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Reading Rober K Merton: Matthew Effect

date: 2013-10-23 13:14

Some notes on reading “The Matthew Effect in Science” in The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations 1) by Robert K. Merton.

Note: Recognition:

Some time ago it was noted that graded awards in the realm of science are distributed principally in the coin of recognition accorded by fellow scientists (p. 439).

Two key points:

  1. the award is recognition
  2. the award is given by “fellow scientists”

The obvious question is whether recognition that is awarded by those outside the institution of science is worth more or less.

Note: “The 41st chair” (pp. 440-441). Those who have made highly significant scientific contributions but who will never receive the highest honors.

History serves as an appellate court, ready to reverse the judgments of the lower courts, which are limited by the myopia of contemporaneity. But in greater part, the phenomenon of the forty-first chair is an artifact of having a fixed number of places available at the summit of recognition. Moreover, when a particular generation is rich in achievements of a high order, it follows from the rule of fixed numbers that some whose accomplishments rank as high as those actually given the award will be excluded from the honorific rank (p. 441).

All the participants in this system are aware of the 41st chair.

Note: The never ending pursuit, the *way station*:

What appears from below to be the summit becomes, in the experience of those who have reached it, only another way station. The scientist's peers and other associates regard each of his scientific achievements as only the prelude to new and greater achievements. Such social pressures do not often permit those those who have climbed the rugged mountains of scientific achievement to remain constant (p. 442).

Are those scientists who are highlighted by social media, and by non-scientists, feel the same pressure? Do they feel that greater expectations are placed on this, because of this medium?

Note: Class structure and the reward system:

Without deliberate intent on the part of any group, the reward system thus influences the “class structure” of science by providing a stratified distribution of chances, among scientists, for enlarging their role as investigators (p. 443).


There is thus a continuing interplay between the status system, based on honor and esteem, and the class system, based on differential life-chances, which locates scientists in differing positions within the opportunity structure of science (p. 443).

Does social media influence a class structure too?

Note: The retroactive judgment implies that earlier work can function as an investment for a future payoff. Even though the payoff at the time may be null or a cost.

See (short quoting now, see text for full marked passages):

Should the younger scientists … (p. 444).


but only temporarily *if* he continues … (p. 444).


In the end, then, a sort of rough-hewn justice … (p. 445)

Note: In sum:

the Matthew effect consists of the accruing of greater increments of recognition … (p. 446).

Note: The “Eccliesiasticus components” (p. 447).

But it has other implications for the development of science, and we must shift our angle of theoretical vision in order to identify them (p. 447).

Note: Science and scholarly communication:

the standpoint of science conceived of as a system of communication (p. 447).

Note: am it seems to me, doesn't really change the system. It only seems to augment and strengthen it. In this sense, it does not seem so revolutionary.

Note: Proceeds to discuss science as the communication of science.

But it [Matthew effect] has other implications for the development of science, and we must shift our angle of theoretical vision in order to identify them (p. 447)

Note: There's no science w/o the communication of science. The reporting of science is the scientific enterprise.

from the standpoint of science conceived of as a system of communication (p. 447).

Note: More of a side note about scholars' reading habits:

It has been found, for example, that only about half of 1 percent of the articles published in journals of chemistry are read by any other one chemist (p. 448).

And, for those that read:

The American Psychological Association study found that from 15 to 23 percent of the psychologist-readers' behaviors in selecting articles were based on the identity of the authors (p. 449).

See footnote 24 on p. 449 for reference to the Coles' study. Here's the reference, from footnote 23:

23. S. Cole and J. R. Cole, “Visibility and the Structural Bases of Observability in Science,” a paper presented before the American Sociological Association, August 1967, and developed further in their *Social Stratification in Science* (p. 448).

Note: This is the *genius* of some researchers/scientists who use social media effectively. Whether their research is original, scientific, rigorous, or etc. hardly matters. Rather, it's their ability and determination to aggressively communicate their messages that has been the cornerstone of their achievement.

The question is whether the content of their message has been “socially validated.” The use of social media by researchers whose research has not been socially validated can highlight an ability that ends up abusing and causing harm to the institution of science. It is the communication of valid science that needs to be aggressive.

All this highlights those odd cases where a junior researcher's esteem becomes greater than the senior researcher's, even before the research has been socially validated.

But, for science to be advanced, it is not enough that fruitful ideas be originated or new experiments developed or new problems formulated or new methods instituted. The innovations must be effectively communicated to others. That, after all, is what we mean by a *contribution* to science–something given to the common fund of knowledge. In the end, then, science is a socially shared and socially validated body of knowledge. For the development of science, only work work that is effectively perceived and utilized by other scientists, then and there, matters (p. 450).

Then, in the next paragraph:

Looking at the Matthew effect from this perspective, we have noted the distinct possibility that contributions made by scientists of considerable standing are the most likely to enter promptly and widely into the communication networks of science, and so to accelerate its development (p. 450).

Junior researchers, by effective use of social media, are then capable of bootstrapping their standing w/o at first really contributing knowledge. At least, that's the possibility.

Note: The focalizing effect:

It required a Freud, for instance, to focus the attention of many psychologists upon a wide array of ideas which, as has been shown elsewhere (see footnote 29), had in large part also been hit upon by various other scientists. Such focalizing may turn out to be a distinctive function of eminent men and women of science (p. 452).


It is no so much that these great men of science pass on their techniques, methods, information, and theory to novices working with them. More consequently, they convey to their associates the norms and values that govern significant research. Often in their later years, or after their death, this personal influence becomes routinized, in the fashion described by Max Weber for other fields of human activity. Charisma becomes institutionalized, in the forms of schools of thought and research establishments (pp. 452-453)


the importance of problem-finding, not only problem-solving.

Sometimes these norms and values are based not on significant research but on the bootstrapping ability to get one's self into the proper arena in a very substantial way.

But, the above in more detail, as it pertains to the aesthetics of the scientific institution:

The role of outstanding scientists in influencing younger associates is repeatedly emphasized in the interviews with laureates. Almost invariably they lay great emphasis on the importance of problem-*finding*, not only problem-solving. They uniformly express the strong conviction that what matters most in their work is a developing sense of taste, of judgment, in seizing upon problems that are of fundamental importance (p. 453).

And this is the aesthetics of science. See the line, middle of paragraph, about the “expansion of taste” as well as “attitude.”

But the aesthetic of problem-finding is intertwined with the basic, hard-work of doing science. Social media's affordances lets someone bootstrap past the hard-work, at least hypothetically. It deflates the aesthetic. The recent no-named movement represents a postmodern aesthetic based on a topsy-turvy lack of hard scientific work and lots of rhetoric. This is post-science, if not just post-modern.


Certain aspects of their character also play a part. With few exceptions, these are men of exceptional ego strength (p. 453).


Their self-assurance finds varied expression within the context of science as a social institution. That institution, as we know, includes a norm calling for autonomous and critical judgment about one's own work of others (p. 453).


They exhibit a great capacity to tolerate frustration in their work, absorbing repeated failures without manifest psychological damage (p. 453).

Note: Then the entire middle paragraph on page 455. Specially this part:

Outstanding scientists tend to develop an immunity to insanabile scribendi cacoēthes (the itch to publish) (p. 455).

And the next sentence, which I separate just to emphasize the notion of merely extensive:

Since they prefer their published work to be significant and fruitful rather than merely extensive, their contributions are apt to matter [emphasis added] (p. 455).

Note: Whether this is still true; that is, whether effective social media campaigns can *bootstrap* the Matthew effect:

After all, scientists do not begin by being eminent…“ (p. 456).

Note: On the bias towards eminence and violating the norm of universalism:

When the Matthew effect is thus transformed into an idol of authority, it violates the norm of universalism embodied in the institution of science and curbs the advancement of knowledge (p. 457).

Note: It's not just that the richer get richer, Merton points out, it's also that the poor get poorer. There is a finite amount of scholarly wealth or currency, so to speak.

This is expressed in the principle of cumulative advantage that operates in many systems of social stratification to produce the same result: the rich get richer at a rate that makes the poor become relatively poorer (p. 457).

Thus, real world problems for certain institutions to climb to the top (unless they can bootstrap themselves, perhaps):

These social processes of social selection that deepen the concentration of top scientific talent create extreme difficulties for any efforts to counteract the institutional consequences of the Matthew principle in order to produce new centers of scientific excellence (p. 458).
blog/reading-robert-k-merton-matthew-effect.txt · Last modified: 2019/06/04 09:44 by seanburns