The Science Citation Index turns 50

The Science Citation Index, which many of you will now know as the Web of Science, turned 50 this year.1 Hopefully, you are already familiar with this tool, which allows you to, in essence, search forward in time from a particular paper. This is an important way to search the literature, and has a myriad of uses, good and bad.

I first discovered the Science Citation Index when I was a student in the 1990s. Back then, the Science Citation Index existed as a paper index. Every year, a new set of volumes would come out that contained all the citations indexed in that year. Every five years, a five-year cumulation would come out that would replace the annual volumes. You would look up a cited paper in these volumes by the lead author. If the paper had been cited in the range of time covered by a volume set, that paper would appear under this author’s name with the citing papers listed under it. If the paper was more than a few years old, you often had to go through several volumes to pick up all the citations, but it was still well worth doing when you wanted to track what had happened to an idea over time. This process is described in some detail in one of Eugene Garfield’s articles.

Of course, the Science Citation Index has other uses. It occurred to me fairly early on that I could use it to check if people were citing my papers. This was often directly useful by making me aware of related work that might not otherwise have come to my attention. Of course, there’s also an ego-stroking aspect to this exercise, at least if your papers get cited. My own work took a while to catch on, so citations were few and far between for several years.

Over the years, paper gave way to CD-ROMs, and eventually to a web interface. Computer-based tools allow for more sophisticated analyses, but the core functionality is the same: the ability to track ideas through time, and to discover inter-related papers. One of the most intriguing (and under-used) features of the web system is the “View Related Records” link, which shows papers that share citations with a chosen paper. If people are working on related problems but aren’t aware of each other (which happens quite a lot) and are therefore not citing each other, this is often a useful way to discover another branch of research on a given problem since they are likely to be citing many of the same references. If you’re a young scientist starting out in a field, I would strongly suggest that you use this feature starting from a few  papers that are key to your research.

What is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Science Citation Index is that it was largely the brainchild of one person, Eugene Garfield. No idea is without its precedents, but there is no doubt that Garfield was the prime mover behind the Science Citation Index. We all owe Dr Garfield a huge debt.

So happy 50th Science Citation Index, and many happy returns!

1Eugene Garfield (1964) “Science Citation Index”—A New Dimension in Indexing. Science 144, 649–654.