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Reading Robert K Merton: Priorities Part 1

date: 2013-10-08 20:44

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

Note: Science is often rife with conflict over priority.

For the moment, it is enough to note that these controversies, far from being a rare exception in science, have long been frequent, harsh, and ugly. They have practically become an integral part of the social relations between scientists. Indeed, the patter is so common that the Germans have characteristically compounded a word for it, Prioritätsstreit (p. 289).

Note: Merton makes a very important point here about causation and disputes over priority.

The bunching of similar or identical discoveries in science is only an occasion for disputes over priority, not their cause or their grounds (p. 289).

And this line lays out the work for him in this article–to explain what that cause is.

Note: Merton's causal explanation–emphasis to point out the causal factor:

In this sense, fights over priority, with all their typical vehemence and passionate feelings, are not merely expressions of hot tempers, although these may of course raise the temperature of controversy; basically, they constitute responses to what are taken to be violations of the institutional norms of intellectual property [emphasis added] (p. 293).

Where the “institutional norms of intellectual property” are here a subset of the institutional norms of science:

it is these norms that exert pressure upon scientists to assert their claims (p. 293).

And here's the implication (or the kicker):

This means that long before we know anything about the distinctive personality of this or that scientist, we know that he will be under pressure to make his contributions to knowledge known to other scientists and that they, in turn, will be under pressure to acknowledge his rights to his intellectual property (p. 294).

And here's the other part of that:

But the great frequency of struggles over priority does not result merely from these traits of individual scientists but from the institution of science, which defines originality as a supreme value and thereby makes recognition of one's originality a major concern (p. 294).

Reflection: By peer reviewing based on the soundness of the science rather than the originality or the novelty of the science in a submission, PeerJ either positions (attempts to?) itself outside this institution, so that it can divorce or separate itself and perhaps also revolt; or it positions (attempts to?) itself underneath this institution, so that it can provide a stronger foundation for the institution that has long been. Which?

Note: Now on to the reward system in science.

The award system is “elaborate” and constantly evolving:

Like other institutions, the institution of science has developed an elaborate system for allocating rewards to those who variously live up to its norms. Of course, this was not always so. The evolution of this system has been the work of centuries, and it will of course never be finished (p. 297).

Type of awards:

Heading the list of the immensely varied forms of recognition in use is eponymy, the practice of affixing the name of the scientist to all or part of what he has found, as with the Copernican system, Hooke's law, Planck's constant, or Halley's comet. In this way, scientists leave their signatures indelibly in history; their names enter into all the scientific languages of the world (p. 298).

Merton proceeds to describe all the ways eponymy manifests itself in the sciences.

Nice line:

Eponymy is a prize that, though large in absolute aggregate, is limited to the relatively few (p. 300).

There is even, of course, abuse of the system (see last full paragraph on p. 300, if necessary).

Other types of awards:

  1. Nobel prize
  2. Various medals
  3. “Memberships in honorary academies and sciences” (p. 301)
  4. “Fellowships in national and local societies” (p. 301)
  5. Enobling
  6. Honorary degrees

Note: On to humility.

the socially enforced value of humility is in most immediate point, serving, as it does, to reduce the misbehavior of scientists below the rate that would occur if importance were assigned only to originality and the establishing of priority (p. 303).

And this:

I think humility as value might be the most challenged, but this is very complicated. Does the current incarnation of the institution of science value humility? Is there an incentive to be humble or is there an incentive to be self-promotional and self-lauding? Incorporate into analysis.

Note: The next section discusses the tension between the value of priority in scientific discovery and the value of humility.

This is an exceptionally important point:

be it noted that scientific knowledge is not the richer or the poorer for having credit given where credit is due; it is the social institution of science and individual men of science that would suffer from repeated failures to allocate credit justly (p. 307).

Note: On fraud:

The extreme form of deviant behavior in science would of course be the use of fraud to obtain credit for an original discovery (p. 309).


the pressure to demonstrate the truth of a theory or to produce a sensational discovery has occasionally led to the faking of scientific evidence (p. 310).

This is interesting too, within current context, given that 1) the pressure to produce is probably higher than it's every been in the history of science, and 2) yet there exists a great demand for more transparency and more data re-use, which would make science not only more reproducible (which is the argument for such things) but also more difficult to fake, conceivably at least.

Here's why Merton is not too worried about fraud:

Apart from the moral integrity of scientists themselves–and this is, of course, the major basis for honesty in science–there is much in the social organization of science that provides a further compelling basis for honest work. Scientific research is typically, if not always, under the exacting scrutiny of fellow experts, involving, as it usually though not always does, the verifiability of results by others. Scientific inquiry is in effect subject to rigorous policing, to a degree perhaps unparalleled in any other field of human activity (p. 311).

Reflection: The note on moral integrity is significant, I think, and is often glossed over in arguments about what, for example, peer review is supposed to accomplish. There will be some parts of the work of science that no one will ever be able to confirm was done appropriately. It seems to me that there will always have to be, at some level, some trust involved, no matter how high the stakes.

Part 2 of these notes come next.

  • categories:
    • lit review
    • peer review
    • peerj
    • research
    • merton
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