History of science viewing stats on Wikipedia

For the first time, there are accurate hit counts for comparing arbitrary articles. User:Henrik has a hit counter utility for Wikipedia pages, with statistics going back to mid-December 2007. (Estimated hit counts were available for up to the top 1000 most popular pages through the currently-offline WikiCharts.)

In browsing hit counts for history of science-related articles, it quickly becomes apparent that biographies have a much larger readership than explicit history articles. The monthly hit counts for the histories of science, medicine and technology (13829; 16925; and 15442, respectively, for February) are in the same range as the daily hit counts for Albert Einstein (ranging from 8,000 to 18,000 in February). Newton and Darwin bring in about half what Einstein does, and many other important figures in the history of science are in the 1,000-2,000 per day range. Unsurprisingly, most scholarly jargon concepts (important as they may be) are not read much: less than 100 hits per day for things like “Medicalization” and “Commensurability (philosophy of science)”, and narrower concepts (the ones that even have articles) may get less than 10 hits per day. “Paradigm shift”, however, gets almost 1,000 hits per day, and Structure of Scientific Revolutions gets a couple hundred.

I’m disappointed with what I expected to be the “head” of the distribution, the main historical overview articles, but the level of activity towards the “long tail” is relatively impressive. See, for example, the following sequence for total hits in February:

1. Science – 108271
2. History of science – 13829
3. History of biology – 4677
5. History of molecular biology – 1994
6. Phage group – 191
7. Max Delbrück – 1501
8. Luria-Delbrück experiment – 1230

These are in order of scale of the topic (and represent a possible trail of clicks), but are obviously not in order of popularity (or historiographical significance). The biography and the still-pedagogically-relevant experiment stand out with high hit counts relative to the scale of the topic.

For historians who want to reach a broad audience through Wikipedia, putting historical context into biographies and topics of contemporary interest is probably more effective than writing concept-, artifact- or event-based historical articles.

Tomorrow, I’ll look at what kind of hit count boost time on the Main Page brings, and how hit counts vary according to article quality for topics of similar significance.

Science and the Long Tail

In his new book The Long Tail, Chris Anderson takes a broad but unsystematic look at the myriad manifestations of “the long tail” in the modern world. One of the more striking anecdotes moves beyond economics into the realm of science: amateur astronomers, equipped by the thousands with high-tech telescopes, provide skywatching breadth to complement the depth of professionals. Amateurs often observe or confirm unexpected events that no one knew to watch for (such as the appearance of novae), and the astronomy community has accepted a two-tiered system in which amateurs often play an important part.

Anderson provides a useful scheme for analyzing how long tail systems emerge, which apply just as easily to science as to movies and music. The three critical elements are:

  1. Democratizing the tools of production – making it so one doesn’t have to be in Hollywood (or a well-endowed university) to produce a successful movie (or do good science)
  2. Democratizing distribution – bypassing the necessity of a marketing campaign (or publication in a high-impact journal) for one’s work to matter
  3. Connecting supply and demand – providing a system so that a potential consumer (or fellow scientist) can quickly and easily find what will interest them within the sea of uninteresting/irrelevant cultural products (or scientific publications)

Science has made some strides toward the long tail in recent years, but in for the most part the often very undemocratic world of science is slow on the uptake when in comes to sociocultural change. The most obvious barrier in exploiting the potential long tail of scientific production and “consumption” is the continued dominance of big-name journals.

Journals, in their current form, are barriers to elements 2 (distribution/accessibility) and 3 (custumized search/filters) of the long tail. Especially the most-prestigious in individual fields, they serve an important purpose in tracking the overall important development in a field. But modern scientific disciplines are so highly specialized that every high-impact journal, almost by definition, publishes a smattering of (at best) tenuously related topics.

Publishing in the best possible journals is a necessity for scientific success, but the proprietary nature of nearly all scientific jouranls means that content is restricted to those who pay for access. While there are some efforts to change this, for the most part published scientific content is not nearly as freely accessible, cross-linkable, and modifiable as it should be.

Oddly, unlike in contexts like the entertainment industry, centralized control and restriction are actually quite at odds with the ethos of scientific culture. In their early manifestations, scientific publications were, de facto, freely modifiable and unrestricted; the main restrictions on what could be done with other people’s content were primarily social rather than legal. Journals gradually become economic entities as well as socio-scientific institutions, and are becoming more and more of an impediment to scientific efficiency. Most of the important channels for distributing scientific information created in recent years (such as the Protein Data Bank and newer online-only scientific journals and pre-print archives) break from the proprietary journal mold, but the journals are too much a part of the social systems of science to be easily supplanted. Efforts to add long tail services onto the existing system (the Chemical Abstract Service‘s SciFinder, for example) are useful, but suffer from the same problem of restricted access.

Element 1 (democratizing the tools of production) is a more complex problem in science. In part, earlier scientific publications are tools of production themselves, so again, journals are a bottleneck. Small universtities much choose carefully which journals and electronic services to subscribe to. But equipment and training (not to mention funding) are also crucial tools of scientific production. There are no obvious long tail fixes for these factors. But, as in video, the growth of a scientific long tail would probably involve shifting focus from traditional capital-intensive forms toward smaller units of scientific production that could be accomplished with less equipment and without training (and intellectual patronage) by best-of-the-best scientists.

Obviously, the potential for squeezing good science from the long tail would vary by discipline. High-energy physics is probably as long-tail as it can ever be, given the material requirements of the field (though regarding journals and division of labor, it is probably much more long tail than most other disciplines). A revival of natural history (assisted by modern digital video equipment and mass-produced all-purpose measuring devices) might be one powerful possibility. But overall, it’s hard to say how the scientific landscape might change if one valued aspect of science was how easy it was to do (i.e., how much could be done for how little).

If I were inclined to jump on board with Chris Anderson’s techno-utopianism, I might predict long tail science to usher in an era of social responsibility and a Renaissance in public interest in and understanding of science. As with the rest of Anderson’s rosy predictions for the long tail, that’s probably too much to hope for. But science certainly has plenty of room for improvement.

review of The Long Tail

I was fortunate enough to receive an advance reading copy of Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail (which was just released yesterday). Well after Anderson announced 100 free copies for blog reviewers (which were claimed within hours), I sent him an email about my previous Long Tail related blogging and my brief thoughts on the potential for a Long Tail analysis of science. His publisher apparently thinks blog review buzz is a good investment, because I got a copy just a few days later (this past Saturday). I plan to post about science and the Long Tail some time soon (update: see post here) , but without futher ado, my review of the book:

Chris Anderson’s concept of The Long Tail (read the Wikipedia article if you’re unfamiliar with it), widely known since his Wired magazine article in 2004 of the same name, is one of those ideas that opens up a box of other ideas; an intellectual tool for creating insights into many different domains. It started as a sort of pop-economics idea applied to digital entertainment: the internet opens up the entertainment market so that people can find niche content that appeals to them, rather than lowest-common-denominator radio hits and blockbuster movies.

Pretty soon, Anderson realized that concept had potential far beyond the entertainment industry; eBay, Google, Amazon, iTunes, and a host of other businesses were tapping into information technology-driven Long Tails. Anderson decided to expand his ideas into a book, and along the way, blog about the ideas he was developing.

The Long Tail blog was and continues to be a very interesting read. It often features fairly detailed econometric discussion along with speculation about the cultural implications, with mathematical digressions and nice graphs. The readers’ comments pushed Anderson to be thorough and precise, and gave him plenty of new ideas.

Unfortunately, the book does not deliver on the potential of Anderson’s concept. Anderson looks at the “Short Head” of watered-down hits and says “good riddance,” but his book is written to appeal a little bit to everyone. The graphs are almost uniformly qualitative (in fact, almost every graph of the long tail has the same proportions), the numerical detail is minimal, and structure is loose and repetitive. At a slim 226 pages, mostly anecdote and repitition, the book version is unlikely to challenge those already familiar with The Long Tail.

At times, the prose seems like the output of a context-free grammar program (like the classic automatic complaint letter generator, or the scholarly PoMo version) built from infomercial transcripts. To give you a taste, the following phrases appear on a single page (with a few liberal paraphrases on my part):

  • “In other, more obvious words, [the same thing I just said]”
  • “The calculation goes a little like this”
  • “It doesn’t have to be that way”
  • “A traditional retailer would have to… Yet as we’ve already learned…”
  • “That’s the dirty little secret of traditional retail”
  • “In a nutshell, [act now and The Long Tail can be yours for just three easy payments of $49.95]”

In part, Anderson seems to have ignored the very lessons he tries to teach his readers, about the value of niche content and uncompromised cultural products. Or maybe he learned the lesson too well; an early anecdote in the book explains how a strong online following can pave the way for mainstream success once a potential hit does finally hit the market. And Anderson’s blogger fanbase has already launched the book to #10 (and probabably rising) in Amazon’s daily sales rank for books. I guess he knew when to ditch the nerds and go for the mainstream jugular. Too bad he didn’t publish two versions, as the people who would ultimately get the most out of this are not well served by the “hit” version.

See some other reviews here.

When I start publishing, I’m going to have three versions of my book, so that the 2 or 3 people who would actually want a scholarly monograph on whatever my subject is will get it, other professional historians can get a normal-sized academic book, and grad students and, perish the thought, even a general audience can a concise book that doesn’t bog them down with details.

Cultural change in the modern world

My manifesto post got picked up by OU’s patahistorian David Davisson for the latest History Carnival. From there, I happened upon a Crooked Timber post by John Quiggin on “the traditionality of modernity,” a clever way of saying that, contrary to common historical intuition, cultural change is slowing down… and fast.

In a nutshell, technology-induced mass/global culture tends to make major cultural changes less, not more common. Elements of this include:

  • The standarization of written language following the printing press, a trend that is rapidly become panlingual (“it’s expected that during the 21st century the number of language in the world will go from 6,000 to 300”).
  • The permanent fixation of/on the foundational pop culture icons like Marilyn Monroe or The Beatles (a dubious contention, but maybe “Marilyn will, inevitably, fade, but never be replaced on her pedestal”).
  • Globalization, reification and simplication of many previously local traditions: styles of food, artforms, forms of national government (or the beginning of the end thereof, with the EU and global economic institutions).

I’m still not sure how much of this I buy as a general statement, but some of it at least is true, and some of it is lamentable. Whatever truth there is to this technology-leads-to-cultural-hegemony thesis, it’s obviously somewhat more complex, and I think somewhat more positive, than the general tone of discussion at Crooked Timber. I won’t particularly mourn the death of 5,700 languages, despite whatever profoundly different ways of thinking such languages might or might not enable. There are more than enough socially constructed boundaries of thought to hamper communication and exchange (e.g., academic disciplines, nationality) , and subcultures proliferate mightily in the modern world, providing ample breeding ground for new ideas and traditions while retaining the ability to swiftly reconnect to mainstream culture (or other subcultures) when necessary.

My course with Jean-Cristophe Agnew ( The American Century, 1941-1961 ) has been great, and it provides a jumping-off point for assessing this cultural hegemony idea. The premise of the course, which I’m increasingly convinced of, is that those two decades (give or take a few years) formed the basis of American culture since that time; nearly all the significant shifts of the later 20th century had their origins then and cultural events from the period are still frequently relevant today. This period, along with the turn-of-the-century rise of the even-nebulous “modernity” (which I studied with Ole Molvig last semester, incidentally) were singled out in the Crooked Timber discussion as periods when it seemed cultural change was especially rapid compared to today, and I would generally agree.

But I also think we’re seeing the beginning of the reversal or supersession of the homogenizing trends in American culture that have been in play since the 60s. Widespread television broadcasting and the other biproducts of defense research from WWI and WWII are finally being overtaken in cultural significance by the Cold War research legacy of computers. Along with this comes “the long tail,” the massive diversification of cultural products that is just beginning. The hit for music and the blockbuster for movies (the things that make radio and theaters so lame today) are both dying economic modes; they’re being replaced by niche-centric media such as digital music stores, Netflix (which apparently has a superb recommendation system that facilitates discovery of movies both new and old that escape mainstream attention), and other “new economy”-style retailers that make niche-content profitable again.

Mainstream media is not likely to die completely, and its current troubles only make it even more homogenous and derivative… witness current trend of mergers in news agencies, the fact that half the shows on network TV are Law and Order spinoffs (some day I’ll write a post about the pernicious political effect those shows must have), and the fact that the only truly good blockbuster from last year was not from Hollywood, and even it followed the current formula of sticking to established franchises and/or well-worn classic plots. (Neo-noir comic book male-fantasy shoot-em-up with computer graphics… seemingly the least original movie possible.) But again, I see some silver lining to retaining and even enhancing a cultural baseline as a backdrop for the vibrant long tail of culture. The key is to improve that cultural baseline (the point of my recent manifesto), but I think there is more hope for that project now than at any time since the rise Cold War culture. The fact that these issues regarding the interplay technology and culture are becoming visible means we needn’t feel trapped by any technological determinism; now is the time to determine the shape of mass culture for the next century.

This is, of course, a very modernocentric (is there better word this?) view. What about all the full-blown culture(s) being obliterated by the shift to modernity? I don’t know how to answer that… I’ve never been too enthralled by anthropology and the idea of culture for culture’s sake. The modern/post-modern long tail world will make it easier preserve parts of traditional culture, but transitions to modernity will still entail a lot of suffering; the results of the current world picture look a somewhat more promising than the fruits of 50s and 60s modernization theory, even though not much has fundamentally changed (besides the end of the Cold War).

Alas, that’s probably enough of an incoherent rant for one night.