The Great Sieve: This Is What Browsing Scientific Research Looks Like



One of the great benefits of online publishing is but a side-effect of the overall project: the constant creation of a pool of data that contain information about how research is accessed, used, discussed, and cited. 

Martin Fenner, the technical lead on PLoS Article Level Metrics project, has scooped up some of that data and painted this pretty picture of, well, browsing. The big square captures the population of people who have surfed over to an HTML version, and with each smaller square you can see that the number of people who found something relevant decreased, until you end up with the small group chattering about an article on blogs, Facebook, or citing it formally in another paper.

A few years ago sociologist James Evans published an article in Science warning that the increased efficiency of electronic search may narrow the range of papers researchers found, which may "accelerate consensus and narrow the range of findings and ideas built upon." The graph above is too simple to outright undermine Evans' point (we don't know, for example, how this sieve compares with offline searching, nor do we know whether researchers are finding papers far afield from their own), but it's certain from this that online searching still requires inefficiencies, and that people continue to browse the HTML and hone in on their desired finds from there. Additionally, Evans could not have anticipated our social web in 2008, but part of the inefficiencies captured above may be that we don't read the web (specifically, PLoS ONE) only through search, but through sharing, blogging, tweeting, etc. These may bring researchers to papers they would not have found in searching, and result in the serendipitous connections Evans revered.

And also, props to PLoS ONE. Fifty-three million-odd pageviews for some 37,000 papers is no joke. The number of downloads and Mendeley readers are likewise impressive.  If there's any real take-away here, it's that their open model is attracting tons of readers and discussion -- both on the content of their articles, and, now, the shape of their sieve.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Is the Greatest Story Ever Told?

A panel of storytellers share their favorite tales, from the Bible to Charlotte's Web.

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.


How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe


A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.


I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."


Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion



More in Technology

Just In