What was that Again?: Decay of Attention in Science

The only thing in science than may be even more prominent than the data deluge is the paper deluge: there is an increasingly large number of scholarly (and “scholarly”) journals, and an ever-increasing wealth of papers to fill them. Clearly, this calls for a paper to analyze the situation.

In a new study on the arXiv preprint server, a team of scientists at Aalto University School of Science in Finland and Hewlett Packard Enterprise Labs in California have examined the decay of attention in science.  To start their abstract, they write:

The exponential growth in the number of scientific papers makes it increasingly difficult for researchers to keep track of all the publications relevant to their work. Consequently, the attention that can be devoted to individual papers, measured by their citation counts, is bound to decay rapidly. In this work we make a thorough study of the life-cycle of papers in different disciplines.

Scientists, just like everybody else, have finite attention spans. For example, a network scientist (such as study coauthor Santo Fortunato) might want to cite one of the latest papers on community structure rather than an “old” one from 2007. With the growing deluge of papers, scientists are drowning in an ever deeper pool.  However, it seems that “when time is counted in terms of the number of published papers, the rate of decay of citations is fairly independent of the period considered.” This shorter life-cycle of scholarly papers thus seems to be a result of the deluge of papers rather than inherently shorter attention spans among scientists.

Bonus (tangentially related): Although most papers tend to get most of their citations early on in their lives, there are notable exceptions.  One interest case, which is well-known to several of the authors of this new study, is a certain infamous 1970s paper about a karate club that has exploded in citation count since 2002 and has spawned the most coveted award in network science.