Karen Spärck Jones

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Karen Spärck Jones
Spärck Jones in 2002
Karen Ida Boalth Spärck Jones

(1935-08-26)26 August 1935
Huddersfield, Yorkshire, England
Died4 April 2007(2007-04-04) (aged 71)[1]
Alma materUniversity of Cambridge
Known forTerm frequency–inverse document frequency
(m. 1958; died 2003)
Scientific career
InstitutionsUniversity of Cambridge
ThesisSynonymy and Semantic Classification (1964)
Doctoral advisorRichard Braithwaite[1]

Karen Ida Boalth Spärck Jones FBA (26 August 1935 – 4 April 2007) was a self-taught programmer and a pioneering British computer scientist responsible for the concept of inverse document frequency (IDF), a technology that underlies most modern search engines.[2][3][4][5][6] She was an advocate for women in computer science, her slogan being, "Computing is too important to be left to men.[7]" In 2019, The New York Times published her belated obituary in its series Overlooked,[8][9] calling her "a pioneer of computer science for work combining statistics and linguistics, and an advocate for women in the field."[9] From 2008, to recognize her achievements in the fields of information retrieval[10][11] (IR) and natural language processing (NLP), the Karen Spärck Jones Award is awarded to a new recipient with outstanding research in one or both of her fields.[12][13][14][15]

Early life and education[edit]

Karen Ida Boalth Spärck Jones was born in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, England. Her parents were Alfred Owen Jones, a chemistry lecturer, and Ida Spärck, who worked for the Norwegian government while in exile in London during World War II.

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). While at Cambridge, Spärck Jones joined the organization known as the Cambridge Language Research Unit (CLRU) and met the head of CLRU Margaret Masterman, who would inspire her to go into computer science.[9] While working at the CLRU, Spärck Jones began pursuing her Ph.D. At the time of submission, her Ph.D thesis was cast aside as uninspired and lacking original thought, but was later published in its entirety as a book.[16] She briefly became a school teacher[17] before moving into computer science.[18] Spärck Jones married fellow Cambridge computer scientist Roger Needham in 1958.[19][9]


Spärck Jones worked at the Cambridge Language Research Unit from the late 1950s,[19] then at Cambridge University Computer Laboratory from 1974 until her retirement in 2002.

From 1999, she held the post of Professor of Computers and Information.[1] Prior to 1999, she was employed on a series of short-term contracts.[9] 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 is available from the Cambridge Computer Laboratory.[20]

Spärck Jones' main research interests, since the late 1950s, were natural language processing and information retrieval. In 1964, Spärck Jones published "Synonymy and Semantic Classification", which is now seen as a foundational paper in the field of natural language processing. 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.[10][21] IDF is used in most search engines today, usually as part of the term frequency–inverse document frequency (TF–IDF) weighting scheme.[22] In the 1980s, Spärck Jones began her work on early speech recognition systems. In 1982 she became involved in the Alvey Programme[9] which was an initiative to motivate more computer science research across the country. In 1997, she was honored by City University at their graduation ceremony where she was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Science by the Vice Chancellor, Raoul Franklin.[6]

Honours and awards[edit]

An annual Karen Spärck Jones Award and lecture is named in her honour.[23] 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.[24] Other honours and awards include

Death and legacy[edit]

Spärck Jones died on April 4, 2007, due to cancer at the age of 71.[9]

In 2008, the BCS Information Retrieval Specialist Group (BCS IRSG) in conjunction with the British Computer Society established an annual award in Spärck Jones' honour, to encourage and promote talented researchers' significant contributions in advancing our understanding of Natural Language Processing or Information Retrieval.[6]


  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. ^ Video: Natural Language and the Information Layer, Karen Spärck Jones, March 2007
  3. ^ University of Cambridge obituary
  4. ^ Obituary, The Independent, 12 April 2007
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ a b c "Karen Spärck Jones Award | BCS". www.bcs.org. Retrieved 2023-01-21.
  7. ^ https://www.bcs.org/articles-opinion-and-research/computings-too-important-to-be-left-to-men/
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g "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.
  10. ^ 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. S2CID 2996187.
  11. ^ 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. Vol. 16. doi:10.1007/1-4020-3467-9. ISBN 978-1-4020-3343-8.
  12. ^ Obituary, The Times, 22 June 2007 (subscription required)
  13. ^ Computer Science, A Woman's Work, IEEE Spectrum, May 2007
  14. ^ Thompson, Bill. "Karen Spärck Jones". A Stick a Dog and a Box With Something In It. Retrieved 1 August 2019. (originally published in The Times)
  15. ^ a b c Tait, J. I. (2007). "Karen Spärck Jones". Computational Linguistics. 33 (3): 289–291. doi:10.1162/coli.2007.33.3.289. S2CID 19790552.
  16. ^ Robertson, S., & Tait, J. (2008). Karen Spärck Jones. Journal of the American Society for Information Science & Technology, 59(5), 852–854.
  17. ^ Spärck Jones, Karen (April 10, 2001). "Karen Spärck Jones, an oral history conducted in 2001". IEEE History Center (Interview). Interviewed by Janet Abbate. Piscataway, NJ.
  18. ^ Karen Spärck Jones (1986). Synonymy and Semantic Classification (thesis published as a book). Edinburgh Information Technology series. Vol. 1. Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 9780852245170.
  19. ^ a b Anon (2007). "Karen Spärck Jones, FBA Professor Emerita of Computers and Information Honorary Fellow of Wolfson College 26 August 1935 – 4 April 2007". cam.ac.uk. University of Cambridge.
  20. ^ "Karen Sparck Jones Publications".
  21. ^ Spärck Jones, K. (1973). "Index term weighting". Information Storage and Retrieval. 9 (11): 619–633. doi:10.1016/0020-0271(73)90043-0.
  22. ^ 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. Vol. 16. pp. 99–10. doi:10.1007/1-4020-3467-9_7. ISBN 978-1-4020-3343-8.
  23. ^ "Karen Spärck Jones lecture". BCS Academy of Computing. British Computer Society. Retrieved 3 October 2013.
  24. ^ "How to find us – University of Huddersfield". hud.ac.uk. Retrieved 20 September 2017.
  25. ^ a b c "Karen Spärck Jones". The Daily Telegraph. 12 April 2007.
  26. ^ Anon (2022). "Elected AAAI Fellows". aaai.org.
  27. ^ a b c "Karen Spärck Jones". The Computer Laboratory, Cambridge University. March 2007. Retrieved 2 April 2018.
  28. ^ "Gerard Salton Awards". Special Interest Group on Information Retrieval. Retrieved 2 April 2018.
  29. ^ "ACL Lifetime Achievement Award Recipients". ACL wiki. ACL. Retrieved 16 August 2014.

Awards and achievements
Preceded by ACL Lifetime Achievement Award
Succeeded by