Digitization is increasing the accessibility of old scientific papers, and of history

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?

9 thoughts on “Digitization is increasing the accessibility of old scientific papers, and of history

  1. I do a lot of research on science in the hope that that will make me a better science fiction writer, and I have to agree that it has become a lot easier to get access to peer reviewed scientific papers than it used to be. At the same time, it’s getting harder to distinguish between good and bad research. The Internet seems to be full of far more misinformation than reliable sources.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I respect your resourcefulness in reading scientific papers directly. I rarely have the time or constitution for it. I usually content myself with the popular press versions, which I know can give a distorted or incomplete view. Once in a while, I’ll get interested in a specific technical detail that I can only find in the raw material, but I’ll usually only do it after scouring the layperson versions.

      On distinguishing between good and bad research, you probably know this already, but you definitely want to stick with peer reviewed stuff. Research published directly to the public without peer review is usually suspect. Of course, peer review of someone’s bigfoot paper by fellow cryptozoologists doesn’t mean much, but peer review by credentialed biologists might. One nice benefit to reading the media versions of scientific research is that they usually include reactions from other people in the relevant field, which I often find helpful.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Peer review is no guarantee. I’m sure you remember the announcement several years back that scientists had discovered arsenic-based life. That was published in one of the world’s most prestigious peer reviewed journals.

        Checking the popular press to get a sense of how well a paper was received is a good idea. I’ll try adding that to my research process.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I would love to see a lot of academic work come out from behind impenetrable pay walls – no matter what the discipline! I’d mind the pay walls less if I thought the money was going to the authors or peer reviewers in any significant way, but with older works that’s less of a concern.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t think you’re being pessimistic. A tragedy of modern life is the growing gap between what knowledge is available and what knowledge people seek. Worse, because it can — at least potentially — be looked up, we leave it “over there” as information rather than absorbing it ourselves as knowledge.

    But for people who do seek knowledge, the growing electronic library is awesome! Just Wikipedia has changed my life, let alone all the other opportunities for learning now available.

    There is something to be said for having that much information at your fingertips. I’ve heard it called “IA” in contrast to “AI” — the former standing for “Intelligence Augmentation.” AI seeks to make machines conscious. IA seeks to make humans more capable. For those who already operate in the domain of knowledge, IA is one hell of a magnifying force!


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