Wednesday Geek Woman: Karen Spärck Jones, leading computational linguistics researcher

Wednesday Geek Woman submissions are open for one more day.

Portrait of Karen Spärck Jones, 2002

Portrait of Karen Spärck Jones, 2002, (CC BY, University of Cambridge)

This post originated in two Ada Lovelace Day posts in 2009: Ada Lovelace Day profile: Karen Spärck Jones and Ada Lovelace Day wrap 2: Karen Spärck Jones elsewhere

I first heard about Karen Spärck Jones, who was a senior scientist in my field of computational linguistics, in 2007 as part of my paying job, which was as the editorial assistant for Computational Linguistics. Just before she died, Spärck Jones wrote Computational Linguistics: What About the Linguistics? which we published posthumously as the Last Words column for Vol. 33, No. 3. (Spärck Jones was aware both that she was dying and that her column was going to appear under the heading ‘Last Words’.) I was never able to correspond with her directly: she died before we even had the camera ready copies done.

Spärck Jones’s academic career began in 1957, and was funded entirely by grant money until 1994: most academics will recognise this as a hard way, requiring researchers to fund their own positions with grant money awarded in cycles.

Spärck Jones was the originator of the Inverse Document Frequency measure in information retrieval (1972, “A statistical interpretation of term specificity and its application in retrieval.”, Journal of Documentation, 28:11–21) which is nearly ubiquitously used as part of the measure of the importance of various words contained in documents when searching for information. (The word ‘the’, for example, is very unimportant, as it occurs in essentially all documents, thus having high document frequency and low inverse document frequency.) She had a long history in experimental investigations of human language (most computational linguists are now in this business). She was also at one time president of the Association for Computation Linguistics.

Awards Spärck Jones won in her lifetime include Fellowships of the American and European Artificial Intelligence societies, Fellowship of the British Academy, the ACL Lifetime Achievement Award and the Lovelace Medal of the British Computer Society.

Spärck Jones was a popular subject for Ada Lovelace Day profiles in 2009, here are some of the others:

Martin Belam wrote a long profile quoting extensively from Spärck Jones’s interviews and speeches and focussing on both her own career progression: she worked with Margaret Masterman at the Cambridge Language Research Unit. “You have no conception of how narrow the career options were [for women],” is one of Belam’s quotes. Here is Spärck Jones:

We were trying to get at girls in schools [to take up computing] and we knew we had to get to the teachers first. We found that the spread of computing in the administrative and secretarial world has completely devalued it. When one of the teachers suggested to the parents of one girl that perhaps she should go into computing the parents said: ‘Oh we don’t want Samantha just to be a secretary’. That’s nothing to do with nerdiness, but the fact that it’s such a routine thing.

Bill Thompson was a student of Spärck Jones’s, and wrote about her influence on him as a fellow philosopher turned computer scientist. He also wrote her obituary for The Times (and, in 2003, that of her husband, fellow computer scientist Roger Needham).

IT journalist Brian Runciman remembers Spärck Jones as the most interesting woman he’s ever interviewed in Computing’s too important to be left to men. (“I think it’s very important to get more women into computing. My slogan is: Computing is too important to be left to men.” seems to be Spärck Jones’s best known quote.) In the interview with him, she talked about how her ideas permeate modern search engine implementations.

Wikipedia: Karen Spärck Jones
Obituary in Computational Linguistics.

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