Underestimating the Relevance of Obscure Research

Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory have asserted that the relevance of humanities and social science research for all fields, including the hard sciences, is typically underestimated. Rather than the traditional method of focusing on citations of articles, this research group analyzed the access through online journal portals, suggesting that humanities and social science journals are accessed more often than they are actually cited. The authors assert, “There can exist stark differences between what people claim they do and what they actually do. This also applies to the distinction between citing behavior and online information seeking behavior. The first is a public and explicit expression of influence by scholarly authors, whereas the latter results from the private navigation behavior of scholarly users of web portals.” Figure 5 in the article is the central image showing the centrality of many humanities and social science fields in the interconnections of science research.

This research provides an alternate perspective on my own comments about the need to reflect on the relevance of our research. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education a few years ago, which cited this Los Alamos study, suggested that even seemingly obscure humanities research can have unexpected uses, such as facilitating the creation of a database for the analysis of intelligence data or aiding in the development of computer protocols. Typically, these applications of research are both unintended by the researcher and not necessarily recognized for decades. Therefore, even obscure, seemingly irrelevant programs may have important benefits. It is impossible to know what research will produce later.