Some very interesting articles have come out in recent weeks, all analyzing the effects of the internet and directly or indirectly discussing the popular “Long Tail” theory, described by its originator as:

The theory of the Long Tail is that our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of “hits” (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail.”

First up was the widely debated Should You Invest in the Long Tail? by Anita Elberse in the Harvard Business Review. Elberse’s argument is that the data actually shows more and more concentration of markets into hits, that the long tail is extremely flat, and that there seems to be more consumer enjoyment out of the non-long tail material (Chris Anderson responds here, Elberse’s response to him is here).

had a very different article, but one with fairly similar conclusions. In Priming the Pump: New Users, Meet the Old Winners, Marshall Kirpatrick looks at online tech communities, and notes that while online communities are supposed to be “all about the democratization of communication and empowering new voices”, in reality they tend to anoint dieties, with social networks in the tech world, “funneling audiences towards the same major players that dominate other sites…The tech niche of social media is an elitist place.”

How does this relate to science and scientific publishing? Science has published Electronic Publication and the Narrowing of Science and Scholarship by James Evans. Looking at citation data, he notes that the move to online scholarly journals has resulted in a state where “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.”
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Evans brings up a few possibilities to explain his data. First, that the better search capabilities online have led to a streamlining of the research process, that authors of papers are better able to eliminate unrelated material, that searching online rather than browsing print “facilitates avoidance of older and less relevant literature.” The online environment better enables consensus, “If online researchers can more easily find prevailing opinion, they are more likely to follow it, leading to more citations referencing fewer articles.” The danger here, as Evans points out, is that if consensus is so easily reached and so heavily reinforced, “Findings and ideas that do not become consensus quickly will be forgotten quickly.” And that’s worrisome–we need the outliers, the iconoclasts, those willing to challenge dogma. There’s also a great wealth in the past literature that may end up being ignored, forcing researchers to repeat experiments already done, to reinvent the wheel out of ignorance of papers more than a few years old. I know from experience on the book publishing side of things that getting people to read the classic literature of a field is difficult at best. The keenest scientific minds that I know are all well-versed in the histories of their fields, going back well into the 19th century in some fields. But for most of us, it’s hard to find the time to dig that deeply, and reading a review of a review of a review is easier and more efficient in the moment. But it’s less efficient in the big picture, as not knowing what’s already been proposed and examined can mean years of redundant work.

It’s interesting to see these three diverse articles all pointing to the same thing, online usage leading to more concentration, to fewer options rather than the diaspora we were promised. While I continue to have deep cynicism about social networks and the politics and mentalities they create, what I’m hoping is that what we’re seeing now is just a result of us being very early in the process. Hopefully the tools we use will continue to evolve, allowing for better and deeper mining of the scientific literature, to easing the way to knowledge and expertise rather than just providing an overwhelming torrent of information where it’s easier to go along with what everybody else says. I think because so many of us are so new to these tools that we’re all doing the same obvious things with them, again leading us all to the same place, rather than placing each of us off on our own path. As we become more comfortable with using online tools, we’ll see more and more innovative use made of them. I do strongly believe that the future lies in a diversity of niche communities but clearly we’re not there yet.