Norms In Science Research Paper

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It is generally recognized that communication among scientists and scholars is governed by a particular scientific ethos, i.e., by a set of rules that are supposed to establish trust in, and guarantee the reliability of, the knowledge created in the process. This ethos, although rarely made explicit in science, was given its most succinct and influential formulation by the American sociologist of science Robert K. Merton (1957 (1942)), who defined it in terms of four basic norms, and with that laid the groundwork for the Sociology of Science. This research paper presents the norms, their significance in scientific and scholarly communication, and some criticisms challenging their actual existence.

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1. The Norms Of Scientific Communication

The scientific ethos refers to those patterns of behavior and implicit norms among scientists that can be traced back in history to the establishment of the academies in England and France in the seventeenth century. Regardless of many changes in detail there is a remarkable continuity in this ethos over a period of more than three centuries. Merton’s formulation of the norms of science can be understood as an analytical condensation of the behavioral patterns that evolved over the duration of this period into a set of institutional imperatives or norms. The ethos, in his words, ‘is that effectively toned complex of values and norms which is held to be binding on the man of science’ and which, although not codified, can be inferred from, above all, the ‘moral indignation directed toward contravention of the ethos’ (Merton 1957, pp. 551–2). The four key norms, according to Merton, were the following.

(a) Universalism is the principle that truth claims are ‘subjected to pre-established impersonal criteria’ (Merton 1957, p. 553) irrespective of the social attributes of their protagonists, e.g., nationality, race, class, or religion.

(b) Communism (later, and preferably termed ‘communality’) refers to the norm that the findings of science ‘are a product of social collaboration and are assigned to the community’ (Merton 1957, p. 556). Property rights are kept to a minimum, and the scientist’s claim to intellectual property may only be exchanged for recognition and esteem by the members of his community.

(c) Disinterestedness demands from the scientists to resist the temptation of using improper means (such as fraudulent manipulation of data) in the search for and communication of ‘true’ knowledge to their own advantage. It is a fundamental institutional element that has its basis in the public and testable nature of science, and it contributes to the integrity of scientists by the accountability to their peers.

(d) Organized skepticism is ‘both a methodological and an institutional mandate.’ It refers to the scrutiny of claims and beliefs by scientists’ peers on the basis of empirical and logical criteria (Merton 1957, p. 560).

These norms or values are inter-related and together shape a system of communication that is uniquely geared to produce knowledge that may be considered ‘true,’ in the sense of being reliable, but by no means final. Universalism guarantees, at least formally, general social accessibility and at the same time prevents the intrusion of any other criteria (political, religious, ethnic) in the communication of knowledge other than those accepted as belonging to science itself. Communality subjects all knowledge to general and open communication, thereby subordinating the proprietary interests of the scientist to the less tangible rewards of gaining recognition by obtaining priority of discovery. It contributes to the social cohesion of the scientific community. Disinterestedness constitutes the self-reference of scientific communication. This means that science differs from the professions in that it has no clientele. The clients of science are scientists themselves; since all are engaged in a communally beneficial search for truth, fraud or quackery may lead to temporary advantages at best. Organized skepticism is the reverse side of the norm of disinterestedness, as it stipulates the impersonal scrutiny of any claim to truth as a general principle of scientific communication. It is institutionalized in the peer review system of journals and funding agencies.

Merton’s list of the norms of science was one of several descriptions of the ‘scientific ethos’ formulated during the late 1930s and early 1940s in reaction to the threats against science and democracy by fascist states in Europe (Hollinger 1983). Merton’s own account was written under the immediate stimulus of direct political interventions in science in National Socialist Germany (Mendelsohn 1989). Later treatments of the scientific ethos have largely ignored this peculiar historical (and ideological) context of its formulation and have focused on its sociological relevance. Bernard Barber, working in the structural-functionalist tradition of Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton, added three values to the list of norms: faith in the virtue of rationality, ‘emotional neutrality as an instrumental condition for the achievement of rationality,’ and ‘individualism’ (Barber 1953, pp. 86, 88). However, partly because of their overlap with the Mertonian norms and partly because of their different theoretical status, they never attracted the same attention.

1.1 The Theoretical Status And Significance Of The Norms In A Sociology Of Science

In order to appreciate the significance of the norms one has first to realize that science in its modern form, as an institution which has the goal of the ‘extension of certified knowledge’ (Merton 1957, p. 552), is an unlikely social invention. The improbability lies in the fact that science emerged from a historical situation in which the production of knowledge was immediately linked to the glorification of God or to the pursuit of economic utility. The unprecedented progress of science began when it became a ‘self-validating enterprise’ (Merton 1957, p. 551), i.e., a separate functional subsystem of society (Luhmann 1990). On the institutional level, the remarkable social innovation was the separation of social status, religious affiliation, and, above all, prestige from the communication of truth claims. The rules and principles which have been poignantly dubbed ‘technologies of distance’ (Porter 1992) were instrumental in creating trust in scientific communication. They were gradually extended from individuals to institutions, allowing for a communication network that reached beyond generational limits in time, as well as beyond the social and geographical limits of personal acquaintances. Historically the process of the formation of modern science spans from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth century when the university emerged as the core institution and disciplines formed marking the establishment of self-validation and autonomy (Stichweh 1984). Merton’s list of norms condensing the institutional patterns have emerged over this period into an analytical scheme which serves to explain the unique status of science—as a set of methods to produce certified knowledge and to accumulate the knowledge that accrues from their application, as well as a set of cultural values and customs that governs these activities. Thus, with the articulation of the norms, Merton also defined the aim for sociology of science to be concerned primarily with the moral compulsion of methods and their impact on behavior, not with their technical expediency. Merton in effect conceived of the sociology of science as an analysis of the social prerequisites and institutional configurations of science. It would in no way be concerned with the substantive findings of science or their methodological underpinnings. Consequently his sociology never challenged the philosophical assumptions that shaped the concept of science at a particular historical moment and which have changed since then, a limitation for which his views have subsequently been criticized. Under the influence of Thomas Kuhn (1962) sociologists began to look into the normative nature of scientific paradigms and thereby crossed the line into a fully-fledged ‘sociology of scientific knowledge.’

The theoretical status of the scientific ethos has been a persistent issue. It has often been argued that scientists do not behave in accordance with these norms and that they are subject to historical change (Barnes and Dolby 1970). However, the existence of norms is not necessarily reflected in actual behavior. Merton’s theoretical construction of the norms is a complex combination of different elements: (a) social psychological patterns of attitudes that are expressed in internalized (but not necessarily explicit) reactions to violations of the norms, in the awareness that one’s own actions or those of others are breaching a code; and (b) social-structural patterns of sanctions, i.e., mechanisms institutionalized in science that sanction, positively or negatively, certain behaviors like plagiarism (negatively) or the open exchange of information (positively). Thus, to demonstrate whether the norms are operating or not, requires a more sophisticated approach than mere observation of behavior.

Merton himself responded to the challenges to the validity of the norms by pursuing two research strategies: (a) the analysis of apparent paradoxes in scientists’ behavior and the resulting psychological and social conflicts (Merton 1973, (1968)); and (b) the study of typical reasons for attacks against science or for conflicts between science and its societal environment (Merton 1957 (1937)).

On the one hand Merton observed a peculiar ambivalence among scientists toward priority disputes and their own interest in priority of discovery. (His empirical evidence consists of biographical materials and correspondence of scientists dealing with priority disputes.) He attributed this ambivalence to the institutional mandate of disinterestedness and the primacy of the expansion of knowledge. Here again, sociological elements are coupled with socialpsychological ones. The need for recognition felt by the individual scientist is not an expression of idiosyncratic vanity but is initiated by the institution. ‘Continued appraisal of work and recognition of work well done constitute one mechanism that unites the world of science’ (Merton 1973, p. 401). Merton reacted to the changes in social-psychological patterns effected by institutional changes. Observing the increasing number of multi-authored journal articles that indicate the rising importance of cooperative forms of research, he concluded that the ‘interest in priority’— by no means historically invariant—may give way to an interest in the recognizability of one’s work in a research team (Merton 1973, p. 409).

Merton’s second approach to documenting the validity of the scientific ethos was to analyze conflicts between science and its societal environment. He observed two sources of hostility toward science: the conflict between methods or important results of science with important social values, and the conflict between the sentiments embodied in the scientific ethos and those of other institutions (Merton 1957, p. 537). The most obvious conflict of the latter type arises in totalitarian political orders—the kind Merton had in mind at the time of his original writing— between the scientific ethos and the political code that routinely discredited science as ‘cosmopolitan,’ ‘liberalistic,’ or ‘bourgeois.’ A more complex effect may be seen to accrue from utilitarian demands on science. Originally in opposition to the demands of the church, the state, or the economy, the orientation to ‘pure’ science may undermine the social esteem of science. Although this purist orientation may be methodologically justified, as it minimizes bias and error by separating the production of knowledge from its application, its social effect may be resentment and revolt against the possible negative consequences of science (Merton 1957, pp. 543–5). This diagnosis has proven to be farsighted. Since the 1960s public resistance to, and critique of, technological projects have steadily increased and the social contract for ‘pure science’ has come under pressure.

Merton’s formulation of the scientific ethos as a description of the special nature of science as an institution has been fruitful in two ways. On the one hand it focused on the effects of structural changes in science on the institutional mechanisms that guarantee the production of certified knowledge, through channeling scientists‘ behavior. On the other hand it focused on the conflicts that emerge between science and other institutions. The question then, is what becomes of the scientific ethos as science and its institutional context change over time?

2. The Scientific Ethos And The Changing Nature Of Science

Critics of Merton have pointed to the many changes science has undergone that are not accounted for in an ethos that is basically geared to an individualist concept of gentlemanly science. Merton himself addressed these changes and granted some plausibility to the view that the customs of scientists must have changed in view of the fact that all the ‘basic demographic, social, economic, political, and organizational parameters of science have acquired dramatically new values’ (Merton 1973, pp. 328–9). He enumerated certain typical phenomena such as the premature publication of results before a theory is corroborated at the cost of more careful competitors, and an intensified rivalry occasioned by specialization as well as a new kind of cynicism, amorality, and disillusionment that goes along with it. However, scientists’ interest in priority as such has not changed as these actions demonstrate. Rather than indicating a change of the ethos, public reactions to apparent or real breaches of the ethos reveal an ‘instructive paradox,’ namely, that the ‘customs governing the public demeanor of scientists and the public evaluation of contemporaries have become more exacting rather than less’ (Merton 1973, p. 338). Merton’s observation is supported by heightened concerns among governments and the media about spectacular cases of fraud in science in the 1980s. Although it is by no means clear that the incidence of fraudulent behavior among scientists has increased, public awareness and vigilance have grown stronger.

Other theorists have suspected that the ethos of science is threatened by fundamental changes in social values. Ezrahi sees a challenge to the scientific ethos and to liberal-democratic values by the counterculture that emerged from the radicalism of the 1960s, which favored values such as personality, authenticity, and creativity without standards. The belief that science is an enterprise governed by universalistic norms that produces objective knowledge by abstracting from its bearers is replaced, in his view, by an individualization of the perception of reality and the production of knowledge (Ezrahi 1990, p. 54). In a similar vein Forman focused on the effects of postmodernist values on science. He observed three main changes in the production of knowledge as causing the spread of these values: overproduction of knowledge and a resulting plurality of standards; instrumentalization of knowledge effecting an ethos of production as an end in itself; and an affirmation of knowledge as ‘bound’ and ‘interested’ resulting from an alleged incommensurability of different stocks of knowledge (Forman 1997).

Whether or not these diagnoses are correct will ultimately be verified by observable changes in the scientific ethos and in the emergence of radically different patterns of the production of certified knowledge. Merton’s formulation of the scientific ethos has provided invaluable groundwork for an understanding of the interaction between normative, psychological, and institutional mechanisms in the production and communication of scientific knowledge.


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