Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US have for the first time come up with a way to produce high-resolution ‘Maps of Science’, depicting the virtual trails that scientists leave behind while retrieving information from online services.
“This research will be a crucial component of future efforts to study and predict scientific innovation, as well novel methods to determine the true impact of articles and journals,” said Johan Bollen, who led the study published in the Public Library of Science (PLoS ONE).
He and his colleagues from LANL and the Santa Fe Institute used usage-log data gathered from a variety of publishers, aggregators, and universities spanning a period from 2006 to 2008.
The researchers revealed that their collection totalled about one billion online information requests.
Most studies of scientific activity rely on citation data, which can take years to appear.
Given that most scientists read articles online well before they can be cited in subsequent publications, the researchers feel that usage data can be helpful in knowing scientific activity almost in real-time.
As and when any scientist accesses a paper online from a publisher, aggregator, university, or similar publishing service, the search request is recorded by the servers of the Web portals.
According to the researchers, the resulting usage data contains a detailed record of the sequences of articles that scientists download as they explore their present interests.
Counting the number of times that scientists download one article after another, the researchers calculated the probability that an article or journal accessed by a scientist would be followed by a subsequent article or journal as part of the scientists’ online behaviour.
The research team said that such behaviour enabled them to create a map that graphically portrayed a network of connected articles and journals.
While maps based on citations favour the natural sciences, the maps created by Bollen’s team showed a prominent and central position for the humanities and social sciences that acted like interdisciplinary bridges connecting various other scientific domains.
The maps also revealed unexpected relations between scientific domains that point to such emerging relationships as are capturing the collective interest of the scientific community—like a connection between ecology and architecture.
“We were surprised by the fine-grained structure of scientific activity that emerges from our maps,” said Bollen.
Bollen says that future work will focus on issues involved in the sustainable management of large-scale usage data, as well the production of models that explain the online behaviour of scientists, and how it relates to the emergence of scientific innovation.
The researcher believes that this information may turn out to be useful for funding agencies, policy makers, and the public to better understand how best to tap the ebb and flow of scientific inquiry and discovery.