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Discussion about sleeping beauties terminology

April 30th, 2019

Sleeping Beauty by HarbourTon van Raan, emeritus professor at CWTS, has publicly questioned the editorial policy of the Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology (JASIST) regarding appropriate use of language.

In a well-known paper published in 2004, Van Raan introduced the term ‘sleeping beauty’ to refer to publications that remain largely uncited for a long time and then suddenly receive lots of citations. Recently, together with CWTS colleague Jos Winnink, he wrote a paper studying sleeping beauties in medical research. The paper was submitted to JASIST, which informed the authors that the use of the term ‘sleeping beauty’ is not acceptable. The managing editor of JASIST referred to an editorial published in the journal last year, in which the use of (sexualizing) metaphors is rejected and the importance of ‘appropriate use of language and sensitivity to sociocultural norms’ is stressed.

After being notified by the journal, Van Raan has publicly questioned JASIST’s decision, both in various Dutch news media and in the Guardian, where he refers to the decision as an unfortunate act of ‘political correctness’. The issue has also led to discussion on social media.

Sarah de Rijcke, director of CWTS, comments on the controversy: “This discussion is about an important issue, relating to fostering freedom of academic expression on the one hand and sensitivity to potential bias on the other hand. It matters what we describe in and about science, who does the describing, about whom, and how we describe it. And this issue becomes all the more important when scholarly communities expand and diversify, as is clearly the case here. I am sure JASIST’s decision wasn’t taken lightly, but I also understand Ton’s dissatisfaction with it. The difficulty is that the discussion is now taking place mainly in the public press and on social media. It’s important to have a more in-depth discussion about this matter. Through our contacts in the community, I hope that CWTS will be able to facilitate such a deeper discussion.”

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