Efficiency and scholarly information practices

There is a good article* in the most recent issue of JASIS&T by a group of Canadian scholars who challenge James Evans’ controversial claim that the increase in online availability of research publications has resulted in more focused and narrowly concentrated scholarly citation patterns. Evans’ study (2008) was the subject of a previous post on the ‘narrowing prospective.’

Vincent Larivière, Yves Gingras and Eric Archambault present research findings that suggest that the dispersion of citations has actually increased over the past century.  According to their research, the range of literature cited in contemporary scholarship grows over time as a function of the total supply or availability of published research. The percentage of papers cited at least one time increases steadily as the body of literature grows and matures. They characterize the implications of these findings in fairly categorical terms:

All these measures converge to demonstrate that citations are not becoming more concentrated but increasingly dispersed, and one can therefore argue that the scientific system is increasingly efficient at using published knowledge.  Moreover, what our data shows is not a tendency toward an increasingly exclusive and elitist scientific system, but rather one that is increasingly democratic.

Larivière, F., Gingras, Y., & Archambault, E. (2009): 861.

I was struck by the authors’ references to the ‘scientific system’ of scholarly communication, since it connotes not only a methodical approach but also a set of norms and expectations about the progressive advancement of human knowledge.

Elsewhere in the paper, the authors acknowledge that the humanities are notably less ‘efficient’ in consuming and re-cycling citations from the journal literature.  They speculate that the narrow range of citation activity in the humanities journal literature may be associated with the greater reliance on scholarly monographs and offer a stern warning that

. . . extreme caution should be applied in using journal-based bibliometric data for the evaluation of research in [the humanities].

Larivière, F., Gingras, Y., & Archambault, E. (2009): 860.

This is not a new observation, of course. But it has special piquancy in the current metric-driven context of institutional (and individual) research assessment practices. Humanities scholars are up in arms over the ‘non-normative’ ratings of scholarly journals in the European Reference Index, about which my colleague John MacColl has written here. I have been thinking of this in relation to the fine paper Carole Palmer and her colleagues lately produced for us, which nicely summarizes the commonalities and differences of scholarly information practices in various disciplinary communities. Thinking of how humanists seek, find and interact with information resources and with peers in the community it seems to me that the limited range of citation activity noted by Larivière et al. is perfectly in keeping with the patterns identified in Palmer’s (et al) report (2009).

Scholarly Primitives Arrayed by Disciplinary Orientation

This graphic, which I re-purposed from the report for a recent presentation, provides a good visual picture of how the various discovery, use, and citation patterns play out in different scholarly settings. Note the contrast between the close reading (and re-reading) that humanists engage in and the ‘monitoring’ approach that scientists use to keep abreast of a vast and constantly refreshed body of literature. As Larivière and colleagues point out, it is a highly efficient approach to managing the information flow.

*See: Larivière, Vincent, Yves Gingras, and Eric Archambault. “The Decline in the Concentration of Citations, 1900-2007.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology : JASIST. 60. 4 (2009): 858-862. [WorldCat link].

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