Thursday, July 17, 2003
STEPHEN JOHNSON IS NOT AN ACADEMIC: In a Slate essay pointing out systemic flaws in Google's search technology, Johnson -- who also blogs-- makes the following argument:

Google is beginning to have a subtle, but noticeable effect on research. More and more scholarly publications are putting up their issues in PDF format, which Google indexes as though they were traditional Web pages. But almost no one is publishing entire books online in PDF form. So, when you're doing research online, Google is implicitly pushing you toward information stored in articles and away from information stored in books. Assuming this practice continues, and assuming that Google continues to grow in influence, we may find ourselves in a world where, if you want to get an idea into circulation, you're better off publishing a PDF file on the Web than landing a book deal.

The problem with this argument is that it fails to recognize that this process predates Google -- or the Internet, for that matter.

Johnson sets this up as an either/or question -- online papers or books. In point of fact, for most academics this is a progression. First you circulate your ideas in draft form, then as a conference paper, then as an article, and then -- maybe -- publish a book. The book stage depends on the discipline -- for example, they matter far less in economics than in political science. However, this was true long before Google. The only thing the Internet and its search engines has changed is widening the access to papers at the preliminary stages of development. [But what about writers not affiliated with universities?--ed. I'd argue that the process is similar. Good writers/researchers often publish the germ of an idea in a magazine before deciding that it has enough legs to merit writing a book. Often, the author will publish excerpts from the book in magazines or journals. For example, Michael Lewis published an excerpt of Moneyball in the New York Times Magazine this March. This applies to fiction-writers as well.]

Furthermore, there are good reasons for the process to work this way. Getting an idea/argument out in draft form has two advantages to just writing a book without posting or publishing bits of it online. First, for the author, making the ideas available in draft form permits greater feedback, which in turn helps to improve the ideas. Second, for the community of people interested in the topic, finding such ideas as early as possible lets them stay on the cutting edge of the latest work on the subject (it certainly helps with bibliography-hunting).

Is Johnson correct that with Google, fewer people prefer to read a researcher's book-length treatment of the topic over the Internet-accessible, condensed version of the argument? I doubt it. Busy people look for shortcuts, and a big shortcut for scholars is to read an author's article instead of his/her book (unless the topic or argument really hits home). This was true long before the Internet or Google ever existed.

UPDATE: For another critique, click here and here. Johnson responds ably on his blog. He's all-too-correct in observing:

It's a sign of the times I suppose that a piece about search engine algorithms comes across as an incendiary, hot-button assault...

ANOTHER UPDATE: Larry Solum over at Legal Theory Blog has an extended discussion of the Internet's effect on legal research.


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