Patterns of Information Search and Access on the World Wide Web: Democratizing Expertise or Creating New Hierarchies?*


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    The authors acknowledge the ESRC ‘Science in Society’ research programme, under which the research in this paper has been funded (Award RES-160-25-0031 for the project ‘The World Wide Web of Science: Emerging Global Sources of Expertise’). We would also like to thank our interviewees.


Will the World Wide Web and search engines foster access to more diverse sources of information, or have a centralizing influence through a ‘winner-take-all’ process? To address this question, we examined how search engines are used to access information about six global issues (climate change, poverty, HIV/AIDS, terrorism, trade reform, and Internet and society). The study used a combination of webmetric analyses and interviews with experts. From interviews we were able to explore how experts on these topics use search engines within their specialist fields. Using webmetric analysis, we were able to compare the results from a number of search engines and show how the top ranked sites are clustered as well as the distribution of their connectivity. Results suggest that the Web tends to reduce the significance of offline hierarchies in accessing information – thereby “democratizing” access to worldwide resources. It also seems, however, that centers of expertise progressively refine their specializations, gaining a ‘winner-take-all’ status within a narrower area. Some limitations of the winner-take-all thesis for access to research are discussed.