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Academic Influence, Visualized

Posted by Josh Rothman  October 5, 2011 11:00 PM

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Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jennifer Howard has a great article about a new "Google Maps of scholarship" -- an algorithmic system for visualizing how different fields of inquiry are influencing each other. The system is being put together by Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West, biologists, and Martin Rowsall, a physicist. The goal, Bergstrom says, is to take the huge citation datasets hidden inside academic research repositories like JSTOR, and ask, "What are the important structures here?"

The emergence of neuroscience; image by Martin Rosvall and Carl T. Bergstrom, PLoS One.

Bergstrom and West are the originators of the Eigenfactor score, which is used to determine the importance of a scientific journal by looking at the journals that cite it -- a sort of Google PageRank for academic research. The Eigenfactor is useful, but it can't capture the large-scale relationships among whole fields of academic research. The team has developed new mapping techniques which, they say, are better at capturing connections and commonalities. Using those techniques, they can show -- as you can see in the image above -- how psychology, neurology, and molecular biology combined, only a few years ago, to make a distinct field called "neuroscience."

To a large degree, their goals are practical: they'll be debuting an "Eigenfactor recommends" feature this autumn. But, Howard points out, their work will almost certainly be useful to other sorts of scholars, too: "Historians of science, for instance, could have a field day with data and visualizations that help pinpoint the spread of certain ideas or the rise of a field like neuroscience." See more (including more images) at The Chronicle.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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