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Reading Robert K Merton: Priorities Part 2

date: 2013-10-09 23:12

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

Note: Picking up on p. 312, section “Plagiary: fact and slander.

Note: The problem, writes Merton, is not rampant steeling, but rampant accusations of stealing.

Merton's account of the accusatory process and how it plays out is entertaining. See, for example, page 314.

Note: Regarding Newton's not-so-nice attack on Leibniz over the invention of calculus, Merton makes this point:

It was not because Newton was so weak but because the institutionalized values were so strong that he was driven to such lengths (p. 315).

Reflection: I think I can buy that interpretation, but at the same moment, I have to ask: how is it that people are prone to institutionalizing any kind of values, whether those values are from the institution of science or some other? I think I'm interested in how psychology would address that question and not just sociology?

Note: Actions take in order to establish priority:

  1. reporting discoveries in the form of anagrams (p. 315).
  2. publishing as abstracts and later as full papers (pp. 315-16)
  3. “There is also the long-standing practice of depositing sealed and dated manuscripts with scientific academies in order to protect both priority and idea” (p. 316).
  4. “Scientific journals often print the date on which the manuscript of a published article was received, thus serving even apart from such intent, to register the time it first came to notice” (p. 316).

And list goes on.

Note: The importance of deviance in Merton's thought. Just keep that in mind, even though I don't think I've been noting it as much as I should have in these notes. This is because, for Merton, what highlights the norms are the deviations from the norms.

Note: Is this still true today?

For most of us artisans of research, getting things into print becomes a symbolic equivalent to making a significant discovery (p. 316).

Ah!! Here we go:

The indispensable reporting of research can, however, become converted into an itch to publish that, in turn, becomes aggravated by the tendency, in many academic institutions, to transform the sheer number of publications into a ritualized measure of scientific or scholarly accomplishment (p. 316).

I recall that Merton will later use the term itch to describe this problem in “The Matthew Effect in Science” article.

Note: More on deviation:

To this point […] we have examined types of deviant responses to the institutional emphasis on priority that are active responses: the fabrication of “data,” aggressive self-assertion, the denouncing of rivals, plagiary, and charges of plagiary. Other scientists have responded to the same pressures passivelyor at least by internalizing their aggressions and directing them against themselves (p. 317).

The point I was to make by highlight the above quote is that these deviations (fabrication, self-assertion, etc.), for Merton, highlight the institutional importance of priority and originality.

Note: Some really interesting words on passive responses follows that above quote–especially the notion of rejection of the institution and self-isolation or exile.

Note: This is a nice conclusion to this section:

But even though the pressures are severe, they need not produce much deviant behavior. There are great differences between the social structure of science and other social structures in which deviance is frequent. Among other things, the institution of science continues to have an abiding emphasis on other values that curb the culturally induced tendency toward deviation, an emphasis on the value of truth by whomsoever it is found, and commitment to the disinterested pursuit of truth. Simply because we have focused on the deviant behavior of scientists, we should not forget how relatively rare this is. Only a few try to gain reputation by means that will lose them repute (p. 321).

And then a nice conclusion to the chapter, which I'll leave out here. But it's a nice description of the institution of science.

blog/reading-robert-k-merton-priorities-part-2.txt · Last modified: 2019/06/04 09:44 by seanburns