What do scientists read when they don’t think anyone is looking? Is it possible to anticipate emerging areas of research before they exist? If we could take a real-time snapshot of innovation, what would it look like? For the first time, we may now have some answers.
Picture this: the whole of human knowledge as a figurative mind that can selectively focus on certain areas. It’s a profound notion, and visualizing such a construct is an enormous undertaking. The visualization should be based on users’ downloading and browsing behavior, known as clickstream data. This data was collected, aggregated, and normalized across a wide variety of journal publishers and institutions. The graphic shows a map with the connections among a comprehensive sample space of scholarly research.
Inherent in citation data may be what psychologists call a social desirability bias. Scientists tend to cite the same articles from the same top journals written by the same big-name authors - and rarely cite outside their specific field. “When scientists cite publicly, they act very differently than when they’re just looking at the literature and following their true interests. This tendency causes a “narrowing” artifact within the literature and may inflate the appearance of scientific consensus. The trend seems to be continuing, despite the increasing number of research articles.
The worth and importance of a scientist’s research is often determined by the prestige of the journals in which he or she has published. That prestige is typically based on the publication’s impact factor, which is in turn calculated by citation data. The visualization gives us the possibility of moving beyond simple citation counts and the potential of these new map to serve as the underpinnings of a better scholarly evaluation system.
There are many stories one can tell by tracing the epistemological branches of this new map. For instance, it’s apparent that biology slowly merges with the social sciences and humanities; it gradually becomes biodiversity and ecology, before finally connecting to architecture and design. But perhaps the most interesting story is the one not yet told - the unexpected breakthrough inspired by a scientist reaching out beyond his own field. And it’s certainly possible that eavesdropping on what researchers are reading will act as some sort of innovation bellwether, identifying and facilitating aha moments before they happen.