Karen Spärck Jones

Karen Spärck Jones
Karen Spärck.jpg
Karen Spärck Jones in 2002
Born(1935-08-26)26 August 1935
Huddersfield, Yorkshire
Died4 April 2007(2007-04-04) (aged 71)
Alma materUniversity of Cambridge
Known forwork on information retrieval and natural language processing, in particular her probabilistic model of document and text retrieval
Spouse(s)Roger Needham
AwardsACL Lifetime Achievement Award, BCS Lovelace Medal, ACM-AAAI Allen Newell Award, ACM SIGIR Salton Award, American Society for Information Science and Technology's Award of Merit
Scientific career
FieldsComputer science
InstitutionsUniversity of Cambridge Computer Laboratory
ThesisSynonymy and Semantic Classification (1964[2])
Doctoral advisorRichard Braithwaite[1]

Karen Spärck Jones FBA (26 August 1935 – 4 April 2007) was a pioneering British computer scientist responsible for the concept of inverse document frequency, a technology that underlies most modern search engines.[3][4] In 2019, The New York Times published her belated obituary in its series Overlooked,[5][6] calling her "a pioneer of computer science for work combining statistics and linguistics, and an advocate for women in the field."[7] From 2008, to recognize her achievements in the fields of IR and NLP, the Karen Spärck Jones Award is awarded to a new recipient with outstanding research in one or both of her fields.

Early life

Karen Ida Boalth Spärck Jones was born in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, England. Her father was Owen Jones, a lecturer in chemistry, and her mother was Ida Spärck, a Norwegian who moved to Britain during World War II leaving on one of the last boats out of Norway after the German invasion in 1940. Spärck Jones was educated at a grammar school in Huddersfield and then from 1953 to 1956 at Girton College, Cambridge, studying history, with an additional final year in Moral Sciences (philosophy). She briefly became a school teacher, before moving into computer science.


Spärck Jones worked at the Cambridge Language Research Unit from the late 1950s,[8] then at Cambridge University Computer Laboratory from 1974 until her retirement in 2002. From 1999 she was holding the post of Professor of Computers and Information.[1] Prior to 1999 she was employed on a series of short-term contracts.[7] She continued to work in the Computer Laboratory until shortly before her death. Her publications include nine books and numerous papers. A full list of her publications can be found here.

Her main research interests, since the late 1950s, were natural language processing and information retrieval.[9][10] One of her most important contributions was the concept of inverse document frequency (IDF) weighting in information retrieval, which she introduced in a 1972 paper.[9][11] IDF is used in most search engines today, usually as part of the tf-idf weighting scheme.[12]

In 1982 she became involved in the Alvey Programme.[7]

An annual British Computer Society Karen Spärck Jones lecture is named in her honour.[13]

In August 2017, the University of Huddersfield renamed one of its campus buildings in her honour. Formerly known as Canalside West, the Spärck Jones building houses the University's School of Computing and Engineering.[14]



Personal life

She was married to fellow Cambridge computer scientist Roger Needham until his death in 2003. She died 4 April 2007 at Willingham in Cambridgeshire.[1]


  1. ^ a b c "Jones, Karen Ida Boalth Spärck (1935–2007), Computer Scientist". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/98729. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ Karen Spärck Jones (1986). Synonymy and Semantic Classification (thesis published as a book). Edinburgh Information Technology series. 1. Edinburgh University Press.
  3. ^ a b c Tait, J. I. (2007). "Karen Spärck Jones". Computational Linguistics. 33 (3): 289–291. doi:10.1162/coli.2007.33.3.289.
  4. ^ Robertson, S.; Tait, J. (2008). "Karen Spärck Jones". Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology. 59 (5): 852. doi:10.1002/asi.20784.
  5. ^ Padnani, Amisha; Bennett, Jessica (8 March 2018). "Remarkable People We Overlooked in Our Obituaries". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 7 December 2019.
  6. ^ "Overlooked No More: Karen Sparck Jones, Who Established the Basis for Search Engines". The New York Times. 2 January 2019. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 7 December 2019.
  7. ^ a b c "Overlooked No More: Karen Sparck Jones, Who Established the Basis for Search Engines". The New York Times. 2 January 2019. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 3 January 2019.
  8. ^ "Computer Laboratory obituary".
  9. ^ a b Spärck Jones, K. (1972). "A Statistical Interpretation of Term Specificity and Its Application in Retrieval". Journal of Documentation. 28: 11–21. CiteSeerX doi:10.1108/eb026526.
  10. ^ Tait, John I., ed. (2005). Charting a New Course: Natural Language Processing and Information Retrieval, Essays in Honour of Karen Spärck Jones. The Kluwer International Series on Information Retrieval. 16. doi:10.1007/1-4020-3467-9. ISBN 978-1-4020-3343-8.
  11. ^ Spärck Jones, K. (1973). "Index term weighting". Information Storage and Retrieval. 9 (11): 619–633. doi:10.1016/0020-0271(73)90043-0.
  12. ^ Maybury, M. T. (2005). "Karen Spärck Jones and Summarization". Charting a New Course: Natural Language Processing and Information Retrieval. The Kluwer International Series on Information Retrieval. 16. pp. 99–10. doi:10.1007/1-4020-3467-9_7. ISBN 978-1-4020-3343-8.
  13. ^ "Karen Spärck Jones lecture". BCS Academy of Computing. British Computer Society. Retrieved 3 October 2013.
  14. ^ "How to find us – University of Huddersfield". hud.ac.uk. Retrieved 20 September 2017.
  15. ^ a b c Obituary, The Daily Telegraph, 12 April 2007
  16. ^ a b c "Karen Spärck Jones". The Computer Laboratory, Cambridge University. March 2007. Retrieved 2 April 2018.
  17. ^ "Gerard Salton Awards". Special Interest Group on Information Retrieval. Retrieved 2 April 2018.
  18. ^ "ACL Lifetime Achievement Award Recipients". ACL wiki. ACL. Retrieved 16 August 2014.

Further reading

External links

Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Makoto Nagao
ACL Lifetime Achievement Award
Succeeded by
Martin Kay

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