Karen Spärck Jones (1935-2007)

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I Think I Would Have Liked Her.

Computer Laboratory/University of Cambridge

I wish I could have spoken to her. Karen Spärck Jones. But she died in 2007, from cancer at the age of 71. Both she and her husband were computer science professors at Cambridge University. He died in 2003 and was seemly an intelligent and worthy man. The New York Times ran his obituary and listed the two awards he obtained in his field. When Dr. Karen Spärck Jones died in 2007 with six awards under her belt and over 200 publications, the paper was silent until 2019 when the New York Times finally decided to run an obituary for her in a column titled “Overlooked.” Indeed. A force to be reckoned with, it seems. Karen Spärck Jones’s work in linguistics and computing revolutionized how search engines function. Her contributions to computing are the underpinnings of some of the most widely used search engines today. She conceptualized what we call ‘inverse document frequency‘ (Spärck Jones, 1972), which is still used today for term weighting in search engines. It is almost unfathomable that she was mostly unrecognized during her career even though bringing linguistics and computing together has been formative in ed-tech. Her seminal paper, “A statistical interpretation of term specificity and its application in retrieval” from 1972 has been cited over 4000 times, most of those happening after the turn of the century. In a 2007 interview, just months before her death, after being awarded the Lovelace Award (the top award in computing in the UK), she had much to say about being a woman in a man’s world. She talked of how Cambridge wasn’t ‘woman-friendly’ in her time there, and how she was disappointed it took her until 1999 to become a professor. In her most famous quote, she leaves us with this: “Computing is too important to be left to men.” Hear, hear, sister!

References

Spärck Jones, K. (1972). A STATISTICAL INTERPRETATION OF        TERM SPECIFICITY AND ITS APPLICATION IN RETRIEVAL. Journal of Documentation, 28(1), 11-21. doi:10.1108/eb026526

Spärck Jones, K., & Runciman, B. (2007). Computing is too important to be left to men. ITNOW, 49(4), 18-20. doi:10.1093/itnow/bwm008

2 thoughts on “Karen Spärck Jones (1935-2007)”

  1. Sandra, Dr. Karen made an impact on the computer science industry. 1999 was a great year, for Dr. Karen to becoming a professor at Cambridge. Really great find, on assignment 1 in LRNT523.

    1. Hi Rod,
      1999 was a great year! Thanks for your comment. It has been really interesting reading about everyone’s picks for this topic.

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