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SUO: Sociology of Citations




Jay et al.,

I have been rather busy lately and didn't want to
resurrect old discussions, but a recent article
about patterns of citations in weblogs is a good
illustration of the issues we were discussing:

    http://wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,62537,00.html?tw=wn_tophead_1
    Wired News: Warning: Blogs Can Be Infectious

Although the topic is weblogs, which are a very
different genre from research publications in logic,
the sociological tendencies result from the same kind
of very human fallibility.  Following are some quotations
with my comments relating them to our earlier discussion:

 > Using newly developed techniques for graphing the flow of
 > information between blogs, the researchers have discovered
 > that authors of popular blog sites regularly borrow topics
 > from lesser-known bloggers -- and they often do so without
 > attribution.

This behavior is not necessarily a deliberate deception,
because it is often hard for people to recall exactly where
they first learned an idea.  After a while, they may begin
to think that they discovered it themselves.  Historians
and reporters are trained to be careful about sources,
but even they may make mistakes and overlook the original
source, especially if it is obscure.

 > These findings are important to sociologists who are
 > interested in learning how ideas grow from isolated topics
 > into full-blown epidemics that "infect" large populations.

They are also important for historians of science.

 > "There is a lot of speculation that really important people
 > are highly connected, but really, we wonder if the highly
 > connected people just listen to the important people,"
 > said Lada Adamic, one of the four researchers working
 > on the project.

Indeed.  And Bertrand Russell, our old topic of discussion,
was one of the most highly connected philosophers of the
20th century.

 > When they plotted the links and topics shared by various
 > sites, they discovered that topics would often appear
 > on a few relatively unknown blogs days before they
 > appeared on more popular sites.

Exactly what happened in the history of logic.  But with
the old modes of publication, the time scale was years
rather than days.

 > "What we're finding is that the important people on the Web
 > are not necessarily the people with the most explicit links
 > (back to their sites), but the people who cause epidemics
 > in blog networks," said researcher Eytan Adar.
 >
 > These infectious people can be hard to find because they do
 > not always receive attribution for being the first to point
 > to an interesting idea or news item.

Yes.  All the big links point back to Bertrand R., but it
requires a lot of digging to find the original links back
to Peirce.  As a reminder, following is Hilary Putnam's
story about how he discovered the source of Russell's ideas:

    http://www.jfsowa.com/peirce/putnam.htm

 > "A lot of sites that get listed by search engines as most
 > relevant are not always the most relevant," said Adar.
 > "For instance, Slashdot often gets listed at the top, but
 > it's just an aggregator.  I may want to go to the source."

That's a fair description of Russell:  an aggregator.

Summary:  Don't trust encyclopedias, which merely repackage
the same old stories.  It is necessary to dig much deeper and
study original sources.  An article like Putnam's, which was
published in a journal devoted to the history of mathematics,
is more likely to be reliable than a hundred encyclopedia
articles.  Even then, you should check Putnam's sources
for yourself, just to be sure.  I did that, and I discovered
that the story is even more complicated than Putnam relates.

John