Oct 242010
 
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Computer Scientists Have Developed a New Way of Tracing the Origins and Spread of Ideas

Princeton computer scientists have developed a new way of tracing the origins and spread of ideas, a technique that could make it easier to gauge the influence of notable scholarly papers, buzz-generating news stories and other information sources.

The method relies on computer algorithms to analyze how language morphs over time within a group of documents — whether they are research papers on quantum physics or blog posts about politics — and to determine which documents were the most influential.

“The point is being able to manage the explosion of information made possible by computers and the Internet,” said David Blei, an assistant professor of computer science at Princeton and the lead researcher on the project. “We’re trying to make sense of how concepts move around. Maybe you want to know who coined a certain term like ‘quark,’ or search old news stories to find out where the first 1960s antiwar protest took place.”

Blei said the new search technique might one day be used by historians, political scientists and other scholars to study how ideas arise and spread.

While search engines such as Google and Bing help people sort through the haystack of information on the Web, their results are based on a complex mix of criteria, some of which — such as number of links and visitor traffic — may not fully reflect the influence of a document.

Scholarly journals traditionally quantify the impact of a paper by measuring how often it is cited by other papers, but other collections of documents, such as newspapers, patent claims and blog posts, provide no such means of measuring their influence.

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