Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Negative Effects of Online Research?

A new study by Professor James Evans of the University of Chicago suggests that the growth in online research has had a "narrowing" effect on scholarship. An abstract of the study, which appears in the July 18, 2008 issue of Science is here. A recent article in the Boston Globe describes Professor Evans's methodology. He

analyzed a database of 34 million articles in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, and determined that as more journal issues came online, new papers referenced a relatively smaller pool of articles, which tended to be recent, at the expense of older and more obscure work. Overall ... published research has expanded, due to a proliferation of journals, authors, and conferences. But the paper ... concludes that the Intenet's influence is to tighten consensus, posing the risk that good ideas may be ignored and lost - the opposite of the Internet's promise.
While the Globe article highlights the benefits to be gained from the "old-fashioned style of browsing," which may "lead to serendipitous insights," it also discusses the "vigorous debate over the Internet's effects" and the controversy that Evans has sparked. An upcoming paper will challenge some of Evan's conclusions; Evans plans to rebut the paper. In addition, Carol Tenopir, a well-known librarian and educator at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, says that "her surveys of reading patterns show the reverse of a narrowing effect. 'Electronic journals ... have broadened reading ...'" However, Tenopir concedes that she has not studied citations as Evans did. Research from other disciplines tends to corroborate Evans's conclusions. A recent article by Professor Anita Elberse of the Harvard Business School, discussing home video sales, demonstrated that although the Internet expands the scope of available titles, it also tends to concentrate users' focus on a relatively small number of best sellers.

Other scholars fear that "online winnowing" might "'make[] academic research a popularity contest.'" Another concern is broader--the loss of the context provided by print resources. Context is not easily duplicated in the online world where users "follow hyperlink to hyperlink, in a journey that resembles 'a plunge down a rabbit hole,'" according to Professor Robert Berring of the University of California at Berkeley, and one of the foremost experts on legal information. According to Professor Berring, "'If you get to an index, a table of contents, you see the environment that surrounds it. In the culture of paper, a lot of these signals are important.'"

This is an important topic, and I intend to share the Globe article with the students in my Advanced Legal Research class. It discusses in a compelling way a number of the issues I have raised during the course of the semester.


Betsy McKenzie said...

When I read this article in the Globe, I was thrilled to see them mentioning Bob Berring. It was an interesting article that definitely makes me want to get the original papers.

Betsy McKenzie said...

By the way, I love your image of the rabbit hole!

Marie S. Newman said...

Thanks! I love the image too, and spent a little time trying to find the right one.