Quantitative History of Science

Little Science… And Beyond. Derek J. de Solla Price. Columbia University Press, New York, 1986. $35 HB, $14.95 PB. It is four years since the death of Derek J. de Solla Price and now it is clear that he was the founder and inspirational leader of the field we call scientometrics. This book is an updated and expanded version of perhaps the most significant and primordial text in the quantitative study of science, Price's 1963 book Little Science, Big Science. Included in this new volume are

By | January 26, 1987

Little Science… And Beyond. Derek J. de Solla Price. Columbia University Press, New York, 1986. $35 HB, $14.95 PB.

It is four years since the death of Derek J. de Solla Price and now it is clear that he was the founder and inspirational leader of the field we call scientometrics. This book is an updated and expanded version of perhaps the most significant and primordial text in the quantitative study of science, Price's 1963 book Little Science, Big Science. Included in this new volume are several essays that grew out of the earlier work. Arranged chronologically, they illustrate how Price developed many of the themes of his pioneering book.

Price did not make it easy for us to keep track of his papers. Many were published in obscure journals. This had as much to do with Price's worldwide contacts as it did with his disdain for heavy-handed editors. As a result he tended to publish where he had the least trouble. This also testifies to the controversial nature of Price's work even to the end of his career. Part of this was due to the provocative way he presented his ideas. But for many the quantitative description of science, that most intellectual of human endeavors, seemed alien.

In addition to the essays, the book contains a foreword coauthored by Robert K. Merton and Eugene Garfield, two individuals who had major influences on Price; a useful biographical sketch; and Price's "Citation Classic," which contains a brief but informative account of the inception and reception of his quantitative studies of science.

Price's focus is on the scientist. He is concerned with how many eminent scientists there are and how many more could be trained. With exponential growth and a Pareto-like distribution of scientific talent, Price felt he had established the theoretical basis for the study of science. He introduced the idea of inequality of areas of science, which he called crystallization of fields, whereby large crystals tend to grow at the expense of small ones. Science does not spread out evenly: there are always a few giants and a mass of pygmies. It is clear that Price was after a description of science in terms of its growth and the distribution of its component parts.

In the chapter on invisible colleges, Price discusses the social dimensions of science. He sees in the scholarly act of referencing an implicit model of knowledge cumulation. Publishing is a means of establishing priority for ideas within a highly competitive overlapping social endeavor.

For some researchers, including myself, the most influential paper in the Pricean corpus is the 1965 essay "Networks of Scientific Papers." Here, for the first time, Price used data from the Science Citation Index to look at science from a new global perspective. His object of study was nothing less than the "total world network of scientific papers … obtained by linking each published paper to the other papers directly associated with it." He found that papers were "knitted" by reference patterns to specific parts of the existing prior literature. He called this new layer of knowledge a "research front."

It is ironic that Price's work on scientometrics was largely unrecognized in his primary discipline—history of science and technology. Many of his colleagues at Yale were put off by the idea of studying science quantitatively. When I first read Little Science, Big Science as a graduate student, I initially dismissed the book because it seemed unrelated to the content of science. There was little room for the logic of scientific ideas in the inexorable exponential rise of science. In retrospect, however, I can see my reaction was shortsighted. I came to realize that the communication of scientific ideas can be studied statistically and can tell us a great deal about how science develops.

Price chose to focus his energies on social parameters of science, largely because of his preference for technology as the driving force behind it. This is seen most clearly in his last known paper—"On Sealing Wax and String." The essay reveals Price's aversion to the role of ideas and his preference for searching out empirical regularities rather than theoretical explanations.

A perfect example of Price's style is found in the final paper in the book, "The Citation Cycle." As always he tries to fit the empirical data together in a convincing and memorable way. He sometimes glosses over difficulties, preferring to emphasize the regularities. We can almost hear him exclaiming to us "Look how simple it is, and how beautifully it all fits together."

Price's energy, enthusiasm and commitment are transmitted through every page of these essays, and we are inspired as well as challenged to find better solutions to the problems he posed. This highly useful volume should serve to make Price's work more widely available to the scientific community.

Small is director of corporate research at the Institute for Scientific Information,
Philadelphia, PA 19104.

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