(Not) Trimming One's Toenails with a Bazooka
[Comment on Adair, J. G. & Vohra, N. (2003).
The explosion of knowledge, references, and citations. American Psychologist, 58, 15-23.]
Published in American Psychologist (2004), 59, 51.
©2003 by the American Psychological Association.
[This version contains relevant URLs
that do not appear in the AP version.]
Adair and Vohra (2003) show that the number of references used in psychological articles has increased over the past few decades. This increase constitutes such a crisis, in their view, that they advise psychologists to cut back on the number of references they use as a way of "responding" to the "information explosion."
From my perspective, however, there is no crisis. First, a simple plot of the information pertaining to the four psychology journals given in their Table 1 shows the increase to have been linear over the past three decades, not "explosive," as they claim. Second, for many of us who have grown up in the "information age," the amount of material to which we have ready access does not constitute a "crisis" but a bounty. To be sure, navigation can be difficult at times, but electronic technologies are making it easier by the day.
Third, what exactly is the cost of additional references? Surely it does not constitute an academic, intellectual, or scholarly crisis. Adair and Vohra attempt to buttress their argument with a comparison of the increase in references used in psychology articles to that of those used in physics, but surely we psychologists are now beyond the stage where we measure our progress by how faithfully we ape physicists. Every discipline develops its own scholarly culture over time. In psychology we use more references than in physics. Why? Perhaps because we have more respect for our history. Perhaps, by contrast, because we can't assume that our colleagues know their disciplinary history as well as physicists do. Perhaps because we have more competing theoretical strands running side by side. Perhaps because we just like it that way.
In point of fact, given that additional references can only be advantageous to the reader, the only party that could legitimately object to them would be the publisher, who must set and print extra pages in order to accommodate them. I am tempted to dismiss this as irrelevant. Publishers should not trump matters of intellectual quality with economic concerns -- if they try to we should get different publishers (or abandon them in favor of the internet, but that is another argument). But even if we accept it as a legitimate concern, this "problem" can be dealt with in ways much less drastic than demanding that reference lists be cut: smaller fonts, standard abbreviations for commonly-used journal titles, truncated article titles, and the like would all shrink the physical size of reference lists without actually deleting items.
Even more important, however, is that we should abandon the lingering "Guttenberg-era" assumptions that permeate Adair and Vohra's article. None of their worries will matter one whit as we move into the era of electronic scholarly publication. References will no longer take up literal page space, but only a few hundred extra bytes in a digital file. If the user chooses not to print the references in order to save paper, so be it. Stevan Harnad has shown us in psychology the way of the probable future (indeed, the way of the present in physics) with his electronic journal Psycoloquy (http://psycprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/), with his e-print archive CogPrints (http://cogprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/), and with his many articles and addresses on the topic of electronic scholarly publication (see http://www.ecs.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/intpub.html). (See also my History & Theory of Psychology Eprint Archive, http://htpprints.yorku.ca/)
Whatever else, let us not take drastic measures to "resolve" a matter that is problematic only for an antiquated technology that we are now (gradually) in the process of abandoning.
Adair, J. G. & Vohra, N. (2003). The explosion of knowledge, references, and citations. American Psychologist, 58, 15-23.