Loet Leydesdorff: magician in many dimensions

by Paul Wouters

“Citation analysis has conquered the world of science policy analysis.” This is the impressive opening sentence of “Dimensions of Citation Analysis” which Loet Leydesdorff wrote together with Olga Amsterdamska (Leydesdorff en Amsterdamska 1990). For me, this is one of the most important pieces of Loet’s body of work. A draft of this article had put me on the track of studying the history of scientometrics under the guidance of Rob Hagendijk and Stuart Blume. The article deals with the controversies of the 1980s about the interpretation and use of citation analysis and the subsequent “call for a theory of citation”. Loet and Olga argued that these controversies not only stem from different theoretical perspectives, but also from the relative lack of attention to the multi-dimensional nature of citation practices. They based this on a clever combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis of citation practices by members of a biochemistry research group, a survey of citing behaviour together with a detailed analysis of the texts of both citing and cited articles. Rereading this article now, with the knowledge of Loet’s work evolved in the decades that came later, makes me realize that his approach (in combination with Olga’s) has had a much deeper influence on my thinking about scientometrics and citation analysis than I realized at the time. Indeed, the intellectual core of my PhD thesis revolved around the problem of a robust theory of citation.
One of the unexpected bonuses of coming to work at the Department of Science Dynamics at the University of Amsterdam was ending up in a room next to Loet (together with Ad Prins). We could regularly hear the enthusiasm with which Loet shared his evolving ideas over the phone and in person. And sitting in the room next door made it much easier to bump into each other and recognize unexpected possibilities for collaboration and co-authoring. Loet certainly has proven to be one of the most inspiring and prolific co-authors of our field.
So it was that I experienced his enthusiasm in person while writing my first article with Loet. The study was on the Price Index, an exercise in auto-scientometricism. Loet was not only adept in complex selforganizational theories, but was also proficient in programming in dBase III. Together we sorted out a routine to find out whether or not the field of bibliometrics was a “hard science” according to its own bibliometric index for scientific “hardness” (often equated with objectivity). (Of course I hoped that it proved that bibliometrics was paradoxically a soft science.) On the university 286 computer, the set of programs we had concocted took an inordinate amount of time and even on my personal brand new 386 SX workstation at home, the analysis took days to complete. I fondly remember the tricks I learned from Loet about the correct way to get the data out of the Citation Index (it was not yet web based), clean it, and program the analysis. It gave me a boost to further develop my skills, although Loet did not share my eagerness to later shift to Perl and later again to Python. He thought (wisely perhaps) that Visual Basic should be enough to program conceptual puzzles about self-organization and dBase III was good enough for data analysis.
Not many people have been able to combine a fondness for technical data analysis with information theoretical approaches with reflexive sociology and philosophy. The wide range of sources that Loet was able to synthesize in his writing still baffles me. I once quipped that he could write faster than I could read, and if we require that reading involves understanding, this was not only a joke. For example, I am now still reading his last book, since this synthesizes most of his work and it also makes clear that for Loet developing a social theory that enables measurement, puts communication (rather than people) central and takes into account the reflexive nature of communication about communication was the central goal. Putting this on the intellectual agenda the way he has done is already an impressive feat. Making it work like he did even more so.
For me, Loet was a true magician mixing theory, method, and data with an unbeatable sense for interesting questions.
Paul Wouters
Leiden, 31 May 2023