Citing to infinity

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Lev Landau once proposed a logarithmic ranking for physicists. Einstein he placed in class 0.5, Dirac and Heisenberg in class 1.0, and Landau himself, modestly, in class 2.5. These days we have an objective ranking tool, the citation index. Each scientist is judged by the citations his papers gain in other scientists' papers. This criterion dominates the struggle for grants, tenure, promotion and reputation. Daedalus argues that Internet publication now permits an even greater step forward.

When all scientific papers are stored in, and accessed from, one vast computer database, it will be easy to extract all the citations attracted by a paper at any moment. Even better, the citations credited to each of the citers could also be extracted. Clearly it is more prestigious to be cited by a prolific author with many citations to his own credit, than to be cited by a citationless nobody. And these second-order citations could be judged in their turn by the quality of their third-order citers. So Daedalus is refining the business of citation scoring. His ‘multi-order citation score’, MOCS, will trace the citation tree of a paper to notional infinity, giving each successive order of citations a decreasing weighting.

The mathematical form of MOCS will need careful thought. It must be well-behaved, immune from strong perturbations propagated from distant anomalies in the citation tree, or instabilities from tangles of self or mutual citation. Such citations will be given, if not quite zero, at least a low weighting. The eccentric theorist who cites only himself, the author who builds endlessly on one little finding, the small, mutually back-scratching clique, cannot be allowed to gain unduly from their efforts. And logical tricks like citing a paper within itself, which might generate an infinite MOCS, will need to be identified and excluded. A multi-authored paper will divide its total MOCS among the authors, possibly in accordance with weightings declared within that paper.

Once properly optimized, MOCS will transform the struggle for scientific fame and recognition. Sadly, it will also give ammunition to those wicked sociologists who claim that science is merely a game for distributing prestige and grants among competing players.

Additional information

The further Inventions of Daedalus (Oxford University Press), 148 past Daedalus columns expanded and illustrated, is now on sale. Special Nature offer: m.curtis@nature.com

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Jones, D. Citing to infinity. Nature 402, 600 (1999) doi:10.1038/45125

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Further reading

  • Astrophysics in 2000

    • Virginia Trimble
    •  & Markus J. Aschwanden

    Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (2001)


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