it is supposed to work, but does it? James Evans, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, decided to investigate. His conclusion, published in this week’s Science, is that the opposite is happening.


This finding appeared to be counterintuitive until I thought about my own research process. Granted I'm not a physical scientist, but my basic research method might shed light on things.

Unless I'm specifically researching the history of a topic (like library construction in Alaska), I usually look at the first five or so screens of search results in a database until I think I've got enough decent articles on the subject I'm researching. If I'm not satisfied with the subject coverage, I'll keep digging, but usually the first 50 results or so are good enough for me for most purposes.

The more full runs of journals that are added to database increases the number of articles available on a certain subject. Because most commercial databases default to presenting results in reverse chronological order, older journal articles are getting pushed further and further down the list. This means people who are like me who look at the first 50, or worse, your average user who looks at the first 20 results is getting a view of the topic that includes less and less older materials.

Maybe what we need is a set of subject experts including librarians, to tag older articles as seminal/ovular so that future researchers won't overlook foundational articles in their field. It's another opportunity to add value to information.
"No doubt another may also think for me; but it is not therefore desirable that he should do so.." - Thoreau

In the News of the Week section of the same issue of Science that Evan's article is printed, several researchers whose work shows the opposite trend are quoted.
SOCIOLOGY: Survey Finds Citations Growing Narrower as Journals Move Online
Jennifer Couzin (18 July 2008)
Science 321 (5887), 329a. [DOI: 10.1126/science.321.5887.329a] (might be subscription only)