No, The Internet Is Not Bad For Science; Bad Research Is Bad For Science

from the watch-where-you-place-that-blame dept

Wired has an article discussing the assertion published in the journal Science (not online at the moment) claiming that the internet is bad for science, because researchers just do some searches online and get the most popular hits or the most recent hits, and fail to dig deeper or look at older research. Of course, that’s placing the blame on the wrong party. The problem isn’t the internet: it’s people who do bad research on the internet. If you use the internet as one tool of many in doing your research, and make sure to follow up on reading the actual research and following through on the citations, then the internet can be quite useful. I know I’ve found that in doing some recent economics research. Being able to search online, in addition to through some print journals, resulted in finding some additional useful research I wouldn’t have come across otherwise. Of course, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that a journal whose history is paper-based would push out an article trashing the internet for research.

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Comments on “No, The Internet Is Not Bad For Science; Bad Research Is Bad For Science”

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A Chemist says:


Hmmm, could it be that as new research is released it supersedes past research so people then reference that material? All I know is that the searches I preform for my research are on a program that has a massive database of papers, ranging from fresh of the press and all the way back to when people still taste tested new compounds for analysis (yes they did this). Also, this database is not from one source, it uses many different scientific journals for it’s searches and brings up the most relevant articles, NOT the most popular ones. Which is another point: many, many journals have went to being both e-journals and printed journals that have back logged most of their old articles.

In the end, I’m mostly mad that he just lumped all researchers together. I know, as a researcher, that many of my fellow chemists never use the most popular article, they use the most relevant article.

Basically, screw this guy, his research sounds like unfounded ideas that try to link trends in his collected data to what he believes to be true.

Paul says:

Re: Agreed

Yeah, I forgot the obvious that the most recent articles tend to also be the most relevant. If we’re looking to replicate an experiment, generally we’re not going to choose a paper from 15 years ago.
Another thing that’s not obvious is that searching in scientific literature is really different than doing a google search. Basic science searches look like most search engines’ advanced searches.

Paul says:

I call BS

As an active researcher, I can say that the internet is AMAZINGLY useful for research. Anyone who’s had to search through scientific literature in dead tree format knows exactly what I mean. There are rarely papers that deal with exactly what you are looking for. Thus you end up wasting days and weeks until you’re done with the review (for now, because there’s always something else). Tools like PubMed, PLoS, Google Scholar and the like same an enormous amount of time and can lead to better and far more thorough reviews.
The internet does nothing to stop a bad or lazy reviewer, it just makes them faster, just as it does for a good reviewer. I haven’t read the paper in question, and never take anything written for Wired at face value, but I really have to question the conclusions. Ironically enough, I doubt they did enough research before publishing.

Wolfgang says:

I second the call of BS

I’m only a high school student, but even I know that if you look at what research you’re using you can get information that is hard to for me to get a hold of. Living in a small town my resaouces that are in print are hard to attain, but using the internet I can get information that is important to my topic, but from the otherside of the world from an Austrailian science journal (actually used one for an English paper). Also, the point that the researchers are trusting the information shows they don’t do proper research since anyone doing research, even if it’s for a five page paper for Biology II, should check their source.

bored now says:

Vested Interests

In this case, those who’ve made it up the research ladder and don’t want it to be too easy for others to follow / overtake them.

Of course, there are other types – e.g. in the UK, vets are taught to dismiss any reading done by pet owners (even of pukka, peer reviewd stuff in the journals) as “something the owner read on the Internet”.

Christopher Smith says:

Let's not forget arXiv

Perhaps the most ironic* aspect of this is that the World Wide Web (which is apparently the part of the Internet the author is criticizing) was developed specifically to aid in scientific research. While hypertext never really caught on in terms of providing instantaneous reference following, it’s worth noting that arXiv, the Web site that is central to physics research and increasingly important to math and science of all kinds, actually has a history that’s older than the Web itself. Physics research doesn’t seem to have taken a hit because of the availability of the Internet…

Perhaps it’s just sociology “research” such as this that’s declining in quality.

* Yes, actually ironic. 😉

Research God says:

Not bad science, just incomplete

I have to agree with the findings, to some extent.

Its not that its “bad science”, rather incomplete. If you do any sort of research online you will indeed notice that most references, citations, and articles are recent in terms of their publications.

Its very difficult to find an article/study/etc that was published over 10-15 years ago online. For that, you need to go to your library, do a database search and find the print article.

Consequently, a lot of good articles/studies/etc ARE NOT showing up on line, which does indeed lead to incomplete and possibly biased research.

Another factor to consider is that articles/studies/etc found online through “rogue” websites ARE NOT peer reviewed, empirically validated, etc etc. When a study is published in a print journal, the only way to find it online is through the publishers own website. You are not allowed to re-print that article/study without permission of the journal since they own it.

Consequently, the a lot of the “good” stuff wont be found online, rather in print (unless you access the publishers own online library).

Thus, its not bad science, rather incomplete science.

CM says:

As stated above, i’ll wait to read the actual article before I judge the conclusion. Perhaps they said something like “Since the advent of the internet, scientists have become complacent in their research”, but I would be shocked if the thesis or conclusion was anything like “The internet is bad for science”.

Ohh, and Mike, the Journal Science, while traditionally a paper journal, has done a terrific job converting to digital. I wouldn’t be surprised if the overwelming majority of their income comes from University/Industy Site licensing of their online content (inc. “all journals should be free argument”?!)

Jay (user link) says:

I call BS as well

I have a website that I put up for the sole purpose of a resource for someone who, if they ever had suspicions about a certain man I once knew, all they would have to do is google his name and find out my entire story. The website has my bad experience with a cult-of-personality name Stephen Peregrim who targets teenagers/young adults (such as myself) to teach them whackado stuff. 4 years after I made the site, it helped someone find out who the real man was because he was concerned about his son spending too much time with him and slowly turning away from him and talking about weird things. Now we are working together to take legal action against the man. So don’t say online research is bad (as long as the information is right). Just confirm your sources and you’re golden.

R3d Jack says:

The Empire Strikes Back

Of course veterans of a by-gone era don’t want to become archaic. They made their mark by having access to excellent libraries and diligent hand recording and indexing (or exceptional memory) to do real research. Suddenly, those opportunities and skills are irrelevant. Note only that, but access to material is now available to a vastly increased audience. His remarks are tendentious and unfounded.

In fact, electronic access to materials should make searching for obscure references easier and faster. Researchers will in fact do more, not less, because academics is still extremely competitive, and the bar for quality research will rise.

The big threat is to peer-reviewed journals, such as Science. Electronic publishing is cheap, and peer reviews can be performed on electronic documents even more easily than paper. The Web opens the door for competition among peer-reviewed publications, and they can’t possibly like that.

Astro73 (user link) says:

Not Really

This is one of the few times I actually disagree with Techdirt.

With the appearance of digital indexes, researches can find what they need faster, with less side quests, which to most of us sounds like a good thing. That also means one isn’t as versed in the subject unless you go digging for it and you know what to look for.

It’s not about the internet per se. It’s about search tools, which I generally call a good thing. However, technology does have side affects like this.

Bubba Nicholson (profile) says:

No, The Internet Is Not Bad For Science; Bad Research Is Bad For Science

The opposite contention is true. Private medical journals are obstacles to progress and the internet is the vehicle for progress. The journal Science, in private hands, copyrighted and therefore unavailable and unsearchable is bad for science, and bad for mankind. Science, the journal, does not even pay for what they print. Authors of Science articles are left to profit merely from the supposed laurel of publication in Science. Exorbitant fees to read journal articles, even old articles many years out of date, charged by parasites like the really evil people at Science, discourage good research. Science, like all privately run for-profit medical journals, is a cancer. Anyone who works for Science willingly commits crimes against humanity.

Allen (profile) says:


I was interested to find out why referencing more and older articles was considered a good thing. But its behind a pay wall and I am not $10 interested.

Its rather ironic. I wonder if the article ventures to suggest that one the way to address this perceived problem is to put maybe more content, freely available on the internet? I guess I’ll never know.

@Bubba “Crimes against humanity” is a bit rough. Journals and trade magazines, just like all of the media need a little time to adapt. Give them awhile they’ll come around.

brupfrog says:

internet bad for science

Nonsense. I have found many times directly contradictory articles on the same statement, experiment, or conclusion. What that reveals is bad science, sloppy science, faulty interpretation of statistics, faulty verbal conversion of scientific data, hasty publication of incomplete scientific efforts. The internet makes it easy to publish bad science; it also makes it easy to ferret out bad science.

Accountant says:

Internet helpe with Doctor

I had a condition the doctor was puzzled about. During out discussion and after some tests I suggested a possible reason and that we Google that issue. Yep, there it was… He was happy to look at the information online and said “That is the only reasonable explanation.” We worked from there and I was fine. It was an interesting experience (it was a medical site that we found it on through Google).

Anome says:

Not this again

There have been a number of “reports” claiming that Google is making us stupid, for exactly the reasons stated above. As others have pointed out, Google (or the internet in general) isn’t the problem, the problem is laziness.

Good researchers will look past the first few pages of their search results, in the same way that they wouldn’t just refer to the first journal article they find on the subject.

Dave Feustel (user link) says:

Internet is the only way around establishment censorship

The Theory of General Relativity has been conclusively
proven to be incorrect! There are NO Black Holes, Dark Matter or Big Bang. But you will never find any mention
of this fact in ANY standard publication. Total
censorship of the correct theory known as ECE rules. But
if you understand tensors, you can read for yourself the
evidence at The error is that GR neglects torsion. This error has now persisted for 90 years.

Evidence Soup (user link) says:

Narrower specialization is the trend, like it or not.

I agree with Evans statement that “Modern graduate education parallels this shift in publication — shorter in years, more specialized in scope….” Employers are encouraging this trend, looking for people in narrower and narrower specializations. I don’t think it’s wise, but it is happening, at least in the U.S.

Dr D.Fisher says:

Internet and Science

The internet has become an immensely useful tool for the pseudoscientist. It permits crackpots to bypass the traditional protection of peer review (which cranks choose to call ‘censorship’) and to fool directly those who are unable to distinguish ‘s**t from Shinola’ as the old saying goes. Young students and those in non-scientific (but technical) jobs – such as IT and electrical engineering – are particularly vulnerable. Mr Feustal (above), for instance, has become a ‘tool’ of Myron Evans and his lunatic ‘theory of everything’. Feustal has admitted elsewhere that he does not understand the mathematics. If he DID, he would realise that the Evans theory is based only upon Evans’ amateurish misunderstanding of differential geometry. Even so, the fact that Evans backs free-energy loonies like Bedini and Randall Mills should be SOME sort of clue.

Shawn Corrigan (user link) says:

No, The Internet Is Not Bad For Science; Bad Research Is Bad For Science

The pot called the kettle, “black”?

‘Science’ is a fine and respected peer-reviewed journal.

For a certainty, some bad research is published on the internet, but even bad research is a part of free speech.
A far worse problem is the lack of basic critical thinking skills in our public, and in our students. Even someone lacking in basic science education (which is sad of itself) can do a reasonable job of assessing the relative worth of most research, if they have been taught to question answers rather than just to answer questions.

The irony I find in the ‘paper’ journal criticizing the bad science on the internet lies in a different direction. Hundreds of scientific journals exist; most of them, now, are controlled by a few, private, publishing cartels.
Very few of them are free. I know of few scientists who are financially able to subscribe to more than 4 or 5. All are utterly forced to rely on the public institution or corporation that employs them for access to a ‘family’ or two of peer-reviewed journals.

A basic tenet of science is that that it be shared – all of it. That is no longer happening. The irony I find is an elitist, ‘paper’ journal, a fairly expensive one at that, complaining about so much ‘bad research’ on the internet. The science publishing cartels, where obviously access is NOT free, are the greatest tacit contributor to the real problem. Much of the research on the internet is free. Often, it is ‘instant’. When a few cartels have tight control of most of published science, when access is withheld from those who are not wealthy, ‘connected’, or otherwise entitled, then most people will be limited to ONLY that research which is free. Much of that ‘ONLY’ research will not even be peer-reviewed. As well, limited access will invite limited conclusions.

All this might be a little scarey if one thinks it through. We should be scared. So, while the point of the ‘Science’ article re: ‘bad research’ on the internet is well taken, perhaps the journal should look at its own feet and include itself as one of the causes. Perhaps the rest of us should remind ourselves to be very thankful for the free internet. the level of competency in research can improve, but meanwhile, someone else owns and controls our science.

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