The Frontal Cortex

The Hazards of Hyperlinks

It’s hard to imagine that fifteen years ago scientists were forced to read old science papers on actual paper, as they paged through bound volumes of past journals. How quaint! How inefficient! (All that wasted shelf space…) How scholarly, in an old-school kind of way! It’s so much easier to just rely on Google Scholar or Pubmed, especially when ensconced in a university with electronic subscriptions to everything.

But what’s lost when information goes online? Sure, it becomes easier to find stuff, but have our searches become too narrow? A recent paper in Science looked at this very question:

Online journals promise to serve more information to more dispersed audiences and are more efficiently searched and recalled. But because they are used differently than print–scientists and scholars tend to search electronically and follow hyperlinks rather than browse or peruse–electronically available journals may portend an ironic change for science. Using a database of 34 million articles, their citations (1945 to 2005), and online availability (1998 to 2005), I show that as more journal issues came online, the articles referenced tended to be more recent, fewer journals and articles were cited, and more of those citations were to fewer journals and articles. The forced browsing of print archives may have stretched scientists and scholars to anchor findings deeply into past and present scholarship. Searching online is more efficient and following hyperlinks quickly puts researchers in touch with prevailing opinion, but this may accelerate consensus and narrow the range of findings and ideas built upon.

The key phrase is “forced browsing”. Scientific discovery is often a story of serendipity, of stumbling on an idea that has been neglected or discarded (it’s one of those remote Google search results that you don’t bother to click on). The question is whether putting science on the internet makes such unexpected encounters less likely. This would be an unfortunate irony, since one of the virtues of the online world is its unexpected linkages, the way a simple google search can lead to 45 minutes of procrastination, as you explore some bizarre subculture or peruse the back pages of wikipedia. But scientists, from the start, have been a little too organized on the internet, so that it’s typically quite easy to find the paper you’re looking for. Obviously, such speed comes with practical benefits. But what are the negative side-effects? Perhaps we should add a new tool to pubmed. I’d call it the “Probably Irrelevant Search System,” or PISS. When you type in a search term – say, CamKinase – this engine won’t return the most recent high-profile paper. Instead, it will focus on the old and the obscure, bringing to light those papers and hypothesis that you probably don’t know about.

Another virtue of looking at old journals is an increased appreciation for the limitations of one’s own scientific paradigm. Just yesterday, I was reading a paper from 1970 (by Paul Redfern, on the development of motor neurons) and was struck by the stylistic, linguistic and procedural differences between his science and contemporary experiments. (Redfern placed a much greater emphasis on inductive reasoning: he carefully observed cells at the neuromuscular junction, and then theorized. There aren’t too many high-profile neuroscience papers published today that use such an approach.) It’s not that one way is better or worse: they’re just different. Being exposed to such differences can remind us that there isn’t only way to approach a problem.


  1. #1 Coturnix
    November 12, 2008

    About that Science paper, it has been roundly criticized when it first came out – see this post for a good example.

    But I agree it would be cool to have a search or browse engine that takes you back into the history. I sometimes do searches in Google Scholar by putting date restrictions, e.g., asking only for papers published before 1970 or so. Perhaps more people should learn to do that.

  2. #2 jb
    November 12, 2008

    Another reason not to organize your office or your desk too carefully.

  3. #3 Luci
    November 12, 2008

    Another reason not to try to force your mind to be organized too narrowly. Jonah, you’re a champion of serendipity and of allowing cross-disciplinary forces to collide and create sparks. Keep up the good work. Why do we read older texts on any subject if not to experience what we didn’t know back then, what’s happened since, and also to uncover which tendrils of inquiry might have been pinched off too soon.

    One of the continuing allures of libraries is the surprise factor. You check the catalog, locate the desired volume, and then find another book nearby that piques the sleepless curiosity hunger, and the adventure continues.

    Bora is calmly practical, but PISS sounds pretty good. A search engine should work like our own neural nets. The irrelevant clue may turn out to be the true hyperlink.

  4. #4 Carl
    November 13, 2008

    I like the idea of PISS. It reminds me a bit of the Party Shuffle on my i-pod ( which produces serendipity galore ).

  5. #5 Steve Higgins
    November 15, 2008

    I actually saw a poster at Psychonomic society (or maybe OPAM – a preconference) on Thursday that is related. Evidently you are actually significantly better at reading on an LCD monitor than on actual paper.

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