Is Google Is Making Us Stupid? New Research Says Yes

Following up on our earlier post on Nicholas Carr’s article in the Atlantic, which argued that search engines like Google, and the Internet in general, have changed the way that we read and think, reduced the amount of time we can focus on the written word, and in general made us stupid, comes a fascinating bit of research from James Evans, a sociologist at the University of Chicago. At the Brittanica blog he shares the results of his research that looked at citations in scholarly science articles once journals go online. In the abstract he writes:

…because [online journals] 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…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.

On his blog, Carr concurs with the findings, “Search engines, after all, are popularity engines that concentrate attention rather than expanding it, and, as Evans notes, efficiency amplifies our native laziness.”

But what about getting these articles outside of the academy? Evans’s article sits behind a wall that requires you to be a subscriber to access it, or to be part of a university that has an institutional subscription. I would argue that to increase knowledge and to broaden the gene pool of ideas out there, open access to scholarship is a much more critical issue–as John Palfrey, Berkman and others have fought for at Harvard. If only academics, or those wealthy enough to attend a university are able to access cutting edge research, how can those ideas have an impact beyond the ivory tower.

Those observations aside, Evans’s findings beg consideration and contemplation. Thankfully, he isn’t totally despondent, concluding in his blog post, “…I hope (and I’m exploring this in my work) that changes in interfaces and even richer indexing in tandem with advances in natural language processing might improve our ability to retrieve, summarize, compare, and resuscitate forgotten ideas and findings, or ideas and findings not popularly accessed today, and bring them into conversation with the new.”

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