Thursday, July 27, 2006

Are there encyclopedias that scholars use?

Are there any encyclopedias that currently hold a important position in the understanding of a particular discipline of scholarship? The best way to answer that question would be to ask scholars directly about the matter. Another way to try to ascertain an answer is to see if scholars are citing encyclopedias in their published research.

Using ISI's Web of Science "Cited Reference Search", I searched for the term encyclopedia* to find the papers that had an encyclopedia mentioned in their bibliographies.

There are three indexes within Web of Science. The index that is the smallest - that being, covers the fewest number of journals is the "Arts & Humanities Citation Index". The index covers 1149 journals and for the period of 1996 to 2006, there are only 48 papers encyclopedias entries that are that are cited in a bibliography. Most encyclopedias in this list are only cited once and there is no encyclopedia that is cited repeatedly.

The "Social Sciences Citation Index" covers 1917 journals and from 1996 to 2006, there are 123 works encyclopedias entries that have been cited in a bibliography. Most of the encyclopedia entries are only cited once but there are a handful of exceptions when an entry is cited a couple times. There was only one encyclopedia that was cited frequently (24 times) and that was Encyclopedia Britannica.

Not surprisingly, the Science Citation Index (Expanded) is the largest index within Web of Science. It covers 6543 journals and from 1996 to 2006, 114 papers encyclopedia entries were cited in a bibliography. Unlike the other two indexes, there are encyclopedias whose entries are cited quite heavily. By far, the most heavily cited encyclopedia was "The Encyclopedia of Plant Physiology" with many entries cited over 50 times. The next encyclopedic work with similar impact is "The Encyclopedia of Polymer Science and Engineering".

Now one could make the argument that I have set up this test for encyclopedias to fail from the start as encyclopedias aren't meant to communicate important ideas among scholars. You could say that encyclopedias exist to provide an important reference to students and are meant for their use.

Incidentally, from the years 1996 to 2006, there have been 12 papers in Web of Science that cite Wikipedia.

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