Apparently, scientific papers have tended to fade away as they got older, with most papers only getting citations within the first decade or so after their publication. But a Physics arXiv entry reveals that, with digitization, that is changing.
The results show a clear trend. “Our analysis indicates that, in 2013, 36% of citations were to articles that are at least 10 years old and that this fraction has grown 28% since 1990,” say Verstak and co. What’s more, the increase in the last ten years is twice as big as in the previous ten years, so the trend appears to be accelerating.
The results solve an ongoing conundrum among researchers involved in scientometrics, the study of science and scientific research. Some of these researchers have long argued that the ongoing digitisation of historical papers should automatically ensure that they are cited more often. Others point out that there has been a huge increase in the number scientific papers published in recent years so historical papers should be a smaller proportion of the total and therefore cited less.
The work of Verstak and co shows that the former effect has won out. “Now that finding and reading relevant older articles is about as easy as finding and reading recently published articles, significant advances aren’t getting lost on the shelves and are influencing work worldwide for years after,” they say.
arXiv then asks a broader question:
But here’s the thing — if the history of science can have a bigger impact on the present, why not history in general? Could it be that this work is the first sign that the digital age is likely to make history a much more important part of everybody’s present because it will be just as easy to access electronically as the recent past?
I’ve noted before that I think the new digital age is going to have an effect similar to the printing press, or the invention of writing itself. But just like the people at the time of those earlier inventions, it is very difficult for us to foresee all the breakthroughs, all the revolutions in thought, all the paradigm shifts, that will arise in the coming decades and centuries.
Will this make history more relevant for everyone? I think it will make history more accessible. But history has always been relevant.
I wish I could say it will make people more likely to check history, but I have to admit that I doubt it. Despite the incredible amount of information available at people’s finger tips these days, I can’t say that I’ve noticed that, in general, they are really any more informed than they were before the internet. Most people appear to be more interested in using the internet to learn what Kim Kardashian is up rather than learning history.
But maybe I’m just being too pessimistic?