In this blog post, The Bibliomagician pays a special tribute to one of the founding fathers of Bibliometrics: the late Dr Eugene Garfield.
On February 26, 2017, the world of information and library science lost one of its true pioneers with the passing of Dr. Eugene Garfield at age 91. His innovations – most notably, the Science Citation Index (SCI) – transformed not only the indexing and retrieval of scholarly literature, but the use of citations to track the dynamics of growth, concentration, and influence in the world of knowledge itself.
Although originally trained as a chemist, Garfield soon realized that his aptitude and inclinations lay in the direction of cataloguing information. This revelation was driven home during his initial employment in a chemistry lab at Columbia University, where he acquired a certain notoriety for causing explosions at the bench but found himself absorbed by the task of creating an index for the lab’s store of newly synthesized chemical compounds. His course as an information scientist and entrepreneur was set.
Coming from humble origins, Garfield was truly a self-made man. One of his first products, Current Contents, had its origins in a converted chicken coop, where Garfield himself labored over a second-hand printing press. Like many successful inventions, the idea was astoundingly simple: Reproduce the contents pages of journals, thereby saving scientists and scholars the time and effort – decades before the internet – of going to a library to view the journals by hand in order to keep up with the latest research in their fields.
A weekly booklet, designed to fit easily into a lab-coat pocket, Current Contents ultimately expanded to multiple editions that covered all areas of science. It was the original flagship product at the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), the company that Garfield founded in Philadelphia in 1955.
That same year, Garfield published a paper in Science expounding on his idea for an index to scientific literature based on citations. The existing, conventional indexes of the day relied on the subjective judgment of professional indexers, whose work was necessarily slow and who generally lacked detailed knowledge of the specialties involved. Garfield, by contrast, envisioned an index in which scientists themselves would function as his “army of indexers,” creating subject linkages when writing their own papers and engaging in the compulsory practice of footnoting pertinent, related research.
For Garfield, a central challenge in realizing his index was marshaling the necessary computational power – at that time, dependent on a bulky mainframe machine and the manual coding of punch cards.
Garfield grasped that these footnotes – each an acknowledgment of intellectual debt to previous research – would create cognitive connections that would be traceable and quantifiable. This thread of citations could demonstrate the progression, not to mention the influence, of a given finding or advancement.
Garfield’s chief inspiration, as he readily acknowledged, was actually borrowed from legal literature and one of its key resources: Shepard’s Citations. This extensive reference permits a reader to track a given legal case and see if the decision was affirmed, overturned, or otherwise cited in subsequent cases. Garfield recognized that science, like law, proceeds on the basis of precedent, with researchers acknowledging and building on work that came before.
…as Garfield predicted, the tracking of publication and citation data spawned a specialty area of its own.
For Garfield, a central challenge in realizing his index was marshaling the necessary computational power – at that time, dependent on a bulky mainframe machine and the manual coding of punch cards. To track a given report’s cited and citing papers, Garfield and his colleagues devised the means to code the necessary data into the 80 colu.mns of a standard IBM punch card.
ISI released the SCI in 1964. More than 50 years later, its original multi-volume book format long since replaced by the online Web of Science, Garfield’s index now covers more than 30,000 source publications and has amassed upwards of 1 billion cited references. And, as Garfield predicted, the tracking of publication and citation data spawned a specialty area of its own. Known variously as Scientometrics, Bibliometrics, or Informetrics, this branch of inquiry seeks to explore the shifting landscape of knowledge, tracking the growth and evolution of science and marking prominent points of influence. Another of Garfield’s innovations, Journal Citation Reports (JCR), works this vein, annually recording the most influential journals in their respective fields as measured by a citation-based metric, the Journal Impact Factor.
Despite ceding control of ISI in the early 1990s (the company, after a long stretch as part of Thomson Reuters, is now an independent firm known as Clarivate Analytics), Garfield remained active in information science. He developed a citation-based tracking and visualization program called HistCite. And, even while closing in on his 90th birthday, he was contributing refinements to JCR metrics. More than a half-century after he initially proposed them, Garfield’s citation index and other innovations continue to aid the process of research and illuminate the global pursuit of knowledge.
In September 2017, marking what would have been Garfield’s 92nd birthday, a symposium in his honor was held in Philadelphia, with several of his long-time colleagues and collaborators celebrating his life and work. This video offers a brief sampling of the presentations, with longer excerpts collected here.
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Christopher King is a writer/editor at Clarivate Analytics, harnessing the company’s array of information tools to produce reports and other materials on the world’s most significant research and the individuals, institutions and geographic locales that are producing the work. He holds degrees from Lafayette College, Easton, PA, and Temple University, Philadelphia, PA.
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