The pursuit of human knowledge has a shape.
By crunching data from more than a billion user interactions on scholarly databases, Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers produced a high-resolution map of the relationships between different fields of science.
They’re not the first to map science, though they insist that their map is best. Other topographers of knowledge, they say, aren’t up to date on what modern scholars search for, and rely too much on natural science databases.
(Maybe that’s why the Los Alamos map, published in Public Library of Science ONE , looks a bit like the Milky Way, while this lovely scientific paradigm map — a favorite of Nature and Seed magazine — looks like an amoeba.)
The Los Alamos team analyzed click streams from 23 databases — Thomson Scientific, Elsevier, Jstor, Ingenta and multiple campuses of the University of Texas and California State University — and mapped patterns of interest and cross-journal citations. (For anyone concerned about anonymity, no worries: queries weren’t user-identifiable. Your search for “Termination of Intractable Hiccups with Digital Rectal Massage” is still a secret.)
Mapmakers say that visualizations of knowledge help researchers frame discipline-hopping questions and identify neglected cooperative opportunities. I’m not entirely convinced — though the gap between organic chemistry and plant genetics is pretty surprising — but then again, one person’s frivolous distraction is another’s breakthrough-in-waiting.
And that’s what science is all about.
Citation: Clickstream Data Yields High-Resolution Maps of Science. By Johan Bollen, Herbert Van de Sompel, Aric Hagberg, Luis Bettencourt, Ryan Chute, Marko A. Rodriguez, Lyudmila Balakireva. Public Library of Science ONE, March 11, 2009.
Note: Anyone interested in maps of science should visit Maps of Science.