Monday, August 4, 2014

Online Accessibility of Scholarly Literature, and Academic Innovation

Kevin Staub presented this paper today at ANU. They download data on all papers in fifty core economics journals over the decades of the 1990s and 2000s during which academic journals gradually went online. They test the effect of the fraction of references cited in article being online on the diversity of references cited. Diversity is measured by the average citation difference between articles in the reference list. Imagine I write an article and in the reference list I cite this paper by Kevin Staub and Martin Weitzman's article on recombinant growth cited by Staub then the distance between those two articles is 1. If I also cite Paul Romer's article "The Origins of Endogenous Growth" cited by Weitzman then the distance between Staub's paper and Romer's is 2 and between Weitzman and Romer is 1. Controlling for time and journal fixed effects and some other control variables they found that there were significant increases in the share of references with distances of 3 or greater the more of the reference list was available online. This seems expected to me as people find it easier to search for literature beyond the reference lists or even the forward citations of articles they have already seen as more of the literature is searchable online.

But the paper contains another result which I found much less expected and much more interesting that I think deserves a paper of its own. They found that papers with higher average distances between items on their reference lists received higher numbers of citations 20, 30, or 40 years down the track than papers with less diverse reference lists. So, this supports the notion that papers that bring together articles that were not previously cited together are more innovative. One might expect papers with more eclectic references to be produced by less professional more dilettantish authors. Of course, these papers were all published in the fifty core economics journals, so that probably acts to filter out the more outlandish papers or papers written by "outsiders" that are doomed to be ignored.

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