Citation delusions: “The most influential paper Gerard Salton never wrote”

In trying to finalise my PhD revisions, I am giving some background on text categorisation.

Extremely briefly, the problem of text categorisation is this: you have a document and some (usually pre-defined, unless you’re clustering) categories. For example, the categories might be news and editorial. Or academic article, newspaper article and blog entry. The choice of categories is application dependent.

Then you have a document you wish to assign to a category. Is it news, or editorial? The typical way of doing this is to assemble a set of training examples: pre-assigned news and editorial pieces. Then you measure the similarity of your new document to the pre-assigned collections, and whichever category it is most like is your document’s category. You might notice that I have not here defined “measure the similarity” and “most like”: that’s often the research question. How can you represent the collections efficiently so that they can be compared against new documents? What are good measures of similarity?

A fairly common way to picture this is (for historical reasons, as we’ll see), a vector. For each word in the vocabulary (the vocabulary being the set of terms used in every document in the training examples, typically, sometimes you might try and smooth the morphology out or similar), you construct a numerical representation. Say the vocabulary is no-good, bad, rotten, and a document reads “no-good no-good bad”, you might describe it as a vector <2 1 0>, showing two uses of the first vocabulary item, 1 of the second and none of the third. (Again, whether you count vocabulary items, or weight them in various ways, is a research question. You may also notice that this counting-of-occurences model is a “bag of words” approach, that is, it does not distinguish between “bad rotten” and “rotten bad” even though in language word order and syntactic structure is meaningful. It’s possible to transform the vectors so that this orthogonality of individual words does not hold.)

For reasons that I won’t go into here, I am trying to discuss this model briefly in my PhD thesis — actually, more briefly than I did above — and therefore looking to cite the originator of the idea. I started coming across citations in other papers that looked something like: “Gerard Salton [and others] (1975). A vector space model for information retrieval.” Sounds good. It’s got the key words in it, and quite a few citations!

I like to sight before citing though, which means I found this interesting paper:

David Dubin (2004). The Most Influential Paper Gerard Salton Never Wrote, Library Trends 52(4):748–764.

Gerard Salton is often credited with developing the vector space model (VSM) for information retrieval (IR). Citations to Salton give the impression that the VSM must have been articulated as an IR model sometime between 1970 and 1975. However, the VSM as it is understood today evolved over a longer time period than is usually acknowledged, and an articulation of the model and its assumptions did not appear in print until several years after those assumptions had been criticized and alternative models proposed. An often cited overview paper titled “A Vector Space Model for Information Retrieval” (alleged to have been published in 1975) does not exist, and citations to it represent a confusion of two 1975 articles, neither of which were overviews of the VSM as a model of information retrieval. Until the late 1970s, Salton did not present vector spaces as models of IR generally but rather as models of specific computations. Citations to the phantom paper reflect an apparently widely held misconception that the operational features and explanatory devices now associated with the VSM must have been introduced at the same time it was first proposed as an IR model.

Naturally such a subtle treatment of the history of the model is not great for my immediate purposes: I need That One Citation! (As best I can tell from Dubin, if I have to pick one it should be G. Salton, (1979). Mathematics and information retrieval. Journal of Documentation, 35(1), 1–29.) but it’s fun to come across the analysis of an idea in this form.

Update: if you want a reasonable overview of text classification/topic classification/topic assignment, the survey of choice seems to be Fabrizio Sebastiani (2002). Machine learning in automated text categorization, ACM Computing Surveys, 34(1):1–47. You know, modulo 11 years now.