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A long tale

I cycle to work, which is no great surprise since I’m based in the Cambridge office, and it takes me about half an hour. While I’m cycling to work I listen to Radio 4 which is the single greatest creation of the British Broadcasting Corporation which is the single greatest creation of Great Britain in the 20th century, and possibly of all time.

Proof for this, if proof were needed (beyond the fact that Radio 4 allowed a pretty much unknown author called Douglas Adams to write a radio series call The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy), was the discussions that entered my ears this morning on Start the Week. Michael Nyman, Rosamund Pike, Ian Wilmut and Dominic Streatfield discussing one’s new opera about love, boxing and mathematics; one’s appearance in a new play about Janacek; mammalian cloning 10 years after Dolly and brainwashing. All on an ordinary Monday morning in July.

I actually missed the cloning and brainwashing – -I will catch them later on the internet – -because I started my ride at 8:50 so got to the office before those parts of the program. What I caught instead was an interview with Chris Anderson on the Today program about his just published book “The Long Tail : Why the future of business is selling less of more“. I haven’t read the book yet but have read the WIRED article Chris wrote a couple of years back about the same topic.

The title takes its name from a very pervasive distribution graph, Chris looks at books and record sales. There are a few global block busters, a few more best sellers, a moderate number of moderate successes, and lots and lots of records and books that sell very small numbers. If you are a record or book shop what you want to do is sell lots of records or books so you want to stock blockbusters because those sell a lot but don’t take up much shelf space. The more niche items you carry the worse your returns as they take up the same shelfspace but sell in smaller numbers. This is a radical over-simplification on my part because I haven’t worried about stockroom space out the back of the shop but you get the idea.

So conventional retailing tries to concentrate on the high volume successes and ignores the tail. Yet there is plenty of ‘value’ in the tail, there are books and records there that will be not less passionately received, albeit by fewer consumers, than this months star. Worse yet, what gets into the shops is what the shop-owners think are going to be blockbusters, and there are plenty of examples where a ‘niche’ book or record has gone on to be a bestseller. And those are only the ones we know about. How many more classics were out there but never made the subjective cut that would have brought them to the audience that was waiting to receive them.

Chris’s point is that the internet has changed this. With the internet the niches can be catered for as well as the blockbusters. iTunes has more records available than any high street record shop; Amazon can guide you to obscure books that you might like because other people like you liked them. Just because a tune is only downloaded by ten people doesn’t mean that each of those ten people will not enjoy it as much as the track that has been downloaded by 6 million. The realisation of the value present in the long tail through the use of the internet is wholly changing the world of retail. Indeed by catering equally to both the long tail and the blockbuster, sites like Amazon and iTunes are outselling conventional book and record shops. By catering to the tail they provide a better service across the board.

I said that the long tail distribution was pervasive. One place where it occurs is in citation data. Just as with record or book sales there are a few papers that are hugely highly cited, a moderate number of papers that are moderately cited and a vast number of papers that are only cited rarely. The shape of this graph is the same whether you look at the whole scientific literature, a specific discipline or a particular journal. Indeed the shape of this graph, being entirely non-normal, is one of the reasons why the Impact Factor of a journal (supposedly the mean citation of papers published therein) has little power to predict the number of citations received by any of its individual papers. Also exactly like a records or books, just because a paper lies in ‘the long tail’ doesn’t mean that the smaller number of scientists who read it have not found that paper vital to their (working) lives.

I’m no fan of re-inventing the wheel. If there are analogies to be made between the dissemination of scientific research and the selling of pop songs we should try and learn from them. Clearly there are differences too. It isn’t vitally important that the latest pop singles should be freely available to anyone in the world with an internet connection, but for scientific research there is. There isn’t a need that a every tune recorded can be sampled and reused (although you could argue that it is desirable), while there is for scientific knowledge. Nevertheless there are many compelling similarities that I hope can be exploited for the good of science starting with a publication that can publish more papers, across more disciplines than any conventional scientific journal and yet treats the blockbuster and the resident of the tail with equal care and respect.

So there we are. PLoS ONE as the iTunes of science. All because I cycled to work today and because every radio I possess is permanently tuned to BBC Radio 4. Meanwhile Chris Anderson is touring the UK this week (well London anyway), if you have the chance to hear him talk, take it.

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