The sociology of science

Communication among scientists

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Communication among scientists.

Since one essential ingredient in the development of science is the combination of already existing ideas, effective communication among scientists is an indispensable part of scientific activities. One of the important social inventions in the early modem period in science was the creation of local, national, and international societies and journals as means for the speedier and more general communication of scientific work within the community of scientists. In order to "keep up" in any branch of science, that is, to learn about the new ideas he can use to discover still further new ideas, the working scientist now has to spend a valuable part of his time with the professional journals, carefully studying a few and scanning many others. In addition to reading the journals, scientists communicate at the meetings of professional associations, both formally and informally. Here, too, as science has developed, there has been a proliferation of specialized groups to match the specialized journals and the specialized activities they report. And, finally, through informal visits, letters, telephone calls, and preprint mimeographed materials, scientists strive to maintain the effective communication without which their activities would be slowed down and even stopped.

In his description of the exponential growth rates for different aspects of science, Price (1963) has also shown that there has been a doubling in the number of scientific journals every 10 to 15 years over the last three or four centuries. Because of this large increase, much of it necessary because of the growth of new scientific specialties, there has been some concern among scientists about the possibility of an excess of information; for some scientists, just "keeping up" has become ever more difficult. In response to this felt difficulty, abstracting services have been created and have multiplied, but still the problem of excessive and inefficient communication is felt to persist. At the present, therefore, various groups of scientists are trying to codify and computerize the processes of what is called "information retrieval" in science- So far they have not had very great success, partly for reasons suggested below. [See INFORMATION STORAGE and RETRIEVAL.]

The structure and functions of communications processes among scientists present an obvious set of problems for the sociology of science—one on which much remains to be done. One interesting suggestion from general sociological ideas and from the research that has been done by Herbert Menzel (1959) is that scientists themselves sometimes think in terms of too rational a conception of the communication process; that is, they may be expecting too much from the journals and the formal meetings. In addition to these formal, manifest, and planned communication processes in science, there are the informal, latent, and un-planned ones. Scientists cannot always know precisely what they want and merely push a computer button to get it. Often, through "milling around" at meetings, through chance visits, through indirect channels, they get essential information which they can recognize as essential only when they get it. As a journey into emergent novelty, science must use both planned and unplanned patterns of communication. One of the newer and more interesting focuses of research in the sociology of science is the question of the function of each pattern of communication for different scientific needs and the distribution of these patterns among the different social situations in which scientists find themselves. [See DIFFUSION, article on INTERPERSONAL INFLUENCE.]

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