Why article-level metrics are better than JIF if you value talent over privilege

I’ve been caught up in a few debates recently about Recognition and Rewards, a series of initiatives in the Netherlands to diversify the ways in which we recognize and reward talent in academia. One flashpoint was the publication of an open letter signed by ~170 senior scientists (mostly from medical and engineering professions), itself written in response to two developments. First, the 2019 shift towards a “narrative CV” format in grant applications for the Dutch Research Council (NWO), as part of which applicants are asked to show evidence of the excellence, originality and impact of their work using article-level metrics instead of journal level metrics like the Journal Impact Factor (JIF). Second, the recent announcement of Utrecht University (signatory of the Declaration on Research Assessment) to abandon the JIF in its hiring and promotion processes (see coverage).

Why funders in search of talent are ditching the JIF

Some background will be useful. The decision to not use JIF for the evaluation of researchers and their work is evidence-based. There is a lot of work in bibliometry and beyond showing that a 2-year average of a skewed citation distribution is an imperfect measure of journal quality, a driver for perverse incentives, and a misleading proxy for the quality of individual papers. Indeed Clarivate itself, the for-profit provider of the JIF metric, has this to say about it: “In the case of academic evaluation for tenure, it is inappropriate to use a journal-level metric as a proxy measure for individual researchers, institutions, or articles”.

Despite this evidence, JIFs have long been widely used across the sciences not just as a way to tell librarians which journals are making waves (= what they were designed for) but also as a quick heuristic to judge the merits of work appearing in them or people publishing in them. As they say, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover, but do judge scientific work by its JIF’. There is a considerable halo-effect attached to JIFs, whereby an article that ends up in a high IF journal (whether by sheer brilliance or simply knowing the right editor, or both) is treated, unread, with a level of veneration normally reserved for Wunderkinder. Usually this is done by people totally oblivious to network effects, gatekeeping and institutional biases.

It appears that the decision to explicitly outlaw the use of JIFs now has people coming out of the woodwork to protest. The first letter (and also another one by a number of junior medical scientists) is aimed specifically at the prohibition against using the JIF, which is (incorrectly) framed as a ban on all quantification. The feeling is that this deprives us of a valuable (if inexact) metric that has long been used as a quick heuristic of the ‘value’ or ‘quality’ of work.

‘Halo? What halo?’

Raymond Poot, main author of the first letter, strongly believes that the JIF, even if inexact, should not be ditched. Saying, “Let’s talk JIF”, he provides this diagram of citation distributions in support:

The diagram compares the citation distributions of Nature and PLOS ONE (an open access megajournal). Poot’s argument, if I understand it well, is that even if Nature’s JIF is skewed by a few highly cited papers, the median number of citations is still higher, at 13, than the median number of cites that PLOS ONE papers receive (which looks like 1). As Poot says in reference to an earlier tweet of mine on the halo-effect, ‘Halo? What halo?’.

We want to identify and reward good work wherever it appears

We’ll get to that halo. First things first. We’re talking about whether using the JIF (a journal’s 2-year citation average) is a good idea if you want to identify and reward good individual work. And especially whether using the JIF is better or worse than using article-level metrics. Another assumption: we care about top science so we would like to identify good work by talented people wherever it appears. Analogy: we want to scout everywhere, not just at the fancy private school where privileges and network can obscure diverse and original talent.

Let’s assume the figure represents the citation distributions reasonably well (I’m going to ignore the obvious folly of taking an average of a very skewed and clearly not unimodal distribution). Where is the JIF halo? Right in front of you, where it says, for publication numbers, “in thousands for PLOS ONE”. Publication volume differs by an order of magnitude. This diagram hides that by heavily compressing the PLOS distribution, which is never good practice for responsible visualization, so let’s fix that. We’ll lose exact numbers (they’re hard to get) but the difference is large enough for this to work whatever the numbers.

The enormous difference in sheer volume means that an OA megajournal is likely to have quite a few papers with more cites than the Nature median — high impact work that we would miss entirely if we focused only on the JIF. The flip side is where we find the halo effect: there are, in any given year, hundreds of Nature papers that underperform quite a bit relative to the IF (indeed half of them underperform relative to the median). This —the skewed distributions for both the megajournal and the glamour journal— shows why it is a bad idea to ascribe properties to individual papers based on how other papers published under the same flag have been cited.

On average, my paper is better than yours

“But still, surely on average Nature papers are…” — besides the point. I would rather give a talent grant to the bright student who made their way through the public school system (an over-performing PLOS paper) than to the one who dangles at the bottom of the distribution of their privileged private school (an underperforming Nature paper). Identifying talent on the basis of JIF instead of content or impact is like handing out bonus points to private school essays in the central exam. “But on average those elite schools do tend to do better don’t they?” Unsurprisingly, they do, and if you think such differences are meaningful or worth further reinforcement , it’s worth reading some more sociology, starting perhaps with the diversity-innovation paradox.

There are other issues with our hyperfocus on glamour journals. These journals like to publish good work but they also apply some highly subjective filters (selecting for ‘broad appeal’ or ‘groundbreaking’ research — phrases that will sound familiar from the desk-rejects that statistically speaking many readers from academia will have seen). Nature prides itself on an 8% acceptance rate, the same chances that we rightly call a lottery when it concerns grant proposals. Being overly selective inevitably means that you’ll miss out on top performers. One recent study concluded that this kind of gate-keeping often leads us to miss highly impactful ideas and research:

However, hindsight reveals numerous questionable gatekeeping decisions. Of the 808 eventually published articles in our dataset, our three focal journals rejected many highly cited manuscripts, including the 14 most popular; roughly the top 2 percent. Of those 14 articles, 12 were desk-rejected. This finding raises concerns regarding whether peer review is ill-suited to recognize and gestate the most impactful ideas and research.

Gatekeepers of course also introduce their own networks, preferences and biases with regards to the disciplines, topics, affiliations, and genders they’re more likely to favour. In this context, Nature has acknowledged the sexism of how its editorial boards are constituted, and as the New York Times wrote last year, the publishing process at top journals is “deeply insular, often hinging on personal connections between journal editors and the researchers from whom they solicit and receive manuscripts”.

From smoke and mirrors to actual article-level impact

“But doesn’t my Nature paper count for anything?” I sure hope it does. And the neat thing is, under the new call for evidence-based CVs you can provide evidence and arguments instead of relying on marketing or association fallacies. Do show us what’s so brilliant and original about it. Do tell us about your contributions to the team, about the applications of your work in industry, and about the relative citation ratio of your paper. Indeed, such article-level metrics are explicitly encouraged as a direct indicator of impact and originality. To spell it out: a PLOS ONE paper that makes it to the 1% most cited papers of its field is more telling than, say, a Nature paper of the same age that has managed to accrue a meagre 30 cites. An evidence-based CV format can show this equally for any type of scientific output, without distracting readers with the smoke and mirrors of the JIF.

Scientists are people, and people are easily fooled by marketing. That is going to be the case whether we mention the JIF or not. (The concerned medical scientists writing the letters know full well that most grant reviewers will know the “top” journals and make inferences accordingly.) The purpose of outlawing the JIF is essentially a nudge, designed to make evaluators reflect on this practice, and inviting them to look beyond the packaging to the content and its actual impact. I can only see this as an improvement — if the goal is to identify truly excellent, original and impactful work. Content over silly bean counts. True impact over halo effects.

If you want to find actual impact, look beyond the JIF

I have focused so far on PLOS ONE and Nature because that’s the example provided by Raymond Poot. However, arguably these are two extremes in a very varied publishing landscape. Most people will seek more specialised venues or go for other multidisciplinary journals. But the basic argument easily generalizes. Most journals’ citation distributions will overlap more than those of PLOS ONE and Nature. For instance, let’s take three multidisciplinary journals titrated along the JIF ranks: Science Advances (14.1), PNAS (11.1), and Scientific Reports (4.4). Set up by Nature to capture some of the market share of OA megajournals, Scientific Reports is obviously less artificially selective than the other two. And yet its sheer publication volume means that a larger number of high impact papers appear in Scientific Reports than in PNAS and Science Advances combined! This means, again, that if you want to find high impact work and you’re just looking at high IF journals, you’re missing out.

Trying to find good or impactful work on the basis of the JIF is like searching for your keys under the streetlight because that’s where the light is. Without it, we stand a better chance of identifying truly groundbreaking work across the board — and fostering diversity and innovation in the process.

Caveats. I’ve used article-level citations as a measure of impact here because they most directly relate to the statistically illiterate but widespread use of the JIF to make inferences about individual work or individual researchers. However, citations come with a time lag, are subject to known biases against underrepresented minorities, and are only one of multiple possible measures of originality, reach and impact. Of course, to the extent that you think this makes actual citations problematic as indicators of article-level impact or importance, it means the JIF is even more problematic.

The sound of rain, softly falling (Tucker Childs, 1948-2021)

News just reached me that we have lost a dear colleague and one of the people responsible for introducing the world of linguistics to African ideophones: George Tucker Childs, 1948-2021.

Tucker was a cheerful presence in the field of African linguistics and a towering figure in the subfield that he and I had in common, ideophone studies. His groundbreaking PhD dissertation on Kisi in 1988 was chock-full of these sparkling words evocative of sensory imagery, and the topic would never lose his interest. He was one of the pioneers of the sociolinguistic study of ideophones and his 1994 review of African ideophones remains one of the most cited chapters of a famed volume on Sound Symbolism. One of his last academic publications was a chapter in the 2019 proceedings of an international workshop on ideophones in which he, characteristically, combined acute fieldwork-based observations with perceptive questions for future research.

We met several times over the years and corresponded quite a bit, sometimes about new work, sometimes about the future of African linguistics and how to ensure better representation of its diversity. “This is an issue I wrestle with all the time, how best to encourage young [authors], especially African, to submit”, he wrote to me in his capacity as the editor of one of the specialist journals in the field. In Tucker we have lost an adventurous colleague driven by a sense of wonder and by a passion for the documentation and revitalization of endangered languages.

Tucker’s emails often started with a salutation that included a description of his location and the weather conditions — which, when they came from Portland, often meant rain. I enclose a rendition by artist Joanna Taylor of an evocative Kisi ideophone that appears in Tucker’s PhD thesis: bíààà ‘the sound of rain, softly falling’. Words are a poor substitute for human contact, but I wish his loved ones the serenity evoked by the sound of nourishing rain.

Note: If you want to write your condolences or share your memories of Tucker, his family set up a special website here.

Bibliography of Tucker Child’s ideophone-related publications (see Google Scholar)

  • Childs, G. Tucker. 1988a. The phonology and morphology of Kisi. University of California, Berkeley. (PhD dissertation.)
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 1988b. The phonology of Kisi ideophones. Journal of African Languages and Linguistics 10(2). 165–190. (doi:10.1515/jall.1988.10.2.165)
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 1989. Where do ideophones come from? Studies in the Linguistic Sciences 19(2). 55–76.
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 1994a. African Ideophones. In Hinton, Leanne & Nichols, Johanna & Ohala, John J. (eds.), Sound Symbolism, 178–204. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 1994b. Expressiveness in contact situations: the fate of African ideophones. Journal of Pidgin and Creole languages 9(2). 257–282.
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 1996. Where have all the ideophones gone? The death of a word category in Zulu. Toronto Working Papers in Linguistics 15. 81–103.
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 2001. Research on Ideophones, Whither Hence? The Need for a Social Theory of Ideophones. In Voeltz, F. K. Erhard & Kilian-Hatz, Christa (eds.), Ideophones, 63–73. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 2003. An Introduction to African Languages. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 2014. Constraints on violating constraints: How languages reconcile the twin dicta of “Be different” and “Be recognizably language.” Pragmatics and Society 5(3). 341–354. (doi:10.1075/ps.5.3.02chi)
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 2018. Forty-plus years before the mast: My experiences as a field linguist. In Sarvasy, Hannah & Forker, Diana (eds.), Word Hunters: Field linguists on fieldwork. John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 2019. Ideophones as a measure of multilingualism. In Akita, Kimi & Pardeshi, Prashant (eds.), Iconicity in Language and Literature, vol. 16, 303–322. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. (doi:10.1075/ill.16.13tuc)

APA but without auto-sorting of in-text citations: easy CSL fix

For better or worse, APA is one of the most widely used citation styles in the cognitive sciences. One aspect of it that always bugs me is that it prescribes alphabetical sorting of in-text citations. I’m not talking about the bibliography; of course that should be alphabetical. I’m talking about the order of names when you cite multiple sources in one citation statement, as in “(Harris 1952; Chomsky 1957)” — or, as APA would have it, “(Chomsky 1957; Harris 1952)”.

My own strong preference is to have the order determined by priority and relevance. For instance, if I were writing about transformations in early generative syntax, I might want to cite both Chomsky and Harris, but I feel it would be useful to cite them in chronological order. Of course if I wanted to highlight Chomsky’s original contributions I could also do sth. like “(Chomsky 1957; and see Harris 1952 for a precursor)” — but the point is, in neither case would I want the ordering to be determined by a meaningless style prescription. The order of in-text citations is meaningful.

Now, if you’re using Zotero like me, you can already manually drag citations in any order you want. But still the APA default will hit you every now and then. Fortunately, this is really easy to fix in the CSL style, so I’m using a version of APA in which this is fixed. You can use my file, which is based on APA 7, currently the latest version.

I’m posting this for my future self as much as for others, so let me just note the utterly trivial single change you need to make in CSL terms. All you need to do is find the <citation> block and remove the <sort> statement inside it. That’s it. You can do this on your own system or in the online CSL code editor; or if you are more comfortable with the Visual Editor, you can also do it there. Save your adjusted style under a custom name to use it in Zotero.

Team science is slow science

With Times Higher Education writing about citation gaming and hyperprolific authors (surely not unrelated) I hope we can save some of our attention for what Uta Frith and others have called slow science. On that note, consider this: Team science is (often) slow science.

Recently two team science projects I’ve been involved in since the early 2010s resulted in publications: a book on recruitments, edited by Simeon Floyd, Giovanni Rossi en Nick Enfield; and a paper on sequence organization led by Kobin Kendrick. Some of the first results for both projects were presented at the 2014 International Conference on Conversation Analysis (ICCA) at UCLA, and it is so great to see them out now.

The Recruitments volume address the question of how we use language to get others to do things. It presents the results of collaborative research on 8 languages around the world and is published as an open access book by Language Science Press, linguistics’ most visionary open access publisher. This volume has a long history, and we’ve written about the background and methods of the project for the ROLSI blog. In a thread on Twitter, Nick Enfield sets out some of the key findings:

The sequence organization paper studies a basic aspect of how social action is organized in everyday language use in 12 languages around the world. It is published in Journal of Pragmatics, and first author Kobin Kendrick sets out the main findings in his own Twitter thread:

Our team work on repair —as part of Nick Enfield’s ERC grant— was similarly systematic and slow-paced; the special issue of Open Linguistics we edited is in many ways the sister to the recruitments book now out. From the start in 2010 it took us several years of intensive work before the first publications started coming out. The recruitment and sequence organization projects, which got off the ground a little later, had the additional challenge of an increasingly distributed team of collaborators (to the point that no one currently has the same affilation they had when the projects started).

This kind of systematic comparative work, which takes years to carry out and bring to fruition, is perhaps the antithesis of the hyperprolific output valued by bean counters. In this lies both a risk and a reward. The risk is that contributions can take years to become visible, which is especially tricky for early career researchers. The reward is that results tend to be solid and substantial. We need institutions & funders that don’t reduce us to output counts, and instead help us manage the risks and reap the long-term rewards of team science and slow science.

Notes

This post originated as a Twitter thread. The Frith paper mentioned in the first paragraph is:

New personal site

Almost 13 years ago, in 2007, this blog started as a sub-site on my personal web page. It soon took over most of my online presence and I moved it to its own domain. Now that I blog much less regularly, and have moved institutions, it’s useful again to have a personal academic web page. So I made one: markdingemanse.net.

This is also fitting because I have, over the past decade, developed a line of research on social interaction that doesn’t really fit what I’ve mostly blogged about on The Ideophone (which is topics around iconicity, ideophones, perception, and the senses). I will probably always keep working on ideophones, and I may well keep blogging here on various topics; but it was high time to have a web presence separate from this that more fully represents my scholarship and science communication work.

I used to have a really useful page at the MPI for Psycholinguistics, but an institutional move to Radboud University and a site redesign make the publication list there a little harder to navigate than it used to be. The neat thing is that Zotero (with ZotPress) makes it really easy to display full publication lists on my new site, even organised by topic:

Give it a gander, a glimpse or a glance — markdingemanse.net!

Rethinking Marginality: panel on interjections & interaction at IPRA

We’re convening a panel at the 16th International Pragmatics Conference in Hong Kong next week. This doubles as the inaugural workshop of my VIDI project Elementary Particles of Conversation. The workshop ties into the overall theme of the conference, which is “Pragmatics at the Margins”. Have a look at the panel programme & abstracts (PDF), or check out the overview below (? links go to the abstracts in the IPRA programme):

Tuesday June 11, room TU107, 13:30-17:00 (including break)

1330 Intro | Negotiating mutual understanding in multimodal interaction: a comparative and experimental approach
Marlou Rasenberg & Mark Dingemanse
?
1400 Interjection as coordination device: feedback relevance spaces
Christine Howes & Arash Eshghi
?
1430 Probabilistic Pragmatic Inference of Communicative Feedback Meaning
Hendrik Buschmeier & Stefan Kopp
?
1500 break (30min)—  
1530 Turn structure & interjections
Christoph Rühlemann
?
1600 Hebrew clicks: From the periphery of language to the heart of grammar
Yotam Ben Moshe & Yael Maschler
?
1630 Interjections in Action
Isabel Ward & Nigel Ward
?

Here’s the panel session abstract:

Rethinking Marginality: Interjections as the beating heart of language

Mark Dingemanse & Marlou Rasenberg
Radboud University & Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

Oxford linguist Max Müller once pontificated that “Language begins where interjections end”. Work in pragmatics turns this view on its head by studying language in its natural habitat of face-to-face interaction, where interjections help us every moment to calibrate understanding and use complex language efficiently. A guiding hypothesis for this panel is that at least some interjections are highly adaptive communicative tools, culturally evolved for the job of keeping our social interactional machinery in good repair (Yngve, 1970; Dingemanse 2017). Far from being marginal grunts, words like ‘oh!’, ‘mm’, ‘um’ and ‘huh?’ play central roles in the most sophisticated uses of language. As metacommunicative signals, they are one of the places where theories of mind and pragmatic reasoning come to the surface, and they afford human language a degree of flexibility, robustness and error-tolerance unmatched in other known communication systems.

This session brings together new research on the centrality of pragmatic interjections in language, with a special focus on items and interactional practices that play crucial roles in managing the back and forth of everyday interaction. These phenomena have been studied in disparate disciplines, as seen by the proliferation of available labels, including back channels, discourse markers, phatic interjections, collateral signals, response tokens and non-lexical conversational sounds. In this lies both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to formulate a unified perspective that can provide conceptual foundations and ensure cumulative progress. The opportunity lies in the disciplinary diversity, which provides us with complementary methods that can deliver converging evidence on open questions.

Topics covered in the session include: the central roles of ‘marginal’ items in the pragmatics of human interaction; their linguistic status as lexical or nonlexical items; their multimodal composition, as items combining verbal and visual cues; their semiotic status, combining indexical, iconic and symbolic properties; their cross-linguistic attestations, including patterns of universality and diversity; the paths of semantic and pragmatic change leading to and from them; and their implementation in models of language processing, dialogue systems and conversational agents.

John Benjamins collective volumes linguistics CSL style

Linguists will know John Benjamins as one of the nicer academic publishing houses, not quite so terrible as Elsevier or other profiteering behemoths, and one with really good typography to boot. Iconicity afficionados will probably know the Iconicity in Language and Literature series published by Benjamins. One of my first articles on ideophones and iconicity appeared in this series and though since then much of my work has appeared in journals, I’ve just written a contribution for another volume in the series (this one edited by Kimi Akita and Prashant Pardeshi). I’ll share that paper on another occasion; here I just want to share a CSL style I created to make my life easier. If you’re just after the style, download it here (and see instructions for use here). If you want some background, feel free to keep reading.

Continue reading

Slides for a hands-on Zotero workshop

One of the key tasks scientists need to master is how to manage bibliographic information: collecting relevant literature, building a digital library, and handling citations and bibliographies during writing.

This tutorial introduces Zotero (www.zotero.org), an easy to use reference management tool made by scholars for scholars. The tutorial covers the basics of using Zotero for collecting, organizing, citing and sharing research. Zotero automates the tasks of managing bibliographic data, storing and renaming PDFs, and formatting references. It also integrates with widely used text processors, and can synchronize your library across devices. There is no more need to search through disorganized file folders full of inscrutably named PDF files, to copy and paste references across documents, or to manually deal with pointless differences in citation styles. Ultimately, the point of using a reference manager is to free more time for real research.

Note: these are slides made for a hands-on workshop. They may not work well outside the context of a live Zotero demonstration. I share them because they may still contain some useful information.

How often does Google Scholar update citation counts?

TL;DR: every other day. Read on for details.

Many scientists use Google Scholar to find papers, get alerts about new work, and —if they have a profile— display a publication list which tracks citations. What is the Google Scholar update frequency?

It occurred to me that we have a perfect way to check this in the form of the profile of Prof. et al., by some measures the most prolific and influential scientist in history. I made that profile a while back to illustrate some points about the uses and abuses of Google Scholar profiles, and since then it has steadily accumulated citations (2.7 million at the time of writing).

With 333 highly cited publications, Google Scholar will find new citations for et al. any time it updates its index, and so the update frequency of this profile is a good proxy for the update frequency of Google Scholar itself. By setting a web service to take an automatic screenshot of et al.‘s profile every day, I’ve sampled two weeks worth of data. It turns out the update frequency is very regular: I found that et al.‘s citations increase (by about ~1500) exactly every other day.

So that’s the answer to how often Google Scholar updates its citation counts: every other day. The updates I’ve seen happen on days with odd day numbers.

In case you’re wondering what time the update happens, stop worrying and go back to writing, you procrastinator!

Firth on the analysis of conversation (1935): sequence and social accountability

Here are some insights from J.R. Firth in 1935 that offer an interesting early outlook on language use in social interaction. Firth (1890-1960) was an expert in phonetics and prosody, but always stressed the importance of the larger context in which words and utterances occurred. In this piece, he turns to conversation as a source of insight about language:

Neither linguists nor psychologists have begun the study of conversation; but it is here we shall find the key to a better understanding of what language really is and how it works.

Firth’s observations appear in the course of a methodological commentary on the problem of polysemy in lexicography and in language learning. His proposal is to let context contribute to a solution. As he notes, while “situations are infinitely various”, still “Speech is not the “boundless chaos” Johnson thought it was.” (p. 66). He continues:

Conversation is much more of a roughly prescribed ritual than most people think. Once someone speaks to you, you are in a relatively determined context and you are not free just to say what you please. We are born individuals, but to satisfy our needs we have to become social persons, and every social person is a bundle of rôles or personae

As Firth observes, in conversation, you are not free to say what you please. Instead, what has been said before shapes and constrains your options, and what you say similarly shapes and constrains what happens further on. When conversation analysts today talk about accountability, this is essentially what they mean. Further, an important aspect of constraints on what is said derives from the need to manage social roles and personae: Goffman avant la lettre.

Further on in the paper, Firth foreshadows notions like sequential structure and conditional relevance, which have come to occupy a key place in conversation analysis:

The moment a conversation is started, whatever is said is a determining condition for what, in any reasonable expectation, may follow. What you say raises the threshold against most of the language of your companion, and leaves only a limited opening for a certain likely range of responses. This sort of thing is an aspect of what I have called contextual elimination. There is a positive force in what you say in a given situation, and there is also the negative force of elimination both in the events and circumstances of the situation and in the words employed, which are of course events in the situation.

Again, the words “reasonable expectation” implicitly invoke a notion of accountability. Here Firth goes further into the idea of prior speech providing ‘determining conditions’ for what is sayable next. Take a polar question: it expects, invites (or as conversation analysts say, makes relevant) a limited range of answers, one type of which is preferred. The ‘limited opening for a certain likely range of responses’ is a proto-version of what conversation analysts have come to call conditional relevance and preference.

Firth’s observations on the structuring of conversation go beyond simple behavioristic conceptions like response probability and ‘behavior under the control of some stimulus’ (Skinner). His discussion captures the role of social accountability as well as the probabilistic aspects inherent in language use. His notion of ‘contextual elimination’ captures the sense in which one’s contribution to conversation shape and constrain what happens downstream without uniquely determining it.

While this paper is widely cited in corpus linguistic circles and in the Firth/Halliday tradition, Firth’s observations on conversation have rarely been drawn attention to, and there is as far as I know no direct historical connection between them and later insights developed in the field of conversation analysis, which started a few decades later in California with Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson. So this is likely a case of scholars reaching the same kind of conclusions independently — a powerful reminder of what can happen if we don’t assume conversation is messy and irregular, and instead sit down and take conversation for what it is: the primary ecology of language use, and one of the best places to gain new insights about the nature of language.

Firth, J. R. 1935. “The Technique of Semantics.” Transactions of the Philological Society 34 (1): 36–73. doi:10.1111/j.1467-968X.1935.tb01254.x.