New Species Discovered: Meet Amoeba scientisticus

In the first article in this series, I examined the shortcomings of both philosophy (epistemology) and sociology in answering the question What is this Thing Called Science? I proposed that an examination of science-as-literature could be a basis for answering the question, since not only is the importance of “the literature” acknowledged by scientists themselves, but its structure is likely to reflect both the epistemology and sociology of science.
The Wikipedia article on ‘Scientific literature’ says:

“Scientific literature comprises scientific publications that report original empirical and theoretical work in the natural and social sciences, and within a scientific field is often abbreviated as the literature. … . Scientific research on original work initially published in scientific journals is called primary literature. “

Many professional scientists would probably agree that accounts of original empirical investigations published in scientific journals (what I will here call Research Reports) constitute the “primary” scientific literature. The assumption is that since the main task of science is to collect and document empirical observations of the world and since Research Reports are where such observations are first reported publicly, then every other kind of scientific literature must necessarily derive from Research Reports.

Some might argue that records of raw experimental data (instrument readouts, lab notebooks and so on) have a stronger claim on primacy since it is from those that the papers published in scientific journals are composed. While it has not generally been the custom to publish or widely distribute raw experimental data (and one might on that basis question whether such records qualify as “literature”), to do so would be entirely consistent with the ideal of science as a collective cultural body of empirical knowledge. Indeed, advocates of open science often argue for the publication of raw experimental data to be made routine on that basis.  Although raw data records lack the commentary found in the traditional scientific paper, they still necessarily embody choices as to what data were collected and at what point the quantity of data was deemed sufficient to merit compilation of a report. Those choices, in turn, may be made in the context of preconceived notions of what arguments will be made in an eventual published paper. For this reason, I would argue that records of raw experimental data are themselves Research Reports albeit of a different style from the traditional research paper.

Another more obvious reason to question the supposed primacy of Research Reports would be to point out that the production of Research Reports requires investments of time and effort or, to put it another way, funding. Very few scientists today are self-funded. They have to persuade others that they can benefit by making funding available to researchers. Those ultimately holding the purse strings are not usually scientists, though they may delegate the choice of which particular research projects to fund to people who are. Preceding the production of data records and journal papers or other Research Reports derived from them, therefore, there is a need to produce Research Proposals. Such documents deal with scientific issues and, if not always published, are certainly written to be read by people other than their authors. As such, Research Proposals form part of the literature of science and arguably have a stronger claim on primacy than do Research Reports. This is  not only because successful Research Proposals are necessary for the production of research results and therefore Research Reports, but also because Research  Proposals are arguably the most important channel of science communication between professionalised scientists and those who fund them. Unlike Research Reports which are written largely for consumption by other scientists, Research Proposals must ultimately persuade people outside the circles of professionalized science and their success in that is acutely attached to the possibility of producing further science. While the focus of Research Proposals is science, they necessarily and sometimes quite openly also rely on rhetoric and appeals to political concerns. The effectiveness of these in turn can be preconditioned by interventions of science communication in the broader public sphere. For instance, when we consult a professional scientist as a source of expert opinion, we may expect that much of the expert language used will have been rehearsed in Research Proposals and that the opinions put forward are made with an eye on how they are likely to set expectations that will help the success of future requests.

Arguably therefore, while Research Reports are probably the type of scientific document most closely studied by professional scientists themselves, the proposition that they represent the “primary” form of scientific literature is subjective. This can be seen more clearly still if we consider the position of someone unfamiliar with a particular field of investigation wanting to quickly gain a reliable overview. Most Research Reports emanate from those fields of research where the most speculative empirical enquiry is still active. They can present a fragmented and sometimes contradictory view of their field. There is therefore a market for Research Reviews. At their best, these are articles that survey existing Research Reports in a putative field to reveal emerging consensus and any to delineate and point out ways of resolving controversies in that field. Research Reviews therefore add cohesion to a given field of science and help make it more readily comprehensible. In some areas of research, standards of production of Research Reviews have been formalised (for instance, Cochrane reviews in medicine). Elsewhere, their production is more ad hoc, sometimes being driven by little more than a need for scientists without research funding to maintain a publication rate that will facilitate the success of future Research Proposals. In any case, Research Reviews are generally written by professional scientists for professional scientists, but they can provide a good way into a particular field of science for outsiders.

Yet another example of how the supposed primacy of Research Reports is subjective may be seen in the case of Teaching Texts. Old scientists wear out and die; they have to be replaced with new blood. Scientific education serves this market and to do so, it produces various types of scientific literature that can collectively be referred to as Teaching Texts. Most typically sold as textbooks, scientific Teaching Texts can be seen as a further development from the Research Review, for they are essentially reviews. The difference is that they typically cover a broader field (sometimes very broad, like ‘Physics’, ‘Chemistry’ or ‘Biology’), tend to focus on areas of strong consensus and are written to be accessible to an audience who are not (yet) professional scientists.

My purpose here has not been to show that any other type of scientific literature enjoys primacy over Research Reports, but rather that the perception of any supposed primacy of Research Reports is subjective to the concerns of the professionalized scientist working in a particular field of research. As soon as we look at the need for science as a cultural activity to sustain itself either in terms of soliciting funds or recruitment of new scientists into its ranks or for existing scientists to reach consensus on the scope and meaning of an emerging research field, we see that other types of scientific literature start to look more “primary”.

As a bit of a joke, it is possible to represent the relationships between the various genres of scientific literature discussed graphically as components of a “scientistic organism”, dubbed Amoeba scientisticus, featuring an “empirical” nucleus and “theoretical” cytoplasm.

amoeba

A. scientisticus feeds on money and “breathes” people (they are inhaled scientistically naïve and exhaled scientistically skilled). The nucleus is where experimental data are produced. Research Reports form from these and migrate toward the nuclear membrane. They are eventually expelled from the nucleus (published) into the cytoplasm. Here, they react with each other and with existing Research Reviews, leading to the formation of new Research Reviews. Some of these migrate back into the nucleus, catalysing the further formation of data and Research Reports. On the way, while still in the cytoplasm, they may react further with each other and with emerging Research Reports. Such reactions may lead to the formation of Research Proposals or of Teaching Texts. These, in turn allow the organism to extend pseudopodia (funding pseudopodia from Research Proposals, recruiting pseudopodia from Teaching Texts) that can engulf money (funding pseudopodia) and people (recruiting pseudopodia) respectively. Once internalised, funds and personnel are carried to the nucleus where are used to produce more experimental data. Thus, the various genres of scientific literature work in concert to drive the “metabolism” and sustain the life of the scientistic organism. In future articles I intend to show how further genres of scientific literature are used to position the organism so that it can maximise its exposure to the money and people it needs to perpetuate itself.

It might be objected that my account here denigrates science by summarising it as a socio-economic phenomenon and ignoring its ability to produce valuable knowledge. However, the account here is an attempt to describe science in the most general terms. The types and value of knowledge produced by science vary widely between fields of inquiry are therefore not suitable as the focus of a general account of science. Instead, I have focused on the function of science by which it produces various types of literature since, as I see it, this is much more consistent over the entire range of enquiries that we call “science”. Characterising science as a socio-economic phenomenon reminds us that ultimately “science” is, like any human endeavour, just a matter of “people doing stuff”. That in doing so they produce knowledge is effectively a way of saying that they don’t just do the same stuff over and over again. It gradually changes over time.

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