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SSP News Interviews Eugene Garfield



17 January 2008

From the 1950ís to the present, Eugene Garfield served as a visionary, innovator, and leader in our community. He continues to contribute new approaches, concepts, and products to improve the transfer of information. In this interview with SSP News Editor in Chief Barbara Meyers Ford, he talks about the "competition," current projects, and what has brought him satisfaction in his long career.

BMF: What do you think about the newer impact metrics, the Eigenfactor and the H-index, that have been developed as alternatives to the Impact Factor?

EG: It was inevitable that new metrics would be developed. The H-index has been well received because it is very easy to calculate and was made possible when Thomson added the ability to rank the results of a search by citation frequency. It does not produce results that are much different than earlier citation metrics, and there have now been many modifications to it as originally proposed. I do not have the time to review those with you, but it will probably be recognized as a milestone development in the history of bibliometrics.

The Eigenfactor is basically a variant on the page-ranking algorithm that made Google so successful. The page-ranking system was essentially a variant on the journal-ranking system, which was recognized by the patent examiners when they reviewed the patent application by Page and Brin. They were clever to recognize the power of page ranking in customizing advertising. All this has been reviewed in detail by many others.

There has been an exponential growth in the number of papers involving citation analysis and critiques, pro and con, of impact factors. So much so that it is now very difficult for me to keep up with what once was the relatively simple task of informing members of the metrics Virtual SIG of ASIS&T about all the new papers.

BMF: FYI, I did a story on those alternative metrics for an SSP News issue last year.

EG: I read the story. By the way, the Eigenfactor looks a lot like the methods developed by Francis Narin and others in ranking journals by the prestige of the citing journals. Every one of these methods produces interesting results, but no one speaks about how easy they are to use in everyday life.

Fundamentally, it is the ranking of journals that matters rather than the absolute numbers used. Once you get past the top 10 or 20 journals in a field, you are dealing with a large number of low-impact journals.

Nothing has changed the basic discovery of Bradford's law of scattering or its companion, "Garfield's law of concentration."

BMF: Given that you are a past president of ASIS&T and were involved in many of the industry organizations such as CSE, IIA, NFAIS, and SSP, what do you think has been the greatest contribution of professional membership societies in serving the needs of our community? How do you think they need to change (if at all) to respond to the changing needs of younger professionals?

EG: The first question is much too broad to deal with briefly. Each society has made different contributions. Some are very self-serving and others make significant improvements in the life of society. In general, social networking is probably their most significant role. We all like to meet our friends at meetings. But in the old days it was the only way to be au courant, whereas today the Internet has made it possible to be much more aware of what is hot. NFAIS, for example, is a much broader organization today, but people may forget that we had to start the Information Industry Association because as for-profit enterprises, we were locked out of NFAIS membership. The NSF and other government agencies still give preferential treatment to nonprofits, but the defense-oriented agencies go in the opposite direction.

BMF: I'm sure you are inundated with requests. How do you decide which projects to get involved with?

EG: I take them as they come. If I cannot handle yet another talk, I will ask some other colleague to take on the task. I find it enervating to be repeating the same information in different venues. In the past I was happy to find anyone interested in hearing what I had to say. The needs of a young turk are quite different than an emeritus scholar or editor.

BMF: What do you think is the next big step forward in the information industry and/or professional and scholarly publishing?

EG: That is a very broad and multifaceted question. There will be many new innovations. I do not consider myself a futurist, although when I look back on what I wrote 50 years ago, you would think I was Nostradamus. But then we forget about the mistakes that were made. I thought our personal alerting service, called ASCA, would be the hit of the century. But as a commercial product it could not support itself on its own. Today everybody thinks Google Alert is so great, partly because it is free. But most people don't really know how to take advantage of alerting technology in a creative way.

BFM: What has been the most professionally and/or personally satisfying event of your career/life?

EG: I recently wrote a piece for the Journal of Information Science to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Institute of Information Scientists of the UK. When I was elected an honorary member of that group in 1966, I was thrilled because I had such great respect for all the Brits I had met back in Dorking at the 1957 conference. I went into debt to pay for the airfare and never regretted it. Later I received many honorary degrees, but my recent election to the American Philosophical Society was a crowning moment. Of course, I wish it could have happened 20 years ago, but each form of recognition has its special satisfactions.

It is like asking which of your children you love the most. I love them all and each in a different way.

BMF: Using today's vernacular, what's on your Bucket List? That is, what do you still want to do professionally or personally?

EG: The release of my HistCite software culminates many years of work with the help of many colleagues, starting with Irving H. Sher back in 1964 and then later with my Russian colleague Alexander Pudovkin. It took over 40 years for this idea to mature, and it still needs to be refined some more. Now the huge computer memories have made it easier, but the remaining problem, as it was with the Science Citation Index, is one of education. That is why neither the Internet, nor Google, nor any search engine will make librarians and information workers obsolete. They are needed to teach people how to use all the resources that are available in an effective way.

From the earliest days I was interested in the Science Citation Index as a tool for historians of science. The term algorithmic historiography was implicit in our 1964 report commissioned by Harold Wooster of the U.S. Air Force Research Directorate.

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