Hyperlinks support the type of reading scientists have always done

Nick Carr, quoted by the Readablity folks here, talks about hyperlinks as distractions - part of how the web screws up our brains. I was just browsing (couldn't possibly read this one from cover to cover) Nentwich (2003) and ran across the section, "Better match of traditional reading habits". In this portion of the book, the author is talking about the impacts of ICTs, specifically hyperlinked texts, in how scientists deal with information. I'll now quote directly from page 297:

It is a truism that academics seldom read articles (not to speak about books from the first to the last paragraph, that is, literally "linearly." What they do is the following:

Instead a particular set of interest will lead a reader to an index, then to the selection of an item in print, then (perhaps) to a graphic, or to a cross-referenced item, back to the index, to a different source text and so on. (McHoul and Roe, 1996, p.9)

There are certainly lots of articles on how scientists look at the authors, title, abstract, then maybe the tables and images, before reading the text. And the text isn't read linearly either (update - citation for this Bazerman, 1985). For my own reading of scholarly works, the most helpful platforms allow you to hover over the in text citation to preview the full citation so you don't have to flip back and forth. My argument - and I'm certainly not a cognitive psychologist, is that hyperlinks in articles are helpful - they help you judge what you're reading by providing context and authority through citation.

There's a difference, too, in immersive reading of fiction or probably essays in the humanities, and reading for content, meaning, and utility in the sciences.

Now back to my regularly scheduled dissertation proposal typing :)


Nentwich, M. (2003). Cyberscience : research in the age of the internet. Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press.

Bazerman, C. (1985). Physicists Reading Physics: Schema-Laden Purposes and Purpose-Laden Schema. Written Communication, 2(1), 3-23. doi:10.1177/0741088385002001001 (this is just one of many citations to support not reading linearly)

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Interesting thoughts, I can see what you mean. Most of what I read is hyperlinked, and I gather a lot of useful information that way. Actually, much more than I can read in any depth, which is part of the tradeoff.

Still, hyperlinks often distract in the same way that footnotes do, they prevent engagement with the text because it takes a certain amount of attention or working memory in reserve to keep making objective-based decisions of which links to follow. That has different cognitive effects with different kinds of material and different reading objectives. Most people, including most scientists, probably don't really read deeply enough for it to matter most of the time. Many scholars would argue that there are ways of engaging text where it may well make a difference. That doesn't support Carr's argument however, which is more to the effect that shallower reading is hurting all of us, which is probably too strong a thesis I think.

The more interesting and likely negative consequences of hyperlinking is that it encourages a bias in what material we end up reading and citing, because the mechanisms of hyperlinking encourage linking to the most popular sources, rather than the best sources. So in general we seem to have a trend toward citing fewer and more recent sources, a trend which is not necessarily all for the best in all fields.

Skillful readers develop strategies for dealing with distractions. Those who want to read text do do so without following every link, and often go back to gather the linked materials. This still leaves however the two issues of: (1) whether hyperlinked reading creates an economic and connectivity bias (I think it does), and (2) whether it still makes sense to have materials that don't encourage us to keep making link following decisions (I think this is true too).

Todd, I don't know what field you're in, but Christina has it exactly right from my perspective. When you're reading a scientific paper, you're not being absorbed in the elegant verbiage.

I've heard your comments regarding distractions raised in other contexts before, but it's always the same argument - in order to fully appreciate the text, you must be completely absorbed in it. Humanities people like this kind of argument, because they think from the perspective of the writer and what would be best for him - having the reader fully absorbed with no distractions. They would want their own writings to be given the same respect. However, when you think from a reader's perspective, freedom from distraction can also be freedom from context. It assumes the reader wants to read the whole thing, start to finish, and follow your logic all the way through, when actually they usually just want to see things like what method you used, what your result was in Figure 5, and where you're going next with the work. It's an entirely different kind of reading, because the work, often, shouldn't even be in narrative form. It's just that way because "getting published" means writing a paper instead of publishing to a data repository or submitting a workflow. It's up to the reader to decide if they want distractions, which they generally do.

I would love to hear more about how "the mechanisms of hyperlinking" bias people toward popular vs. more correct resources. It's another thing you often hear people throw out there because it sounds like it should be correct (assuming that there's significant non-overlap between popular and best) but I've not seen any hard data on the divergence of actual citation and the "best" citation. I'm not even sure it's the right way to think about things. Who defines "best", anyways?

In general, my feelings about Carr run along these lines. He makes these arguments that sound like they should be right, and has made a reputation as a contrarian off of doing this, but is there any actual evidence one way or the other? Gladwell kinda does this too, but isn't strictly contrarian & is more inspiring.

in order to fully appreciate the text, you must be completely absorbed in it. Humanities people like this kind of argument, because they think from the perspective of the writer and what would be best for him - having the reader fully absorbed with no distractions. They would want their own writings to be given the same respect.

It isn't just the perspective of the writer, that's a dismissal on selfish grounds. It is the nature of the information transfer that is at hand with different kinds of "reading". Not all reading serves the same purpose.

I mean, in a science article, isn't the only purpose of all that writin' just to help you understand the figure?

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 26 Jun 2010 #permalink

There are some good points in each of these comments. In the humanities, you have to understand the logic and the authors invoke critical theories, to some extent. In many areas of science, the support to an assertion comes either directly from the method and data presented or through citing an external source. Fleck talks about creating a word pyramid if you don't select which things to explain or cite based on what readers are expected to already know. So make some citations, but not all possible citations. Readers who are deeply involved in the field will only have to glance at the citation to get the context, in many cases. Like I said, this is different than immersive reading you do with fiction.

So you are saying that Ted Nelson got it right? And that Tim Berners-Lee put it into practice correctly? I find it difficult to believe that an article on the appropriateness of hyperlinks to scientific reading habits failed to mention that hyperlinking was invented by scientists to support their way of studying and conveying information in the first place. Long before the WWW as we know it today.

Ted Nelson, Project Xanadu, 1960- (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Xanadu)
Tim Berners-Lee, 1989-90 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Berners-Lee)

How quickly we forget ...

By Gray Gaffer (not verified) on 28 Jun 2010 #permalink

I agree with the quote for me personally since I can't read a scholarly paper without checking on citations to see if the titles make sense or the dates are current, that sort of thing. In fact when I have a publisher's proof to review I'm always annoyed if the footnotes are missing. That said, I know there are times when reading without distraction is necessary to really understand a concept. I think you also have to factor personality into the issue, since some are more easily distracted and some like to be distracted.

Very true. The same articles talk about re-reading and spending more time with "core" articles.