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Re: Merton and the norms of science

Robert Merton's norms of science (Universalism, Communality, Disinterestedness, and Organized Scepticism) are alive and well in scientific communities and should not be written off as ignoring scholarly behavior, as per Michael Mabe's response. A further reading of Merton's later works describe the personal nature of science and the conflicts between impersonal norms (e.g. universalism) with personal norms (e.g. secrecy). Ian Mitroff puts these norms and counter-norms together in a wonderful piece that interviews lunar scientists during the course of the Apollo missions. Its a must-read for anyone studying the sociology of science (including scientometrics) and helps place scientific communication in perspective.

"For if science were also exclusively founded on the norms of disinterestedness, universalism, and community, I doubt science could have arisen as we know it. The point is that each norm is restrained and if any were unrestrained, science would probably collapse." (p.593)

Mitroff, I. I. (1974). Norms and Counter-Norms in a Select Group of the Apollo Moon Scientists: A Case Study of the Ambivalence of Scientists. American Sociological Review, 39, 579-595.

--Phil Davis

At 08:38 PM 5/23/2007, Michael Mabe wrote:
Chris Armbuster quotes Robert Merton, the respected sociologist
of science (and incidentally the inventor of the focus group) in
his most recent post.

Merton famously proposed a number of norms for scientific

*Universalism: new work is assessed by universal impersonal

*Communality: scientific knowledge should be common property

*Disinterestedness: prime concern is the advancement of knowledge

*Organized scepticism: knowledge should be continually subjected
to critical scrutiny

These fairly accurately reflect the belief sets common in grand
old establishment scientists of Merton's day and possibly today.

Unfortunately they do not reflect actual scholarly behaviour,
then or now.

The data for this are very numerous and correspond to the
"I-thou" problem in the dichotomies of author-reader behaviour:
for example, "I as a reader want to see your raw data and lab
books" yet the same person as an author is most unwilling to do
this until the potential for publications and credit has been
exhausted (thereby breaking two of the Norms already).
Researchers may say they believe in Merton's Norms but don't act
like it. An exercise I set for my graduate students is to read
James Watson's The Double Helix and try to find examples of any
of Merton's Norms being exemplified by Watson, Crick or their
colleagues and collaborators.

We are only as good as the last set of data, and unfortunately
Merton's otherwise excellent writings do not always stand up to
this test.


Michael A Mabe (with my scientometrics hat on)

Chief Executive Officer
International Association of STM Publishers
E-mail: mabe@stm-assoc.org
Web:   www.stm-assoc.org