Change is a natural part of life so resisting it has always seemed futile to me. My hair falls out and turns grey and I prefer to just accept that it has happened rather than to wear a wig or dye my hair. But sometimes change happens and we feel regret for what is lost in the process.
The move from print to electronic journals has been embraced enthusiastically by scientists. They love the speed and convenience of instant desktop (and even mobile) access, and the flexibility of searching and linking. But this week two separate people have commented to me what a shame it is that they can no longer flick through print journals and chance upon unexpectedly interesting papers.
So, here’s a challenge – how could we (we being libraries, publishers or readers) recapture that feature of serendipity? In an earlier post I noted how lecturers are frustrated that their students do not read more widely, and one comment suggested that academics in general have a narrow range of reading. Specialisation and the growth in the volume of literature have combined to make a wide reading habit a challenge for all but the speediest of speed readers. The poor browsability of electronic journals and consequent lack of serendipity accentuate this trend.
current electronic formats do not facilitate all types of uses and thus may be changing learning patterns as well
these data also have implications for publishers and educators;
An editorial in Nature Genetics about research creativity reported a scientist saying
we should not lose paper journals for browsing; [they have] an effect on serendipity
Printed scientific journals are a thing of the past; I cannot envisage the change from P to E going into reverse. So, what can we do to ameliorate these alleged consequences of reduced serendipity and impoverished reading patterns?
Some ideas have a ring of job-creation-for-librarians, and harking back to print. The blog post,
Seven Ways to Add Serendipity to Your Research in the Digital Age, suggests browsing library stacks, browsing in the library catalogue, or asking a librarian, along with recommendations to use browse functions in databases. I like the title of another blog post: Add a little more random to your product. We want a reading list to be in between boring predictability and total chaos, it suggests, citing the iPod shuffle as a useful model.
I wonder whether services like Faculty of 1000 and Mendeley have a role, but they are both based on peer recommendations, rather than off-the-wall suggestions. I haven’t used StumbleUpon but perhaps a science version of that would be the answer. Maybe it already exists? For myself, I have found that Twitter is quite a good way of stumbling across things of interest, though there is a danger of straying into chaos.
Do you think that technical solutions (improved online browsability or greater search randomness) or social solutions (more incentives to wider reading) will work? Is the semantic web (semantic journal, semantic article) a solution? Is the whole thing a non-problem?
I’d be interested to hear your views.