Bret Victor, Bruno Latour, the citations that bring them together, and the networks that keep them apart

Occasionally I have the opportunity to give high school students an introduction to research in a university context. During this introduction I show them an example of a ‘scholarly paper’ so they can take in the visual cues that might help them recognize other scholarly papers in their future.

After I point out the important features, I take the time to point out this piece of dynamic text on the page:

I know these citation counts come from CrossRef because I have an old screen capture that shows that the citation count section used to looks like this:

I tell the students that this article has a unique identifier number called a DOI and that there is a system called CrossRef that tracks how many bibliographies where this number appears.

And then I scan the faces of the room and if I don’t see sufficient awe, I inform the class that a paper’s ability to express its own impact outside of itself is forking amazing.

The ability to make use of the CrossRef API is reserved for CrossRef members with paid memberships or those who pay for access.

This means that individual researchers cannot make use of the CrossRef API and embed their own citation counts without paying CrossRef.

Not even Bret Victor:

The image above is from the end of Bret Victor’s CV.

The image below is from the the top: of Bret Victor’s CV which describes himself through the words of two notable others:

I like to think that the library is a humane medium that helps thinkers see, understand, and create systems. As such, I think librarians have much to learn from Bret Victor.

Bret Victor designs interfaces and his thinking has been very influential to many. How can  I express the extent of his influence to you?

Bret Victor chooses not to publish in academic journals but rather opts to publish his essays on his website The videos of some of his talks are available on Vimeo.

Here are the citation counts to these works, according to Google Scholar:

It is an accepted notion that the normative view of science expounded by Merton, provided a sociological interpretation of citation analysis in the late 1960s and 70s. According to his theory, a recognition of the previous work of scientists and of the originality of their work is an institutional form of awarding rewards for efforts. Citations are a means of providing such recognition and reward.

The above is the opening paragraph of, “Why hasn’t Latour’s Theory of Citations Been Ignored By the Bibliometric Community? Discussion of Sociological Interpretation of Citation Analysis” by Terttu Luukkonen.

Latour’s views of citations are part of his research on the social construction of scientific facts and laboratories, science in the making as contrasted with ready made science, that is beliefs which are treated as scientific facts and are not questioned… In this phase, according to Latour, references in articles are among the resources that are under author’s command in their efforts at trying to “make their point firm” and to lend support to their knowledge claims. Other “allies” or resources are, for example, the editors of the journals which publish the articles, the referees of the journals, and the research funds which finance the pieces of research…

Latour’s theory has an advantage over that of Merton’s in that it can explain many of the findings made in the so-called citation content and context studies mentioned. These findings relate to the contents of citations, which are vastly different and vary from one situation to another; also the fact that the surrounding textual contexts in which they are used differ greatly. Such differences include whether citations are positive or negational, essential to the references text or perfunctory, whether they concern concepts or techniques or neither, whether they provide background reading, alert readers to new work, provide leads, etc.

The above passage is from page 29 of the article.

On page 31, you can find this passage:

The Latourian views have been largely ignored by the bibliographic community in their discussions about citations. The reasons why this is so are intriguing. An important conceptual reason is presumably the fact that in Latourian theory, the major of references is to support the knowledge claims of the citing author. This explanation does not legitimate major uses of citation indexing, its use as a performance measure – as in the use of citation counts which presupposes that references indicate a positive assessment of the cited document — or as an indication of the development of specialties – as in co-citation analysis.

You may have heard of Bret Victor just earlier this week. His work is described of in an article from The Atlantic called The Scientific Paper is Obsolete. Here’s What’s Next.

The article contains this passage:

What would you get if you designed the scientific paper from scratch today? A little while ago I spoke to Bret Victor, a researcher who worked at Apple on early user-interface prototypes for the iPad and now runs his own lab in Oakland, California, that studies the future of computing. Victor has long been convinced that scientists haven’t yet taken full advantage of the computer. “It’s not that different than looking at the printing press, and the evolution of the book,” he said. After Gutenberg, the printing press was mostly used to mimic the calligraphy in bibles. It took nearly 100 years of technical and conceptual improvements to invent the modern book. “There was this entire period where they had the new technology of printing, but they were just using it to emulate the old media.”

Victor gestured at what might be possible when he redesigned a journal article by Duncan Watts and Steven Strogatz, “Collective dynamics of ‘small-world’ networks.” He chose it both because it’s one of the most highly cited papers in all of science and because it’s a model of clear exposition. (Strogatz is best known for writing the beloved “Elements of Math” column for The New York Times.)

The Watts-Strogatz paper described its key findings the way most papers do, with text, pictures, and mathematical symbols. And like most papers, these findings were still hard to swallow, despite the lucid prose. The hardest parts were the ones that described procedures or algorithms, because these required the reader to “play computer” in their head, as Victor put it, that is, to strain to maintain a fragile mental picture of what was happening with each step of the algorithm.

Victor’s redesign interleaved the explanatory text with little interactive diagrams that illustrated each step. In his version, you could see the algorithm at work on an example. You could even control it yourself.

The article goes on to present two software driven alternatives to the PDF paper-mimicking practices of academia : notebooks from private company Mathematica and open source Jupyter Notebooks.

Explorable Explanations

Perhaps it was for length or other editorial reasons but the article doesn’t go into Bret Victor’s own work on reactive documents that are best introduced by his self-published essay called ‘Explorable Explanations‘.  There is a website dedicated to collecting dynamic works inspired by Bret’s essay from Nicky Case, who has created some remarkable examples including Parable of the Polygons and The Evolution of Trust.

Or maybe it’s not odd that his work wasn’t mentioned.  From T. Luukkonen’s Latour’s Theory of Citations:

The more people believe in a statement and use it as an unquestioned fact, as a black box, the more it undergoes transformations. It may even undergo a process which Latour calls stylisation or erosion, but which Garfield called obliteration by information, that is, a scientist’s work becomes so generic to the field, so integrated into its body of knowledge that people neglect to cite it explicitly.

At the end of 2013, Bret Victor published a page of things that ‘Bret fell in love with this year’. The first item on his list was the paper Visualization and Cognition: Drawing Things Together [pdf] from French philosopher, anthropologist and sociologist, Bruno Latour.

On page five of this paper is this passage, which I came across across again and again during my sabbatical when I was doing a lot of reading about maps:

One example will illustrate what I mean. La Pérouse travels through the Pacific for Louis XVI with the explicit mission of bringing back a better map. One day, landing on what he calls Sakhalin he meets with Chinese and tries to learn from them whether Sakhalin is an island or a peninsula. To his great surprise the Chinese understand geography quite well. An older man stands up and draws a map of his island on the sand with the scale and the details needed by La Pérouse. Another, who is younger, sees that the rising tide will soon erase the map and picks up one of La Pérouse’s notebooks to draw the map again with a pencil . . .

What are the differences between the savage geography and the civilized one? There is no need to bring a prescientific mind into the picture, nor any distinction between the close and open predicaments (Horton, 1977), nor primary and secondary theories (Horton, 1982), nor divisions between implicit and explicit, or concrete and abstract geography. The Chinese are quite able to think in terms of a map but also to talk about navigation on an equal footing with La Pérouse. Strictly speaking, the ability to draw and to visualize does not really make a difference either, since they all draw maps more or less based on the same principle of projection, first on sand, then on paper. So perhaps there is no difference after all and, geographies being equal, relativism is right. This, however, cannot be, because La Pérouse does something that is going to create an enormous difference between the Chinese and the European. What is, for the former, a drawing of no importance that the tide may erase, is for the latter the single object of his mission. What should be brought into the picture is how the picture is brought back. The Chinese does not have to keep track, since he can generate many maps at will, being born on this island and fated to die on it. La Pérouse is not going to stay for more than a night; he is not born here and will die far away. What is he doing, then? He is passing through all these places, in order to take something back to Versailles where many people expect his map to determine who was right and wrong about whether Sakhalin was an island, who will own this and that part of the world, and along which routes the next ships should sail.

Science requires a paper to be brought back from our endeavours.

I thought of Latour when I read this particular passage from The Atlantic article:

Pérez told me stories of scientists who sacrificed their academic careers to build software, because building software counted for so little in their field: The creator of matplotlib, probably the most widely used tool for generating plots in scientific papers, was a postdoc in neuroscience but had to leave academia for industry. The same thing happened to the creator of NumPy, a now-ubiquitous tool for numerical computing. Pérez himself said, “I did get straight-out blunt comments from many, many colleagues, and from senior people and mentors who said: Stop doing this, you’re wasting your career, you’re wasting your talent.” Unabashedly, he said, they’d tell him to “go back to physics and mathematics and writing papers.”

What else is software but writing on sand?

I wanted to highlight Bret Victor’s to my fellow library workers for what I thought were several reasons. But the more I thought about it, the more reasons came to mind. But I don’t want to try your patience any longer so consider this a potential beginning of a short series of blog posts.

I’ll end this section with why wrote about Bret Victor, Bruno Latour, and citations. It has to do with this website, Northwestern University’s Faculty Directory powered by Pure:

More and more of our academic institutions are making use of Pure and other similar CRISes that create profiles of people that are generated from the texts we write and the citations we make.

Despite Latour, we are still using citations as a performative measurement.

I think we need a more humane medium that helps thinkers see and understand the systems we work in.

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