Technological progress tends to increase the available information. Thus, our capacity to manage this information becomes overloaded (hence the term information overload). As Clay Shirky explained: it is not so much an information overload, as a filter failure. The abundance of information is never a problem. The real problem is the lack of efficient strategies to index, summarize, filter, cross-reference and archive information.

But information overload is nothing new. In Reading Strategies for Coping With Information Overload ca. 1550-1700, Blair surveys the techniques our ancestors invented to cope with the abundance of books :

  • the alphabetical index;
  • the reference book,
  • copy and paste (with actual scissors) to save time in note-taking.

What I find fascinating is the historical perspective: while still useful, the alphabetical index is hardly exciting anymore. It has been supplanted by full text search (in e-books). There are still reference books (such as dictionaries), but they are being replaced with online tools. Information overload continues to generate many inventions: the search engine (such as Google), the recommender system (as on, and the social networks (such as Twitter). Literally, these tools expand our minds. We become smarter.

Yet every time I finish writing a research article, I am amazed at how old fashioned the format is.

  • Research journals still ask for silly metadata such as keywords, even though most researchers rely on full text search.
  • The format is clearly meant for paper, even though most of my collaborators browse research articles on their computers.
  • We have silly things like page limitations enticing people to pack more words per page by reducing spacing.
  • It is excessively difficult to correct or improve a “published” article.

There is hope. The PLoS One journal presents research articles in an innovative format. The article is interactive: anyone can rate and comment it. Many journals allow the authors to upload supplementary material. Yet I predict that in 20 years, we will look back and think that academic publishing in 2010 was archaic. (I admit that it is not a daring prediction.) There is much room for innovation.

Source: Erik Duval.


  1. “There is much room for innovation.” Indeed!

    (Interesting how we both referred in our blogs to Clay Shirky’s Filter Failure at the same time!)

    Comment by Erik Duval — 10/6/2010 @ 9:07

  2. Your blog post is amazingly similar to mine:

    It is at least partially an accident as I did not read yours before posting mine. (But I did give you credit for the Blair reference.)

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 10/6/2010 @ 9:22

  3. Synchronicity is spooky sometimes – as I tweeted: Great Minds think alike ;-)

    Comment by Erik Duval — 10/6/2010 @ 9:34

  4. Though, I agree in general, especially on the format of a paper, but a few clarifications should be added:
    1) Research journals still ask for silly metadata such as keywords, even though most researchers rely on full text search.

    It is not silly, manual keyword selection is a well known method to improve search relevancy.

    2) Alphabetical index is not useless either: it does list basic concepts of a paper/book. This is very useful metadata.

    Comment by Itman — 10/6/2010 @ 10:10

  5. Do away with page limits?! I’d never finish reading another paper if that happened – you folks can write far more than I can read in a few hours in an existing 8 page paper…

    (Keywords can be useful for personal bibtex databases but obviously Google Scholar is far better for general mining)

    Comment by Anon — 10/6/2010 @ 10:12

  6. 2Anon,
    Good point on page limit!

    Comment by Itman — 10/6/2010 @ 10:15

  7. It tickles me that the Blair article you link to is behind a login wall. A helpful strategy for dealing with information overload, courtesy of the academic publishing industry!

    Comment by Bryan O'Sullivan — 10/6/2010 @ 14:56

  8. @Bryan: you can find the article at – the joy of institutional repositories ;-)

    Comment by Erik Duval — 10/6/2010 @ 15:19

  9. In “Everything is Miscellaneous” David Weinberger has a nice paradoxical phrase. “The solution to the overabundance of information is more information”.

    Comment by Andre Vellino — 11/6/2010 @ 21:22

  10. LOL
    Archaic but still going “strong”

    Comment by Kevembuangga — 12/6/2010 @ 10:13

  11. if you are using google scholar, our article “on the robustness of google scholar against spam” might be interesting for you. we have analyzed how difficult it is to spam google scholar and manipulate e.g. citation counts. in short: it is very easy. accordingly, it might make sense to use data from google scholar (especially citation data) with care. read here the full article:

    Comment by SciPlore — 12/6/2010 @ 17:58

  12. That is a particularly strong point on the lack of ability to correct or add notes to a research articles.

    Another thing to consider is that it is difficult to attach code and data to a research article so people can reproduce the results. Without the ability to reproduce results, not only does it become difficult to compare new results to previous work, but also we are missing the core of science, repeatable observation and experimentation.

    Comment by Greg — 14/6/2010 @ 9:43

  13. @Greg One (small) thing that will help in the near future is DOIs for datasets. At least you’ll be able to refer to them in some way that is analogous to publications which should make it easier to get reproducibility.

    Comment by Andre Vellino — 14/6/2010 @ 9:50

  14. To be clear, I believe social networking is useful. However, there is zero evidence they are making us smarter. And, alphabetical indexes don’t exist to be exciting. They exist to be useful which you admit they are.

    Comment by Rexlibris — 29/6/2010 @ 8:27

  15. @Rexlibris

    If you have to solve a hard problem, would you rather have Google at your disposal, or not? Google does make us smarter. (I didn’t write that social networking makes us smarter. I am not entirely clear on what it would mean.)

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 29/6/2010 @ 9:09

  16. Sure I’d like Google at my disposal. It makes research easier. But there is no evidence it raises I.Q. levels one iota. Or whatever other measure of intelligence you want to use. Where are the studies showing Google users are more intelligent?

    Deep reading and deep thinking. This is what makes people smarter.

    Comment by Rexlibris — 29/6/2010 @ 9:42

  17. “the search engine (such as Google), the recommender system (as on, and the social networks (such as Twitter). Literally, these tools expand our minds. We become smarter.”

    Um… yes you did say social networks make us smarter. Read your own quote.

    Comment by Rexlibris — 29/6/2010 @ 9:45

  18. @Rexlibris

    You’ve been reading Carr lately?

    Sure I’d like Google at my disposal. It makes research easier. But there is no evidence it raises I.Q. levels one iota.

    Probably not. But who cares about the I.Q. test. I thought we all knew it was pseudoscience?

    Or whatever other measure of intelligence you want to use.

    What about your ability to solve complex intellectual problems?

    yes you did say social networks make us smarter.

    I make a difference between social networks (such as Twitter) and social networking. Merely chatting by the coffee place might not do much for you other than relieve stress.

    I think Twitter makes me smarter. Merely chatting with others does not. There is a purpose to my use of Twitter.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 29/6/2010 @ 10:40

  19. You sure like to play with semantics. Using a social network is called social networking, so every time you use Twitter to make yourself ‘smarter’ you are social networking.

    Just out of curiosity, what complex intellectual problems have you solved?

    Comment by Rexlibris — 29/6/2010 @ 11:22

  20. BTW, I knew you would come back with some smart comment about I.Q. but I think it got the point across of what I was trying to convey. Again, no hard evidence that it makes people smarter.

    Comment by Rexlibris — 29/6/2010 @ 11:25

  21. You sure like to play with semantics.

    Actually, I don’t.

    Just out of curiosity, what complex intellectual problems have you solved?

    You are in luck. Just this morning I solved a problem I had using mathoverflow.


    I’ll let you judge whether it is a “complex intellectual problem”.

    Twitter’s contribution to “my intelligence” would require a post of its own, but it has an effect similar to what you get when you hang around in an office filled with smart people.

    Of course, feel free not to use any of these tools if you feel they make you dumber.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 29/6/2010 @ 12:09

  22. Academic publishing is archaic, and, even worse, it’s dumb and retards progress.

    What I want is not “The Journal of Blabbity Bla”, I want access to “The Articles Daniel Lemire Thinks are Interesting and of Value” and “The Articles Someone Else Interesting Thinks Are of Value”. Then I want to do set intersection and unions in an effort to filter out (or filter in) more or less ephemeral material. Right now the only use for journals is for academic certification and promotion. Journals used to be a means of communication, and are now a means of certification (and the goals of certification are directly opposed to those of communication).

    As an example of how recently the communication/certification switch was flipped, here (4 pages in) is a letter by Einstein withdrawing a submission after the editor had the temerity to critique it rather than publish it. So as late as the 1930s, peer review was still controversial.

    Comment by Peter Boothe — 27/11/2012 @ 15:17

  23. @Peter

    Einstein was probably not always a nice guy. Here is what I think is a better example. Dijkstra was essentially a blogger as well as one of the founders of Computer Science. He wrote up some reports that he mailed to his friends. That was his primary form of publication. Though it is not documented very well, it seems obvious that Dijkstra must have gotten into debates with his “peers”.

    My experience, however, with reviewing colleagues is that some people are just not very good. Peer review publications can act as a convenient proxy. Instead of me having to say that it is not very good, I can point to the absence of prestigious publications. This is not a great system, but I must say that it can be convenient.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 27/11/2012 @ 15:42

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