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The extraordinary growing impact of the history of science

In a recent paper published on arxiv.org entitled “On the Shoulders of Giants: The Growing Impact of Older Articles”, the authors examined the citation arc over time of older scholarly articles and how that impact has changed over time and with increased digital access. They found that citations to older articles (and therefore their impact) has substantially grown as older papers have become as easy to find as new ones. Check out the arxiv blog for more explanation.

I’d like to see similar research on historic government documents. My sense is that, over time, digitized government documents will be used more — IF they’re made findable in lots of library catalogs and on the open Web and IF govdocs librarians will do more to “seed the cloud” with Q&As and blog posts about interesting documents they come across in their work! — AND that as they’re used more, the original paper documents from which they were scanned will also be used more. Anyone want to do the research?

On the Shoulders of Giants: The Growing Impact of Older Articles. Alex Verstak, Anurag Acharya, Helder Suzuki, Sean Henderson, Mikhail Iakhiaev, Cliff Chiung Yu Lin, Namit Shetty

That raises an interesting question — if old papers are now as easy to find as modern ones, are they having as great an impact?

Today we get an answer of sorts thanks to the work of Alex Verstak and pals at Google. These guys have studied how often older articles are cited in modern papers and how this has changed since the advent of electronic publishing in the 1990s. Their conclusion is that older papers are having an increasingly important impact on modern science — that the distinction between old and new, between the historical and the modern, no longer creates a division in science.

These guys base their work on a database of citations in scientific papers published between 1990 and 2013 in 9 broad areas of research subdivided into 261 subject areas. For each discipline, they then plotted the percentage of citations to papers that were at least ten years old.

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.

via The Extraordinary Growing Impact Of The History Of Science — The Physics arXiv Blog — Medium.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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