Atlas of Science

The map metaphor has been used about knowledge both in philosophy and in Library and Information Science (LIS). "Atlas of science" and "map of knowledge" are metaphors, which are often used about knowledge organizing systems in LIS.


Turnbull (1989) examines the map metaphor and the way it has been understood by, for example, Kuhn, Polanyi, and, in particular, by Karl Popper.


". . . all theory may be regarded as a kind of map extended over space and time"

(Polanyi, 1958, p. 4)


"[In its role] as a vehicle for scientific theory, [the paradigm] functions by telling the scientist about the entities that nature does and does not contain and about the ways in which those entities behave. That information provides a map whose details are elucidated by mature scientific research. And since nature is too complex and varied to be explored at random, that map is as essential as observation and experiment to science's continuing development. Through the theories they embody, paradigms prove to be constitutive of the research activity. They are also, however, constitutive of science in other respects ... paradigms provide scientists not only with a map but also with some of the directions essential for map-making. In learning a paradigm, the scientist acquires theory, methods, and standards together, usually in an inextricable mixture." (Kuhn, 1970, p. 109).


Bonitz (1983) discusses the idea of an "Atlas of Science" from Wilhelm Ostwald's work in 1919 and forward. He finds that the roots of this concept is associated with citation methods, citation frequencies and citation associations. 

Concretely is the idea used in the design of a tool produced by Eugene Garfield's Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) in Philadelphia. It is based on relations between research fields as mapped by co-citation analysis (cf. bibliographic coupling).


Ziman (1985) discuss "maps of knowledge" from a more theoretical point of view. He writes:


"We tend to think of a typical scientific revolution as something that mainly affects knowledge about a particular 'subject', but the effects of a discovery are not necessarily concentrated within a standard category of the classification scheme of a discipline" (p. 5-6). Further: "For excellent practical reasons, information scientists construct one-dimensional schemes where each specialty is labeled by an alphanumeric symbol, such as 72.15 Eb. These symbols can be arranged hierarchically, or along a line, but this does not correctly represent the neighborhood relations between the categories they stand for." (p. 6). Further: "The next step, of course is to try to represent these affinities on a two-dimensional map, as in Fig. 2 [omitted. See Åström, 2002, for other examples]. It is, indeed, possible to construct such maps, where citation linkages from coherent clusters, corresponding to recognized specialties. But although such a map may be good enough to distinguish between specialties that would otherwise overlap, it does not show all the connections that could be made between the problems that are studied in these specialties. The topology of the network of affinities between scientific specialties is really immensely complicated. A typical scientific discipline is much more compact, much more tightly interconnected, than can easily be represented on a two-dimensional diagram. On almost any subject of research, there is a dimension of theory and a dimension of fact, a dimension of methodology and a dimension of potential applicability. For the specialist there are further dimensions, or at least perspectives, associated with different schools of thought, different approaches and different research goals".


What Ziman (1985) claims is thus 1) that one or two-dimensional representations of disciplines are too simple to provide an adequate picture and 2) that an important aspect of relatedness of disciplines is related to how they interact in the production of new knowledge and in transforming the scientific landscape itself.

It probably is too narrow to consider "sciences" isolated from the rest of society. We need also consider the interaction between "science" and other "super categories". According to Harris (2005) is science - like art, religion and history - one of the super categories adopted by modern societies for explaining and justifying certain types of human activity. Harris argues that each super category has its own semantics. The function of the super category is to integrate what would otherwise be unconnected forms of inquiry, and the result of such integrations is to draw a certain map of our intellectual world.

A related metaphor with a longer history is "the tree of knowledge".






Balaban, A. T., Klein, D. J. (2006), Is chemistry “the central science”? How are different sciences related? Co-citations, reductionism, emergence, and posets, Scientometrics, 69 : 615–637.


Bonitz, M. (1983). Wie lassen sich die Frontgebiete der Forschung bestimmen?  'ISI Atlas of Science' für Biochemie und Molekularbiologie. Zentralblatt für Bibliothekswesen, 97(7), 295-296.


Cahlik, T. (2000). Comparison of the maps of science. Scientometrics, 49(3), 373-387.


Chen, C. (2003). Mapping scientific frontiers : the quest for knowledge visualization. London: Springer.


Engelsman, E. C. & Van Raan, A. F. J. (1994). A patent based cartography of technology. Research Policy, 23(1), 1-26.


Garfield, E. (1981). Introducing the ISI Atlas of Science: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, 1978-1980. Current Contents, (42), p.5-13.

Garfield, E. (1987). Launching the ISI Atlas of Science: For the new year, a new generation of reviews.  Current Contents, #1, p. 3-6. Available:


Garfield, E. (1988). The Encyclopedic ISI-Atlas-of-Science Launches Three new Sections: Biochemistry, Immunology, and Animal- & Plant Sciences. Current Contents, (7), 3-8.


Garfield, E. (2003). "Essays / Papers on "Mapping the World of Science".


Harris, R. (2005). The semantics of science. London: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd


Kuhn, T. S. (1970). Structure of scientific revolutions, 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Leydesdorff, Loet (1987). Various Methods for the Mapping of Science. Scientometrics 11, 291-320.


Leydesdorff, Loet & Rafols, Ismael. (2008). A global map of science based on the ISI subject categories. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

The decomposition of scientific literature into disciplinary and subdisciplinary structures is one of the core goals of scientometrics. How can we achieve a good decomposition? The ISI subject categories classify journals included in the Science Citation Index (SCI). The aggregated journal-journal citation matrix contained in the Journal Citation Reports can be aggregated on the basis of these categories. This leads to an asymmetrical matrix (citing versus cited) that is much more densely populated than the underlying matrix at the journal level. Exploratory factor analysis of the matrix of subject categories suggests a 14-factor solution. This solution could be interpreted as the disciplinary structure of science.


Ostwald, W. (1919). Die chemische Literatur und die Organisation der Wissenschaft (in: Handbuch der allgemeinen Chemie; Bd. 1. Hrsg von W.Ostwald & C.Drucker. Leipzig, 92-),


Polanyi, M. (1958, 1998) Personal Knowledge. Towards a Post Critical Philosophy. London: Routledge.

Small, H. (1973). Co-citation in the relationship between two documents. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 24, 256-269.


Small, H. (2003) Paradigms, citations, and maps of science: A personal history. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 54(5), 394-399.   


Tijssen, R. J. W.; Van Raan, A. F. J.; Heiser, W. J. & Wachmann, L. (1990). Integrating multiple sources of information in literature-based maps of science. Journal of Information Science, 16(4), 217-227.


Turnbull, D. (1989). Maps are Territories: Science is an Atlas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Reprint edition 1994). Click for quotations


Vargas-Quesada, Benjamin & de Moya-Anegôn, Félix (2007). Visualizing the Structure of Science. Berlin: Springer.


White, H. D., & McCain, K. (1998). Visualizing a discipline: An author cocitation analysis of information science, 1972-1995. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 49, 327-355.


Ziman, J. M. (1985). Pushing back frontiers - or redrawing maps!  IN: Hägerstrand, T. (Ed.) The identification of progress in learning, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Pp. 1-12)


Åström, F (2002). Visualizing Library and Information Science concept spaces through keyword and citation based maps and clusters. In: Bruce, Fidel, Ingwersen & Vakkari (Eds). Emerging frameworks and methods: Proceedings of the fourth international conference on conceptions of Library and Information Science (CoLIS4), pp 185-197. Greenwood Village: Libraries unlimited. Two figures: Bibliometric_MAP_LIS.PDF; Bibliometric_LIS_2.PDF



See also: Bibliometric Knowledge Organization; Classification of the sciences; The Tree of Knowledge





Birger Hjørland

Last edited: 07-10-2008