An experiment in communal editing: Finding the history & philosophy of science.

After my last post about co-citation analysis, the author of one of the papers I was responding to, K. Brad Wray, generously commented and suggested I write up and publish the results and send them off to Erkenntnis, which is the same journal he published his results. That sounded like a great idea, so I am.

Because so many good ideas have come from comments on this blog, I’d like to try opening my first draft to communal commenting. For those who aren’t familiar with google docs (anyone? Bueller?), you can comment by selecting test and either hitting ctrl-alt-m, or going to the insert-> menu and clicking ‘Comment’.

The paper is about the relationship between history of science and philosophy of science, and draws both from the blog post and from this page with additional visualizations. There is also an appendix (pdf, sorry) with details of data collection and some more interesting results for the HPS buffs. If you like history of science, philosophy of science, or citation analysis, I’d love to see your comments! If you have any general comments that don’t refer to a specific part of the text, just post them in the blog comments below.

This is a bit longer form than the usual blog, so who knows if it will inspire much interaction, but it’s worth a shot. Anyone who is signed in so I can see their name will get credit in the acknowledgements.

Finding the History and Philosophy of Science (earlier draft)  ← draft 1, thanks for your comments.

Finding the History and Philosophy of Science (current draft) ← comment here!


Networks Demystified 4: Co-Citation Analysis

This installment of Networks Demystified is the first one that’s actually applied. A few days ago, a discussion arose over twitter involving citation networks, and this post fills the dual purpose of continuing that discussion, and teaching a bit about basic citation analysis. If you’re looking for the very basics of networks, see part 1 and part 2. Part 3 is a warning for anyone who feels the urge to say “power law.” To recap: nodes are the dots/points in the network, edges are the lines/arrows/connections.

Understanding Sociology, Philosophy, and Literary Theory using One Easy Method™!

The growing availability of humanities and social science (HSS) citation data in databases like ISI’s Web of Science (warning: GIANT paywall. Good luck getting access if your university doesn’t subscribe.) has led to a groundswell of recent blog activity in the area, mostly by the humanists and social scientists themselves. Which is a good thing, because citation analyses of HSS will happen whether we’re involving in doing them or not, so if humanists start becoming familiar with the methods, at least we can begin getting humanistically informed citation analyses of our own data.

ISI Web of Science paywall
The size of ISI’s Web of Science paywall. You shall not pass. [via]
This is a sort of weird post. It’s about history and philosophy of science, by way of social history, by way of literary theory, by way of philosophy, by way of sociology. About this time last year, Dan Wang asked the question Is There a Canon in Economic Sociology (pdf)? Wang was searching for a set of core texts for economic sociology, using a set of 52 syllabi regarding the subject. It’s a reasonable first pass at the question, counting how often each article appears in the syllabi (plus some more complex measurements) as well as how often individual authors appear. Those numbers are used to support the hypothesis that there is a strongly present canon, both of authors and individual articles, in economic sociology. This is an example of an extremely simple bimodal network analysis where there are two varieties of node: syllabi or articles. Each syllabi cites multiple articles, and several of those articles are cited by multiple syllabi. The top part of Figure 1 is what this would look like in a basic network representation.

Figure 1: basic bimodal network (top) and the resulting co-citation network (bottom). [Via Mark Newman, PNAS]
Figure 1: basic bimodal network (top) and the resulting co-citation network (bottom). [via Mark Newman]
Wang was also curious how instructors felt these articles fit together, so he used a common method called co-citation analysis to answer the question. The idea is that if two articles are cited in the same syllabus, they are probably related, so they get an edge drawn between them. He further restricted his analysis so that articles had to appear together in the same class session, rather than the the same syllabus, to be considered related to each other. What results is a new network (Figure 1, below) of article similarity based on how frequently they appear together (how frequently they are cited by the same source). In Figure 1, you can see that because article H and article F are both cited in syllabus class session 3, they get an edge drawn between them.

A further restriction was then placed on the network, what’s called a threshold. Two articles would only get an edge drawn between them if they were cited by at least 2 different class sessions (threshold = 2). The resulting economic sociology syllabus co-citation network looked like Figure 2, pulled from the original article. From this picture, one can begin to develop a clear sense of the demarcations of subjects and areas within economic sociology, thus splitting the canon into its constituent parts.

Figure 2: Co-citation network in economic sociology. [via]
Figure 2: Co-citation network in economic sociology. Edge thickness represents how often articles appear together in syllabi, and node size is based on a measure of centrality. [via]
In short order, Kieran Healy blogged a reply to this study, providing his own interpretations of the graph and what the various clusters represented. Remember Healy’s name, as it’s important later in the story. Two days after Healy’s blog post, Neal Caren took inspiration and created a co-citation analysis of sociology more broadly–not just economic sociology–using data he downloaded from ISI’s Web of Science (remember the giant paywall from before?). Instead of using syllabi, Caren looked at articles found in American Journal of Sociology, American Sociological Review, Social Forces and Social Problems since 2008. Web of Science gave him a list of every citation from every article in those journals, and he performed the same sort of co-citation analysis as Dan Wang did with syllabi, but at a much larger scale.

Because the dataset Caren used was so much larger, he had to enforce much stricter thresholds to keep the visualization manageable. Whereas Wang’s graph showed all articles, and connected them if they appeared together in more than 2 class sessions, Caren’s graph only connected articles which were cited together more than 4 times (threshold = 4). Further, a cited article wouldn’t even appear on the network visualization unless the article itself had been cited 8 or more times, thus reducing the amount of articles appearing on the visualization overall. The final network had 397 nodes (articles) and 1,597 edges (connections between articles). He also used a popular community detection algorithm to color the different article nodes based on which other articles they were most related to. Figure 3 shows the resulting network, and clicking on it will lead to an interactive version.

Figure 3: Neal Caren's sociology co-citation analysis. Click the picture to see the interactive version. [via]
Figure 3: Neal Caren’s sociology co-citation analysis. Click the picture to see the interactive version. [via]
Caren adds a bit of contextual description in his blog post, explaining what the various clusters represent and why this visualization is a valid and useful one for the field of sociology. Notably, at the end of the post, he shares his raw data, a python script for analyzing it, and all the code for visualizing the network and making it interactive and pretty.

Jump forward a year. Kieran Healy, the one who wrote the original post inspiring Neal Caren’s, decides to try his own hand at a citation analysis using some of the code and methods that Neal Caren had posted about. Healy’s blog post, created just a few days ago, looks at the field of philosophy through the now familiar co-citation analysis. Healy’s analysis covers 20 years of four major philosophy journals, consisting of 2,200 articles. These articles together make over 34,000 citations, although many of the cited articles are duplicates of articles that had already been cited. Healy writes:

The more often any single paper is cited, the more important it’s likely to be. But the more often any two papers are cited together, the more likely they are to be part of some research question or ongoing problem or conversation topic within the discipline.

With a dataset this large, the resulting co-citation network wound up having over a million edges, or connections between co-cited articles. Healy decides to only focus on the 500 most highly-cited items in the journals (not the best practice for a co-citation analysis, but I’ll address that in a later post), resulting in only articles that had been cited more than 10 times within the four journal dataset to be present in the network. Figure 4 shows the resulting network, which like Figure 3, can be clicked on to reach the interactive version.

Figure 4: Kieran Healy's co-citation analysis of four philosophy journals. Click for interactivity. [via]
Figure 4: Kieran Healy’s co-citation analysis of four philosophy journals. Click for interactivity. [via]
The post goes on to provide a fairly thorough and interesting analysis of the various communities formed by article clusters, thus giving a description of the general philosophy landscape as it currently stands. The next day, Healy posted a follow-up delving further into citations of philosopher David Lewis, and citation frequencies by gender. Going through the most highly cited 500 or so philosophy articles by hand, Healy finds that 3.6% of the articles are written by women; 6.3% are written by David Lewis; the overwhelming majority are written by white men. It’s not lost on me that the overwhelming majority of people doing these citation analyses are also white men – someone please help change that? Healy posted a second follow-up a few days later, worth reading, on his reasoning behind which journals he used and why he looked at citations in general. He concludes “The 1990s were not the 1950s. And yet essentially none of the women from this cohort are cited in the conversation with anything close to the same frequency, despite working in comparable areas, publishing in comparable venues, and even in many cases having jobs at comparable departments.”

Merely short days after Healy’s articles, Jonathan Goodwin became inspired, using the same code Healy and Caren used to perform a co-citation analysis of Literary Theory Journals. He began by concluding that these co-citation analysis were much more useful (better) than his previous attempts at direct citation analysis. About four decades of bibliometric research backs up Goodwin’s claim. Figure 5 shows Goodwin’s Literary Theory co-citation network, drawn from five journals and clickable for the interactive version, where he adds a bit of code so that the user can determine herself what threshold she wants to cut off co-citation weights. Goodwin describes the code to create the effect on his github account. In a follow-up post, directly inspired by Healy’s, Goodwin looks at citations to women in literary theory. His results? When a feminist theory journal is included, 8 of the top 30 authors are women (27%); when that journal is not included, only 2 of the top 30 authors are women (7%).

Figure 5: Goodwin's literary theory co-citation network. [via]
Figure 5: Goodwin’s literary theory co-citation network. [via]

At the Speed of Blog

Just after these blog posts were published, a quick twitter exchange between Jonathan Goodwin, John Theibault, and myself (part of it readable here) spurred Goodwin, in the space of 20 minutes, to download, prepare, and visualize the co-citation data of four social history journals over 40 years. He used ISI Web of Science data, Neal Caren’s code, a bit of his own, and a few other bits of open script which he generously cites and links to. All of this is to highlight not only the phenomenal speed of research when unencumbered by the traditional research process, but also the ease with which these sorts of analysis can be accomplished. Most of this is done using some (fairly simple) programming, but there are just as easy solutions if you don’t know how to or don’t care to code–one specifically which I’ll mention later, the Sci2 Tool. From data to visualization can take a matter of minutes; a first pass at interpretation won’t take much longer. These are fast analyses, pretty useful for getting a general overview of some discipline, and can provide quite a bit of material for deeper analysis.

The social history dataset is now sitting on Goodwin’s blog just waiting to be interpreted by the right expert. If you or anyone you know is familiar with social history, take a stab at figuring out what the analysis reveals, and then let us all know in a blog post of your own. I’ll be posting a little more about it as well soon, though I’m no expert of the discipline. Also, if you’re interested in citation analysis in the humanities, and you’ll be at DH2013 in Nebraska, I’ll be chairing a session all about citations in the humanities featuring an impressive lineup of scholars. Come join us and bring questions, July 17th at 10:30am.

Discovering History and Philosophy of Science

Before I wrap up, it’s worth mentioning that in one of Kieran Healy’s blog posts, he thanks Brad Wray for pointing out some corrections in the dataset. Brad Wray is one of the few people to have published a recent philosophy citation analysis in a philosophy journal. Wray is a top-notch philosopher, but his citation analysis (Philosophy of Science: What are the Key Journals in the Field?, Erkenntnis, May 2010 72:3, paywalled) falls a bit short of the mark, and as this is an instructional piece on co-citation analysis, it’s worth taking some time here to explore why.

Wray’s article’s thesis is that “there is little evidence that there is such a field as the history and philosophy of science (HPS). Rather, philosophy of science is most properly conceived of as a sub-field of philosophy.” He arrives at this conclusion via a citation analysis of three well-respected monographs, A Companion to the Philosophy of ScienceThe Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Science, and The Philosophy of Science edited by David Papineau, in total comprising 149 articles. Wray then counts how many times major journals are cited within each article, and shows that in most cases, the most frequently cited journals across the board are strict philosophy of science journals.

The data used to support Wray’s thesis–that there is no such field as history & philosophy of science (HPS)–is this coarse-level journal citation data. No history of science journal is listed in the top 10-15 journals cited by the three monographs, and HPS journals appear, but very infrequently. Of the evidence, Wray writes “if there were such a field as history and philosophy of science, one would expect scholars in that field to be citing publications in the leading history of science journal. But, it appears that philosophy of science is largely independent of the history of science.”

It is curious that Wray would suggest that total citations from strict philosophy of science companions can be used as evidence of whether a related but distinct field, HPS, actually exists. Low citations from philosophy of science to history of science is that evidence. Instead, a more nuanced approach to this problem would be similar to the approach above: co-citation analysis. Perhaps HPS can be found by analyzing citations from journals which are ostensibly HPS, rather than analyzing three focused philosophy of science monographs. If a cluster of articles should appear in a co-citation analysis, this would be strong evidence that such a discipline currently exists among citing articles. If such a cluster does not appear, this would not be evidence of the non-existence of HPS (absence of evidence ≠ evidence of absence), but that the dataset or the analysis type is not suited to finding whatever HPS might be. A more thorough analysis would be required to actually disprove the existence of HPS, although one imagines it would be difficult explaining that disproof to the people who think that’s what they are.

With this in mind, I decided to perform the same sort of co-citation analysis as Dan Wang, Kieran Healy, Neal Caren, and Jonathan Goodwin, and see what could be found. I drew from 15 journals classified in ISI’s Web of Science as “History & Philosophy of Science” (British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Journal of Philosophy, Synthese, Philosophy of Science, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, Annals of Science, Archive for History of Exact Sciences, British Journal for the History of Science, Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, History of Science, Isis, Journal for the History of Astronomoy, Osiris, Social Studies of Science, Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics, and Technology and Culture). In all I collected 12,510 articles dating from 1956, with over 300,000 citations between them. For the purpose of not wanting to overheat my laptop, I decided to restrict my analysis to looking only at those articles within the dataset; that is, if any article from any of the 15 journals cited any other article from one of the 15 journals, it was included in the analysis.

I also changed my unit of analysis from the article to the author. I didn’t want to see how often two articles were cited by some third article–I wanted to see how often two authors were cited together within some article. The resulting co-citation analysis gives author-author pairs rather than article-article pairs, like the examples above. In all, there were 7,449 authors in the dataset, and 10,775 connections between author pairs; I did not threshold edges, so the some authors in the network were cited together only once, and some as many as 60 times. To perform the analysis I used the Science of Science (Sci2) Tool, no programming required, (full advertisement disclosure: I’m on the development team), and some co-authors and I have written up how to do a similar analysis in the documentation tutorials.

The resulting author co-citation network, in Figure 6, reveals two fairly distinct clusters of authors. You can click the image to enlarge, but I’ve zoomed in on the two communities, one primarily history of science, the other primarily philosophy of science. At first glance, Wray’s hypothesis appears to be corroborated by the visualization; there’s not much in the way of a central cluster between the two. That said, a closer look at the middle, Figure 7, highlights a group of people whom either have considered themselves within HPS, or others have considered HPS.

Figure 6: Author co-citation network of 15 history & philosophy of science journals. Two authors are connected if they are cited together in some article, and connected more strongly if they are cited together frequently. Click to enlarge. [via me!]
Figure 6: Author co-citation network of 15 history & philosophy of science journals. Two authors are connected if they are cited together in some article, and connected more strongly if they are cited together frequently. Click to enlarge. [via me!] 
Figure 7: Author co-citation analysis of history and philosophy of science journals, zoomed in on the area between history and philosophy, with authors highlighted who might be considered HPS. Click to enlarge.
Figure 7: Author co-citation analysis of history and philosophy of science journals, zoomed in on the area between history and philosophy, with authors highlighted who might be considered HPS. Click to enlarge.

Figures 6 & 7 don’t prove anything, but they do suggest that within citation patterns, history of science and philosophy of science are clearly more cohesive than some combined HPS might be. Figure 7 suggests there might be more to the story, and what is needed in the next step to try to pin down HPS–if indeed it exists as some sort of cohesive unit–is to find articles that specifically self-identify as HPS, and through their citation and language patterns, try to see what they have in common with and what separates them from the larger community. A more thorough set of analytics, visualizations, and tables, which I’ll explain further at some point, can be found here (apologies for the pdf, this was originally made in preparation for another project).

The reason I bring up this example is not to disparage Wray, whose work did a good job of finding the key journals in philosophy of science, but to argue that we as humanists need to make sure the methods we borrow match the questions we ask. Co-citation analysis happens to be a pretty good method for exploring the question Wray asked in his thesis, but there are many more situations where it wouldn’t be particularly useful. The recent influx of blog posts on the subject, and the upcoming DH2013 session, is exciting, because it means humanists are beginning to take citation analysis seriously and are exploring the various situations in which its methods are appropriate. I look forward to seeing what comes out of the Social History data analysis, as well as future directions this research will take.

Science Systems Engineering

Warning: This post is potentially evil, and definitely normative. While I am unsure whether what I describe below should be doneI’m becoming increasingly certain that it could be. Read with caution.

Complex Adaptive Systems

Science is a complex adaptive system. It is a constantly evolving network of people and ideas and artifacts which interact with and feed back on each other to produce this amorphous socio-intellectual entity we call science. Science is also a bunch of nested complex adaptive systems, some overlapping, and is itself part of many other systems besides.

The study of complex interactions is enjoying a boom period due to the facilitating power of the “information age.” Because any complex system, whether it be a social group or a pool of chemicals, can exist in almost innumerable states while comprising the same constituent parts, it requires massive computational power to comprehend all the many states a system might find itself in. From the other side, it takes a massive amount of data observation and collection to figure out what states systems eventually do find themselves in, and that knowledge of how complex systems play out in the real world relies on collective and automated data gathering. From seeing how complex systems work in reality, we can infer properties of their underlying mechanisms; by modeling those mechanisms and computing the many possibilities they might allow, we can learn more about ourselves and our place in the larger multisystem. 1

One of the surprising results of complexity theory is that seemingly isolated changes can produce rippling, massive effects throughout a system.  Only a decade after the removal of big herbivores like giraffes and elephants from an African savanna, a generally positive relationship between bugs and plants turned into an antagonistic one. Because the herbivores no longer grazed on certain trees, those trees began producing less nectar and fewer thorns, which in turn caused cascading repercussions throughout the ecosystem. Ultimately, the trees’ mortality rate doubled, and a variety of species were worse-off than they had been. 2 Similarly, the introduction of an invasive species can cause untold damage to an ecosystem, as has become abundantly clear in Florida 3 and around the world (the extinction of flightless birds in New Zealand springs to mind).

Both evolutionary and complexity theories show that self-organizing systems evolve in such a way that they are self-sustaining and self-perpetuating. Often, within a given context or environment, the systems which are most resistant to attack, or the most adaptable to change, are the most likely to persist and grow. Because the entire environment evolves concurrently, small changes in one subsystem tend to propagate as small changes in many others. However, when the constraints of the environment change rapidly (like with the introduction of an asteroid and a cloud of sun-cloaking dust), when a new and sufficiently foreign system is introduced (land predators to New Zealand), or when an important subsystem is changed or removed (the loss of megafauna in Africa), devastating changes ripple outward.

An environmental ecosystem is one in which many smaller overlapping systems exist, and changes in the parts may change the whole; society can be described similarly. Students of history know that the effects of one event (a sinking ship, an assassination, a terrorist attack) can propagate through society for years or centuries to come. However, a system not merely a slave to these single occurrences which cause Big Changes. The structure and history of a system implies certain stable, low energy states. We often anthropomorphize the tendency of systems to come to a stable mean, for example “nature abhors a vacuum.” This is just the manifestation of the second law of thermodynamics: entropy always increases, systems naturally tend toward low energy states.

For the systems of society, they are historically structured constrained in such a way that certain changes would require very little energy (an assassination leading to war in a world already on the brink), whereas others would require quite a great deal (say, an attempt to cause war between Canada and the U.S.). It is a combination of the current structural state of a system and the interactions of the constituent parts that lead that system in one direction or another. Put simply, a society, its people, and its environment are responsible for its future. Not terribly surprising, I know, but the formal framework of complexity theory is a useful one for what is described below.


The above picture, from the Wikipedia article on metastability, provides an example of what’s described above. The ball is resting in a valley, a low energy state, and a small change may temporarily excite the system, but the ball eventually finds its way into the same, or another, low energy state. When the environment is stable, its subsystems tend to find comfortably stable niches as well. Of course, I’m not sure anyone would call society wholly stable…

Science as a System

Science (by which I mean wissenschaft, any systematic research) is part of society, and itself includes many constituent and overlapping parts. I recently argued, not without precedent, that the correspondence network between early modern Europeans facilitated the rapid growth of knowledge we like to call the Scientific Revolution. Further, that network was an inevitable outcome of socio/political/technological factors, including shrinking transportation costs, increasing political unrest leading to scholarly displacement, and, very simply, an increased interest in communicating once communication proved so fruitful. The state of the system affected the parts, the parts in turn affected the system, and a growing feedback loop led to the co-causal development of a massive communication network and a period of massively fruitful scholarly work.

Scientific Correspondence Network

Today and in the past, science is embedded in, and occasionally embodied by, the various organizational and communicative hierarchies its practitioners find themselves in. The people, ideas, and products of science feed back on one another. Scientists are perhaps more affected by their labs, by the process of publication, by the realities of funding, than they might admit. In return, the knowledge and ideas produced by science, the message, shape and constrain the medium in which they are propagated. I’ve often heard and read two opposing views: that knowledge is True and Right  and unaffected the various social goings on of those who produce it, and that knowledge is Constructed and Meaningless outside of the social and linguistic system it resides in. The truth, I’m sure, is a complex tangle somewhere between the two, and affected by both.

In either case, science does not take place in a vacuum. We do our work through various media and with various funds, in departments and networks and (sometimes) lab-coats, using a slew of carefully designed tools and a language that was not, in general, made for this purpose. In short, we and our work exist in a  complex system.

Engineering the Academy

That system is changing. Michael Nielsen’s recent book 4 talks about the rise of citizen science, augmented intelligence, and collaborative systems as not merely as ways to do what we’ve already done faster, but as new methods of discovery. The ability to coordinate on such a scale, and in such new ways, changes the game of science. It changes the system.

While much of these changes are happening automatically, in a self-organized sort of way, Nielsen suggests that we can learn from our past and learn from other successful collective ventures in order to make a “design science of collaboration.” That is, using what we know of how people work together best, of what spurs on the most inspired research and the most interesting results, we can design systems to facilitate collaboration and scientific research. In Nielsen’s case, he’s talking mostly about computer systems; how can we design a website or an algorithm or a technological artifact that will aid in scientific discovery, using the massive distributed power of the information age? One way Nielson points out is “designed serendipity,” creating an environment where scientists are more likely experience serendipitous occurrences, and thus more likely to come up with innovated and unexpected ideas.

Can we engineer science?

In complexity terms, this idea is restructuring the system in such a way that the constituent parts or subsystems will be or do “better,” however we feel like defining better in this situation. It’s definitely not the first time an idea like this has been used. For example, science policy makers, government agencies, and funding bodies have long known that science will often go where the money is. If there is a lot of money available to research some particular problem, then that problem will tend to get researched. If the main funding requires research funded to become open access, by and large that will happen (NIH’s PubMed requirements).

There are innumerable ways to affect the system in a top-down way in order to shape its future. Terrence Deacon writes about how it is the constraints on a system which tend it toward some equilibrium state 5; by shaping the structure of the scientific system, we can predictably shape its direction. That is, we can artificially create a low energy state (say, open access due to policy and funding changes), and let the constituent parts find their way into that low energy state eventually, reaching equilibrium. I talked a bit more about this idea of constraints leading a system in a recent post.

As may be recalled from the discussion above, however, this is not the only way to affect a complex system. External structural changes are only part of the story of how a system grows shifts, but only a small part of the story. Because of the series of interconnected feedback loops that embody a system’s complexity, small changes can (and often do) propagate up and change the system as a whole. Lie, Slotine, and Barabási recently began writing about the “controllability of complex networks 6,”  suggesting ways in which changing or controlling constituent parts of a complex system can reliably and predictably change the entire system, perhaps leading it toward a new preferred low energy state. In this case, they were talking about the importance of well-connected hubs in a network; adding or removing them in certain areas can deeply affect the evolution of that network, no matter the constraints. Watts recounts a great example of how a small power outage rippled into a national disaster because just the right connections were overloaded and removed 7. The strategic introduction or removal of certain specific links in the scientific system may go far toward changing the system itself.

Not only is science is a complex adaptive system, it is a system which is becoming increasingly well-understood. A century of various science studies combined with the recent appearance of giant swaths of data about science and scientists themselves is beginning to allow us to learn the structure and mechanisms of the scientific system. We do not, and will never, know the most intricate details of that system, however in many cases and for many changes, we only need to know general properties of a system in order to change it in predictable ways. If society feels a certain state of science is better than others, either for the purpose of improved productivity or simply more control, we are beginning to see which levers we need to pull in order to enact those changes.

This is dangerous. We may be able to predict first order changes, but as they feed back onto second order, third order, and further-down-the-line changes, the system becomes more unpredictable. Changing one thing positively may affect other aspects in massively negative (and massively unpredictable) ways.

However, generally if humans can do something, we will. I predict the coming years will bring a more formal Science Systems Engineering, a specialty apart from science policy which will attempt to engineer the direction of scientific research from whatever angle possible. My first post on this blog concerned a concept I dubbed scientonomy, which was just yet another attempt at unifying everybody who studies science in a meta sort of way. In that vocabulary, then, this science systems engineering would be an applied scientonomy. We have countless experts in all aspects of how science works on a day-to-day basis from every angle; that expertise may soon become much more prominent in application.

It is my hope and belief that a more formalized way of discussing and engineering scientific endeavors, either on the large scale or the small, can lead to benefits to humankind in the long run. I share the optimism of Michael Nielsen in thinking that we can design ways to help the academy run more smoothly and to lead it toward a more thorough, nuanced, and interesting understanding of whatever it is being studied. However, I’m also aware of the dangers of this sort of approach, first and foremost being disagreement on what is “better” for science or society.

At this point, I’m just putting this idea out there to hear the thoughts of my readers. In my meatspace day-to-day interactions, I tend to be around experimental scientists and quantitative social scientists who in general love the above ideas,  but at my heart and on my blog I feel like a humanist, and these ideas worry me for all the obvious reasons (and even some of the more obscure ones). I’d love to get some input, especially from those who are terrified that somebody could even think this is possible.


  1. I’m coining the term “multisystem” because ecosystem is insufficient, and I don’t know something better. By multisystem, I mean any system of systems; specifically here, the universe and how it evolves. If you’ve got a better term that invokes that concept, I’m all for using it. Cosmos comes to mind, but it no longer represents “order,” a series of interlocking systems, in the way it once did.
  2. Palmer, Todd M, Maureen L Stanton, Truman P Young, Jacob R Goheen, Robert M Pringle, and Richard Karban. 2008. “Breakdown of an Ant-Plant Mutualism Follows the Loss of Large Herbivores from an African Savanna.” Science319 (5860) (January 11): 192–195. doi:10.1126/science.1151579.
  3. Gordon, Doria R. 1998. “Effects of Invasive, Non-Indigenous Plant Species on Ecosystem Processes: Lessons From Florida.” Ecological Applications 8 (4): 975–989. doi:10.1890/1051-0761(1998)008[0975:EOINIP]2.0.CO;2.
  4. Nielsen, Michael. Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science. Princeton University Press, 2011.
  5. Deacon, Terrence W. “Emergence: The Hole at the Wheel’s Hub.” In The Re-Emergence of Emergence: The Emergentist Hypothesis from Science to Religion, edited by Philip Clayton and Paul Davies. Oxford University Press, USA, 2006.
  6. Liu, Yang-Yu, Jean-Jacques Slotine, and Albert-László Barabási. “Controllability of Complex Networks.” Nature473, no. 7346 (May 12, 2011): 167–173.
  7. Watts, Duncan J. Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age. 1st ed. W. W. Norton & Company, 2003.

The Networked Structure of Scientific Growth

Well, it looks like Digital Humanities Now scooped me on posting my own article. As some of you may have read, I recently did not submit a paper on the Republic of Letters, opting instead to hold off until I could submit it to a journal which allowed authorial preprint distribution. Preprints are a vital part of rapid knowledge exchange in our ever-quickening world, and while some disciplines have embraced the preprint culture, many others have yet to. I’d love the humanities to embrace that practice, and in the spirit of being the change you want to see in the world, I’ve decided to post a preprint of my Republic of Letters paper, which I will be submitting to another journal in the near future. You can read the full first draft here.

The paper, briefly, is an attempt to contextualize the Republic of Letters and the Scientific Revolution using modern computational methodologies. It draws from secondary sources on the Republic of Letters itself, especially from my old mentor R.A. Hatch, some network analysis from sociology and statistical physics, modeling, human dynamics, and complexity theory. All of this is combined through datasets graciously donated by the Dutch Circulation of Knowledge group and Oxford’s Cultures of Knowledge project, totaling about 100,000 letters worth of metadata. Because it favors large scale quantitative analysis over an equally important close and qualitative analysis, the paper is a contribution to historiopgraphic methodology rather than historical narrative; that is, it doesn’t say anything particularly novel about history, but it does offer a (fairly) new way of looking at and contextualizing it.

A visualization of the Dutch Republic of Letters using Sci2 & Gephi

At its core, the paper suggests that by looking at how scholarly networks naturally grow and connect, we as historians can have new ways to tease out what was contingent upon the period and situation. It turns out that social networks of a certain topology are basins of attraction similar to those I discussed in Flow and Empty Space. With enough time and any of a variety of facilitating social conditions and technologies, a network similar in shape and influence to the Republic of Letters will almost inevitably form. Armed with this knowledge, we as historians can move back to the microhistories and individuated primary materials to find exactly what those facilitating factors were, who played the key roles in the network, how the network may differ from what was expected, and so forth. Essentially, this method is one base map we can use to navigate and situate historical narrative.

Of course, I make no claims of this being the right way to look at history, or the only quantitative base map we can use. The important point is that it raises new kinds of questions and is one mechanism to facilitate the re-integration of the individual and the longue durée, the close and the distant reading.

The project casts a necessarily wide net. I do not yet, and probably could not ever, have mastery over each and every disciplinary pool I draw from. With that in mind, I welcome comments, suggestions, and criticisms from historians, network analysts, modelers, sociologists, and whomever else cares to weigh in. Whomever helps will get a gracious acknowledgement in the final version, good scholarly karma, and a cookie if we ever meet in person. The draft will be edited and submitted in the coming months, and if you have ideas, please post them in the comment section below. Also, if you use ideas from the paper, please cite it as an unpublished manuscript or, if it gets published, cite that version instead.

Early Modern Letters Online

Early modern history! Science! Letters! Data! Four of my favoritest things have been combined in this brand new beta release of Early Modern Letters Online from Oxford University.



EMLO (what an adorable acronym, I kind of what to tickle it) is Oxford’s answer to a metadata database (metadatabase?) of, you guessed it, early modern letters. This is pretty much a gold standard metadata project. It’s still in beta, so there are some interface kinks and desirable features not-yet-implemented, but it has all the right ingredients for a great project:

  • Information is free and open; I’m even told it will be downloadable at some point.
  • Developed by a combination of historians (via Cultures of Knowledge) and librarians (via the Bodleian Library) working in tandem.
  • The interface is fast, easy, and includes faceted browsing.
  • Has a fantastic interface for adding your own data.
  • Actually includes citation guidelines thank you so much.
  • Visualizations for at-a-glance understanding of data.
  • Links to full transcripts, abstracts, and hard-copies where available.
  • Lots of other fantastic things.

Sorry if I go on about how fantastic this catalog is – like I said, I love letters so much. The index itself includes roughly 12,000 people, 4,000 locations, 60,000 letters, 9,000 images, and 26,000 additional comments. It is without a doubt the largest public letters database currently available. Between the data being compiled by this group, along with that of the CKCC in the Netherlands, the Electronic Enlightenment Project at Oxford, Stanford’s Mapping the Republic of Letters project, and R.A. Hatch‘s research collection, there will without a doubt soon be hundreds of thousands of letters which can be tracked, read, and analyzed with absolute ease. The mind boggles.

Bodleian Card Catalogue Summaries

Without a doubt, the coolest and most unique feature this project brings to the table is the digitization of Bodleian Card Catalogue, a fifty-two drawer index-card cabinet filled with summaries of nearly 50,000 letters held in the library, all compiled by the Bodleian staff many years ago. In lieu of full transcriptions, digitizations, or translations, these summary cards are an amazing resource by themselves. Many of the letters in the EMLO collection include these summaries as full-text abstracts.

One of the Bodleian summaries showing Heinsius looking far and wide for primary sources, much like we’re doing right now…

The collection also includes the correspondences of John Aubrey (1,037 letters), Comenius (526), Hartlib (4,589 many including transcripts), Edward Lhwyd (2,139 many including transcripts), Martin Lister (1,141), John Selden (355), and John Wallis (2,002). The advanced search allows you to look for only letters with full transcripts or abstracts available. As someone who’s worked with a lot of letters catalogs of varying qualities, it is refreshing to see this one being upfront about unknown/uncertain values. It would, however, be nice if they included the editor’s best guess of dates and locations, or perhaps inferred locations/dates from the other information available. (For example, if birth and death dates are known, it is likely a letter was not written by someone before or after those dates.)


In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that, much like with the CKCC letters interface, I spent some time working with the Cultures of Knowledge team on visualizations for EMLO. Their group was absolutely fantastic to work with, with impressive resources and outstanding expertise. The result of the collaboration was the integration of visualizations in metadata summaries, the first of which is a simple bar chart showing the numbers of letters written, received, and mentioned in per year of any given individual in the catalog. Besides being useful for getting an at-a-glance idea of the data, these charts actually proved really useful for data cleaning.

Sir Robert Crane (1604-1643)

In the above screenshot from previous versions of the data, Robert Crane is shown to have been addressed letters in the mid 1650s, several years after his reported death. While these could also have been spotted automatically, there are many instances where a few letters are dated very close to a birth or death date, and they often turn out to miss-reported. Visualizations can be great tools for data cleaning as a form of sanity test. This is the new, corrected version of Robert Crane’s page. They are using d3.js, a fantastic javascript library for building visualizations.

Because I can’t do anything with letters without looking at them as a network, I decided to put together some visualizations using Sci2 and Gephi. In both cases, the Sci2 tool was used for data preparation and analysis, and the final network was visualized in GUESS and Gephi, respectively. The first graph shows network in detail with edges, and names visible for the most “central” correspondents. The second visualization is without edges, with each correspondent clustered according to their place in the overall network, with the most prominent figures in each cluster visible.

Built with Sci2/Guess
Built with Sci2/Gephi

The graphs show us that this is not a fully connected network. There are many islands of one or two letters or a small handful of letters. These can be indicative of a prestige bias in the data. That is, the collection contains many letters from the most prestigious correspondents, and increasingly fewer as the prestige of the correspondent decreases. Put in another way, there are many letters from a few, and few letters from many. This is a characteristic shared with power law and other “long tail” distributions. The jumbled community structure at the center of the second graph is especially interesting, and it would be worth comparing these communities against institutions and informal societies at the time. Knowledge of large-scale patterns in a network can help determine what sort of analyses are best for the data at hand. More on this in particular will be coming in the next few weeks.

It’s also worth pointing out these visualizations as another tool for data-checking. You may notice, on the bottom left-hand corner of the first network visualization, two separate Edward Lhwyds with virtually the same networks of correspondence. This meant there were two distinct entities in their database referring to the same individual – a problem which has since been corrected.

More Letters!

Notice that the EMLO site makes it very clear that they are open to contributions. There are many letters datasets out there, some digitized, some still languishing idly on dead trees, and until they are all combined, we will be limited in the scope of the research possible. We can always use more. If you are in any way responsible for an early-modern letters collection, meta-data or full-text, please help by opening that collection up and making it integrable with the other sets out there. It will do the scholarly world a great service, and get us that much closer to understanding the processes underlying scholarly communication in general. The folks at Oxford are providing a great example, and I look forward to watching this project as it grows and improves.

Alchemy, Text Analysis, and Networks! Oh my!

“Newton wrote and transcribed about a million words on the subject of alchemy.” —


Beside bringing us things like calculus, universal gravitation, and perhaps the inspiration for certain Pink Floyd albums, Isaac Newton spent many years researching what was then known as “chymistry,” a multifaceted precursor to, among other things, what we now call chemistry, pharmacology, and alchemy.

Pink Floyd and the Occult: Discuss.

Researchers at Indiana University, notably William R. Newman, John A. Walsh, Dot Porter, and Wallace Hooper, have spent the last several years developing The Chymistry of Isaac Newton, an absolutely wonderful history of science resource which, as of this past month, has digitized all 59 of Newton’s alchemical manuscripts assembled by John Keynes in 1936. Among the sites features are heavily annotated transcriptions, manuscript images, often scholarly synopses, and examples of alchemical experiments. That you can try at home. That’s right, you can do alchemy with this website. They also managed to introduce alchemical symbols into unicode (U+1F700 – U+1F77F), which is just indescribably cool.

Alchemical experiments at home!

What I really want to highlight, though, is a brand new feature introduced by Wallace Hooper: automated Latent Semantic Analysis (LSA) of the entire corpus. For those who are not familiar with it, LSA is somewhat similar LDA, the algorithm driving the increasingly popular Topic Models used in Digital Humanities. They both have their strengths and weaknesses, but essentially what they do is show how documents and terms relate to one another.

Newton Project LSA

In this case, the entire corpus of Newton’s alchemical texts is fed into the LSA implementation (try it for yourself), and then based on the user’s preferences, the algorithm spits out a network of terms, documents, or both together. That is, if the user chooses document-document correlations, a list is produced of the documents that are most similar to one another based on similar word use within them. That list includes weights – how similar are they to one another? – and those weights can be used to create a network of document similarity.

Similar Documents using LSA

One of the really cool features of this new service is that it can export the network either as CSV for the technical among us, or as an nwb file to be loaded into the Network Workbench or the Sci² Tool. From there, you can analyze or visualize the alchemical networks, or you can export the files into a network format of your choice.

Network of how Newton’s alchemical documents relate to one-another visualized using NWB.

It’s great to see more sophisticated textual analyses being automated and actually used. Amber Welch recently posted on Moving Beyond the Word Cloud using the wonderful TAPoR, and Michael Widner just posted a thought-provoking article on using Voyeur Tools for the process of paper revision. With tools this easy to use, it won’t be long now before the first thing a humanist does when approaching a text (or a million texts) is to glance at all the high-level semantic features and various document visualizations before digging in for the close read.