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Tip: Understanding Rank

PEP-Web Tip of the Day

When you do a search, you can sort the results bibliographically alphabetical or by “rank”. What is Rank?

Rank refers to the search engine’s “best guess” as to the relevance of the result to the search you specified. The exact method of ranking used varies a bit depending on the search. In its most basic level, when you specify a single search term, rank looks at the density of the matches for the word in the document, and how close to the beginning of the document they appear as a measure of importance to the paper’s topic. The documents with the most matches and where the term is deemed to have the most importance, have the highest “relevance” and are ranked first (presented first).

When you specify more than one term to appear anywhere in the article, the method is similar, but the search engine looks at how many of those terms appear, and how close together they appear, how close to the beginning of the document, and can even take into account the relative rarity of the search terms and their density in the retrieved file, where infrequent terms count more heavily than common terms.

To see a simple example of this, search for the words (not the phrase, so no quotes):

unconscious communications

Look at the density of matches in each document on the first page of the hits. Then go to the last page of matched documents, and observe the density of matches within the documents.

A more complex search illustrates this nicely with a single page and only 15 matches:

counter*tr* w/25 “liv* out” w/25 enact*

There are a lot of word forms and variants of the words (due to the * wildcards) above that can match, but the proximity (w/25) clause limits the potential for matching. What’s interesting here though is how easily you can see the match density decrease as you view down the short list.

The end result of selecting order by rank is that the search engine’s best “guess” as to which articles are more relevant appear higher on the list than less relevant articles.

For the complete list of tips, see PEP-Web Tips on the PEP-Web support page.

Robinson, S. (1984). The Art of the Possible. Free Associations, 1(Pilot):122-148.

(1984). Free Associations, 1(Pilot):122-148

The Art of the Possible

Stephen Robinson

The creativity that we are studying belongs to the approach of the individual to external reality … Contrasted with this is a relationship with external reality which is one of compliance, the world and its details being recognized but only as something to be fitted in with or demanding adaptation … In a tantalizing way many individuals have experienced just enough of creative living to recognize that for most of their time they are living uncreatively, as if caught up in the creativity of someone else, or of a machine

(D.W. Winnicott, 1974, p. 76).1974, p. 76).


How does an individual obtain a sense of possibility; a realization that external reality can be changed, can be subverted; and how do we block ourselves from developing this sense? Questions like these have haunted me for about six years now, as it started to become clear to the left that recession was not bringing revolution to the West, but despair and fatalism. Throughout the early 1970s I had flitted from one revolutionary grouplet to another, constantly being amazed by their unfailing ability to crush the imagination of activists who came to them. Briefly in the late 70s, I stumbled upon a few kindred spirits, and for a while I felt we soared high above the orthodoxy of revolutionary activism, on the one hand, and the ‘Marxism as a profession’ that was flourishing in the universities and polytechnics, on the other. I have never been interested in academic exercises, in mating Marxism with psychoanalysis, but I have long felt that both perspectives can provide vital guides for action, if not considered as abstract political frameworks, but as tools for addressing current practical questions posed to us in our work as revolutionaries.

And this is where I began.

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