Science  Technology & Human Values, 13 (3/4) p.349-350, 1988.


Derek Price and the

Practical World of Scientometrics

Eugene Garfield
Institute for Scientific Information

In trying to prepare some relevant but brief comments for this memorial symposium, I went back through my files of correspondence with Derek Price. I think that the following letters will be of interest to this audience.  My first letter to Derek (6 March 1962) begins with the Science Citation Index project:

I want to add my applause to those I have already heard on your recent book “Science Since Babylon.” I found it most stimulating. Many years ago, I worked at Johns Hopkins University on a project which shared the same building as the Institute for the History of Medicine (Welch Medical Library) and wondered when some of the subjects you have discussed would be handled by a competent historian. It was well worth the waiting.

I thought you might be interested to see some material from our Citation Index Project which is explained in the enclosed reprints and sample indexes. There appears to be a great deal that the sociologist can do with citation indexes, but I would appreciate the opinion of an expert on this question. As I interpret comments that have been made along these lines, the citation index itself will not be so important as the research paths it will open for the sociologist who would otherwise be bogged down in the spade work needed to identify pertinent documents. I already see evidence, from government people, of trying to use some of our data for evaluating, quantitatively, the significance of certain research. I am fearful of such uses, but then I suppose that the way in which people use citation indexes for social values is not our problem except to the extent that it would affect the design of our services.

I would sincerely appreciate your comments [Garfield to Price, 6 March 1962].

Derek’s response of 15 March 1962 (the second paragraph below) is a typical Derek Price exercise. As those who knew him well will recall, he had a genius for translating numbers into exciting theories and observations.

I am strangely excited by the material you sent me on the Citation Index Project. I had, of course, heard of it before via the [National Science Foundation] and the Science Information Council of which I have recently become a member; but I had not known of the procedure you are proposing.

One small calculation I have may be of interest to you. If we take my figure that scientific papers augment at about six or seven per cent per annum and the additional figure that, on the average, each paper contains some seven or eight references to previous papers, it would appear that, during any year, references are made to about fifty per cent of all previous papers on the average. The number of citations, therefore, is equal to about half the number of papers accrued by the beginning of the year of citation. We may add to this the somewhat unexpected result that the distribution of dates of papers referred to is exactly the same as the distribution of dates of all papers published within an accuracy of perhaps a factor of two. It follows from this that each paper has, in the years subsequent to its publication, a chance of about one in two each year of being cited [Price to Garfield, 15 March 1962].

The last paragraph of this letter illustrates Derek’s insatiable appetite for information.

What I want now is some numerical analysis, however rough, of the rate of exponential growth of legal cases’ and citations, the time distributions of legal citations and all legal references back, and similar data that will enable me to compare the mechanisms of growth in legal and scientific literature [Price to Garfield, 15 March 1962].

As a matter of fact, it sometimes seemed that Derek never knew when to stop asking for information and had to be frequently reprimanded for demanding too much, especially of ISI employees who were in no position to provide it without considerable personal sacrifice. Derek was quick to recognize his transgression, however, and was very apologetic when called to task.

The Science Citation Index was originally patterned on Shepherd’s index to legal citations.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article consists of excerpts from a talk, “Derek Price and the Practical World of Scientometrics,” at the memorial plenary for Derek J. deSolla Price at the annual meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science, 19 November 1987.