Karen Spärck Jones

Karen Spärck Jones FBA (26 August 1935 – 4 April 2007) was 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] In 2019, The New York Times published her belated obituary in its series Overlooked,[6][7] calling her "a pioneer of computer science for work combining statistics and linguistics, and an advocate for women in the field."[8] From 2008, to recognize her achievements in the fields of information retrieval[9][10] (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.[11][12][13][14]

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)[1]
Alma materUniversity of Cambridge
Known forTerm frequency–inverse document frequency
(m. 1958)
Scientific career
FieldsComputer science
Information retrieval
Natural language processing
Document retrieval
InstitutionsUniversity of Cambridge
ThesisSynonymy and Semantic Classification (1964)
Doctoral advisorRichard Braithwaite[1]

Early life and educationEdit

Karen Ida Boalth Spärck Jones was born in [Huddersfield], Yorkshire, England. 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,[citation needed] before moving into computer science.[15]


Spärck Jones worked at the Cambridge Language Research Unit from the late 1950s,[16] 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.[8] 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.[17]

Her main research interests, since the late 1950s, were natural language processing and information retrieval. 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][18] IDF is used in most search engines today, usually as part of the term frequency–inverse document frequency (TF–IDF) weighting scheme.[19] In 1982 she became involved in the Alvey Programme.[8]

Honours and awardsEdit

An annual Karen Spärck Jones Award and lecture is named in her honour.[20] 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.[21] Other honours and awards include

Personal lifeEdit

Spärck Jones was married to fellow Cambridge computer scientist Roger Needham in 1958.[16]


  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. ^ 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.
  7. ^ "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.
  8. ^ 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.
  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. Vol. 16. doi:10.1007/1-4020-3467-9. ISBN 978-1-4020-3343-8.
  11. ^ Obituary, The Times, 22 June 2007 (subscription required)
  12. ^ Computer Science, A Woman's Work, IEEE Spectrum, May 2007
  13. ^ 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)
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ Karen Spärck Jones (1986). Synonymy and Semantic Classification (thesis published as a book). Edinburgh Information Technology series. Vol. 1. Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 9780852245170.
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ "Karen Sparck Jones Publications".
  18. ^ Spärck Jones, K. (1973). "Index term weighting". Information Storage and Retrieval. 9 (11): 619–633. doi:10.1016/0020-0271(73)90043-0.
  19. ^ 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.
  20. ^ "Karen Spärck Jones lecture". BCS Academy of Computing. British Computer Society. Retrieved 3 October 2013.
  21. ^ "How to find us – University of Huddersfield". hud.ac.uk. Retrieved 20 September 2017.
  22. ^ a b c "Karen Spärck Jones". The Daily Telegraph. 12 April 2007.
  23. ^ Anon (2022). "Elected AAAI Fellows". aaai.org.
  24. ^ a b c "Karen Spärck Jones". The Computer Laboratory, Cambridge University. March 2007. Retrieved 2 April 2018.
  25. ^ "Gerard Salton Awards". Special Interest Group on Information Retrieval. Retrieved 2 April 2018.
  26. ^ "ACL Lifetime Achievement Award Recipients". ACL wiki. ACL. Retrieved 16 August 2014.

Awards and achievements
Preceded by ACL Lifetime Achievement Award
Succeeded by