Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Thinking About Scientific Documents

Back to writing thought papers. I think I’m out of practice. Here goes…

My basic premise in this short paper is that our societal shift from a positivist perspective of science to a constructivist perspective has had profound effects on how we control information… Upon rereading the previous sentence, I realize that my premise is fairly self-evident. Perhaps the discussion will provide more insight than the introduction.

There seems to have been a time when the control of information was almost synonymous with the control of science. Bernal ([1939] 1967), for example, quails at the difficulties in controlling scientific information and upholds the importance of “new” photographic techniques to help scientists process so much new information. Richards (1994) similarly demonstrates the extent to which governments sought to control science through various literature acquisition and funding policies. Both Richards and Bernal discuss the work of Paul Otlet as being quite revolutionary for shaping ideas of how to control scientific information. Otlet himself had a great vision for the role of central depositories of scientific information and he even went so far as to design a machine for processing bibliographic file cards several decades before Vannevar Bush (Bush, 1945) famously recreated a similar device for optical film. Otlet ultimately died a broken man in the closing hours of the Nazi occupation of Europe (Wright, 2003) and his life’s work was largely forgotten—perhaps for good reasons.

It seems that science has moved on from the views of Otlet and Bernal. As we now conceptualize it, information is neither thing (Buckland, 1991), nor brick (Dervin, 1983), but rather some sort of process. Several years after Bernal, Kuhn published his work on the nature of scientific work (Kuhn, 1962). Inherent in Kuhn’s work is the notion that science is not a continuous process but a series of leaps and paradigms. Whereas Bernal has us believe that science is dependent on maintaining the bricks of information, Kuhn would likely advance the position that these brick do as much to wall in science—concrete exemplars and disciplinary matrices—as to enable it to advance.

In LIS, of course, we seem to recognize the limits of scientific theory and the dangers of naively swapping around methodologies and approaches. We also, however, recognize that a great deal of scientific communication doesn’t use the sort of formal channels that Otlet was comfortable with but rather depends upon “messy” information such as letters, emails, discussions in the hallway, or conversations over the conference lunch buffet. Brittain (1982) suggests that between 50 and 80 percent of communication depend on these informal channels. [NOTE: As my colleagues noted, LIS is also rather notorious for just consuming the theories of other disciplines and using them for our own purposes without really understanding what they mean! (e.g., Frohmann, 1992)]

We obviously didn’t always have these formal communication channels. Scientific documentary practices are relatively recent and the actual standards of scientific communication have taken a considerable amount of time to stabilize [e.g., language, citation format, etc. (Allen, Qin, & Lancaster, 1994)]. The early days of science, however, were considerably more open. The “republic of letters”, for example, reflects an era when science was still largely open to debate (Kronick, 2001). A hand-written letter is a manuscript and manuscripts are inherently part of discussion and debate. As the communications theorist Walter Ong notes, “Once a letterpress forme is closed, locked up, or a photolithographic plate is made, and the sheet printed, the text does not accommodate changes.” (Ong, 1982 pg. 132) To Ong, the letters of the earliest scientists would be a manifestation of oral culture.

So how did we get to a position where we have moved to open discourse of science to a commoditized version of science based on the “cascade of inscriptions” (Latour & Woolgar, 1979)? A cascade where the scientific journal article is the highest order of currency (Meadows, 1998)? Has this happened through some sort of Fordist “big science” (Price, 1986) process or is the result of the actual exigencies and affordances of science’s disciplinary matrices and concrete exemplars [i.e., “heterogeneous engineering” (Law, 1987; MacKenzie, 1987)]? I’m not sure yet…


Allen, B., Qin, J., & Lancaster, F. W. (1994). Persuasive Communities - a Longitudinal Analysis of References in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal-Society, 1665-1990. Social Studies of Science, 24(2), 279-310.
Bernal, J. D. ([1939] 1967). The social function of science. Cambridge,: M.I.T. Press.
Brittain, J. M. (1982). Pitfalls of User Research, and Some Neglected Areas. Social Science Information Studies, 2(3), 139-148.
Buckland, M. K. (1991). Information as thing. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42(5), 351-360.
Bush, V. (1945). As We May Think. The Atlantic Monthly, 176, 101-108.
Dervin, B. (1983). Information as a user construct: The relevance of perceived information needs to synthesis and interpretation. In S. A. Ward & L. J. Reed (Eds.), Knowledge structure and use: Implications for synthesis and interpretation (pp. 155-183). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Frohmann, B. (1992). The power of images: A discourse analysis of the cognitive viewpoint. Journal of Documentation, 48, 365-386.
Kronick, D. A. (2001). The commerce of letters: Networks and "invisible colleges" in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. Library Quarterly, 71(1), 28-43.
Kuhn, T. S. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Latour, B., & Woolgar, S. (1979). Laboratory Life : The Construction of Scientific Facts. Thousand Oaks: CA: SAGE.
Law, J. (1987). Technology and Heterogeneous Engineering: The Case of Portugese Expansion. In W. E. Bijker, T. P. Hughes & T. J. Pinch (Eds.), The Social construction of technological systems : new directions in the sociology and history of technology (pp. 111-134). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
MacKenzie, D. (1987). Missile Accuracy: A Case Study in the Social Processes of Technological Change. In W. E. Bijker, T. P. Hughes & T. J. Pinch (Eds.), The Social construction of technological systems : new directions in the sociology and history of technology (pp. 195-222). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Meadows, A. J. (1998). Communicating research. San Diego: Academic Press.
Ong, W. J. (1982). Orality and literacy : the technologizing of the word. London ; New York: Methuen.
Price, D. J. d. S. (1986). Little science, big science-- and beyond. New York: Columbia University Press.
Richards, P. S. (1994). Scientific information in wartime : the Allied-German rivalry, 1939-1945. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
Wright, A. (2003, November 10, 2003). Forgotten Forefather: Paul Otlet. Retrieved May 16, 2004, from http://www.boxesandarrows.com/archives/forgotten_forefather_paul_otlet.php


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