Jun 03

I was going to call this “Citation in a ‘like’ button world” but I’ve heard that more serious titles get more attention. Ahem.

Anyway, I was in a session at the Linked Open Data - Libraries and Museums unconference (LOD-LAM) yesterday on citation. It was a wide-ranging session, as unconferences tend to be. But a few things emerged for me that had previously been unclear. 

First, the very idea of why citations are useful is shifting. It used to be that the main reasons a citation existed were simple - I would cite you to show that I used your work (and that I was a responsible member of the Academic-Industrial Complex). You would compile a list of citations to your work to show you were an Important Person in the Academic-Industrial Complex, helping advance your tenure there. But now there’s new reasons.

One point was to have a list of the 30 most downloaded papers on protein kinases, or most cited, so that one could complete one’s library (iTunesish). Another was to compile a course catalog out of citations. I like both, but there’s a lot of possibility for groupthink there (entrenching the paradigm).

Second, and the point that I both brought up and couldn’t set down, was the impact of the “like” button. It’s not just Facebook - Google is trying to wire the “like” feature into the very fabric of the web now. And it goes beyond liking. There’s a number of ways we can make a weak, but explicit, connection between ourselves and some piece of content. Thus, we can retweet something either automatically or after editing. We can embed a video (under Creative Commons on YouTube even). Going oldschool, we can link to something. 

But liking something is really different than citing something. Citing used to be imbued with rich meaning, not weak meaning. Citiation counts are important enough to be the foundation of grantmaking and tenure. There’s efforts to create rich-meaning citations for data. But we have zero idea what counts of weak ties mean. 

There’s an ontology of citation types that one can use to make this richer. And there’s definitely going to be some form of mix that judges an autoretweet as one level of citation, a retweet with comment another, and the moving impact of a tweet through time as another. How many likes, how many dislikes, how many mentions in blog posts (which in turn get liked or disliked). And on and on.

But I’m just unable to see where and how the tenure and granting process, which is, to put it kindly, petrified in amber. I don’t see how the like button culture penetrates into science. Maybe it doesn’t - maybe it grows up next to science, and then swallows it whole, like iTunes did to the music industry.

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