Note: The title of this post is somewhat misleading — the paper in question appears to be the most widely cited paper in Language, not necessarily in linguistics.

Mark Dingemanse has posted an interesting analysis of the LSA‘s recent survey for their anthology of Language. From the survey:

For each volume of the Anthology, we are seeking input on those articles which represent the best scholarship published during that particular period. By “best,” we mean the most influential, the most cited, the most visited in JSTOR, and those considered a must-read for students and scholars of the discipline.

Mark has put together a spreadsheet showing the ranking of six popular Language articles in terms of how often they are viewed on JSTOR and added citation information from Google Scholar to the ranking. The result are interesting for several reasons and I wanted to briefly remark on them.

Note: have a look at Mark’s spreadsheet for more detail than is visible in the chart above.

Mark points out that the 1974 paper A Simplest Systematics for the Organization of Turn-Taking for Conversation by Sacks et al has a remarkable lead when it comes to the number of citations. The first thing to consider in my view is that Google Scholar is not entirely accurate (see this; there are other, more recent studies showing attribution problems persist). Google Scholar’s greatest sin in the eyes of most librariens is that it largely ignores metadata and instead resorts to text mining approaches to determine things such as author and publication name. I use GS regularly and it’s a fantastic resource, but its citation counts should be taken with a grain of salt, to put it mildly.

My other argument is something I cannot fully back up, but that seems very plausible to me: Sacks at al is much more accessible than other highly rankend papers.

Accessible in what sense?

  1. The topic of the paper makes it relevant to scholars in other disciplines. The clear, non-technical and theory-agnostic title adds to this. People find papers via search and you can’t search for terms you aren’t familiar with.
  2. There are multiple open access PDF copies of the paper available that one can download without access to JSTOR (here, here and here — note that two copies are stored on the websites of a language and social interaction program and a computer science department).
  3. The paper is cited in the Wikipedia article on conversation analysis (in fact, this is the highest rankend Google hit when searching for the exact name of the article, even before the JSTOR page).

If you compare this with the other top-ranked papers you’ll come to the conclusion that

  1. their subject and scope and how it is reflected in the exact wording of the title makes them less relevant to other disciplines,
  2. they aren’t accessible except through JSTOR,
  3. they aren’t referenced in Wikipedia (because they aren’t accessible).

Of course my argumentation is somewhat skewed if we assume that both the citation figures and the numbers from JSTOR might not be entirely accurate. The #2 paper in JSTOR (Curtiss el al) is likely to have a large number of views because it pops up as #1 search result when searching for Genie on JSTOR, because it is fairly ambiguous, and because it is related to a spectacular and tragic incident.

Do linguists (and scholars in general) take the second and third argument into account? My impression is they don’t, at least not enough. Even the Language Anthology will not be openly acessible, although many popular texts are de facto available, whether legally or not (e.g. Chomsky’s review of Skinner). We should aim to make more of our research — past and present — both technically and legally available on the Internet. This will benefit colleagues from other fields, the general public, and ultimately linguistics as a discipline.

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