Broadcast on KPR during “Morning Edition” Tuesday October 26, 2006 at 6:35 and 8:35am
Many computer enthusiasts are predicting the demise of libraries. We will be able to access all we need to know through the internet. With mountains of material available online, some futurists are predicting the end of printed journals, books, and even library buildings.
But while many cyberbooks are being added to one end of the online bookshelf, there are many virtual volumes rapidly falling off the other end of the shelf.
““Here today, Gone tomorrow”” is a better way to describe the Internet. According to research in the printed journal Science, the move to publish medical and science journals online only poses serious problems.
Robert Dellavalle and six medical colleagues examined the availability of Internet references published in the three top journals. They found that nearly 4 percent of web references could no longer be found just three months after publication. About a year later, ten percent of the online references were no longer available!
If references are all in journals published in paper, a reader can always request the referenced article through interlibrary loan, from any library that holds a paper copy of the journal. But when research is only published online, and the source then disappears, it is gone ...and there is no way to borrow it from a library.
Consulting previous work - keeping the chain of evidence - is a very important part of science research. Discoveries are stacked on top of each other. It is often necessary to go back and check the methods and results of previous work as new research proceeds forward...and even more importantly, when new research fails.
When websites disappear, it is termed ““linkrot.”” And teachers are also getting accustomed to lots of linkrot. While books and journals in libraries are reliably there for students year-after year, teachers now know that the websites that they used last semester, that may still be present when class began this fall, will often disappear during this semester. It is tantamount to going into a library and pulling one-fourth to half of the books off the shelf each summer!
When researchers look at the type of missing websites, they find that by the end of two years, nearly half of ““dot-com”” references are lost, about one-third of the ““e-d-u”” websites are gone, and one-tenth of the ““dot-gov”” websites have disappeared.
There is a lot of trash online that you and I may be glad to see disappear into the online wasteland. But we pay dearly for the social and scientific research, and that needs a permanence that the internet does not yet provide.
While research published centuries ago is still available in paper, recent research published online has already been...““lost in space.”” Cyberspace.