Merton’s norms and the Scientific Ethos
In 1942, sociologist Dr. Robert Merton articulated an ethos of science in “A Note on Science and Technology in a Democratic Order.” He argued that, although no formal scientific code exists, the values and norms of modern science can nevertheless be inferred from scientists’ common practices and widely held attitudes. Merton discussed four idealized norms: Universalism, Communality, Disinterestedness, and Organized Skepticism. Here we define and explore each of these norms:
1) Universalism – The idea that scientific claims must be held to objective and “preestablished impersonal criteria.” This value can be inferred by the scientific method or the requirement of peer review before publication in the vast majority of academic journals.
2) Communality – Merton actually calls this norm “Communism,” but scientists tend to refer instead to “communality” or “communalism” due to Communism’s political-economic connotations. The ideas, however, are similar – that the findings of science are common property to the scientific community and that scientific progress relies on open communication and sharing. We’ll discuss the Open Science movement in more detail in Week 3.
3) Disinterestedness – Science should limit the influence of bias as much as possible and should be done for the sake of science, rather than self-interest or power. Merton says that
[t]here is competition in the realm of science, competition that is intensified by the emphasis on priority as a criterion of achievement, and under competitive conditions there may well be generated incentives for eclipsing rivals by illicit means. But such impulses can find scant opportunity for expression in the field of scientific research. Cultism, informal cliques, prolific but trivial publications – these and other techniques may be used for self-aggrandizement. But, in general, spurious claims appear to be negligible and ineffective. The translation of the norm of disinterestedness into practice is effectively supported by the ultimate accountability of scientists to their compeers. The dictates of socialized sentiment and of expediency largely coincide, a situation conducive to institutional stability.
Disinterestedness can often be the most difficult norm to achieve, especially when one’s job or academic status relies on publications or citations. Many scientists believe that lack of disinterestedness is a systemic issue – one that funders, publishers, and scientists alike should work to address. Who, for example, gets to prioritize research: those who fund, implement, or publish it? How much influence does the public have in this process and how much should they have? It’s not an issue we delve much deeper into in this course, but it’s definitely an important one.
4) Organized Skepticism – The necessity of proof or verification subjects science to more scrutiny than any other field. This norm points once again to peer review and the value of reproducibility. If a study cannot be replicated, can we say that its results are robust or credible?
If you’re interested in diving deeper into Merton’s work, we recommend taking a look at the article posted in the SEE ALSO section at the bottom of this page.
As you read Merton’s essay, think about how you as a scientist use (or don’t use) these norms. And here’s a big picture question to think about: How can institutionalized processes such as peer review and publication be improved to reflect the values of the scientific ethos?
A note on the text: The original text, entitled “A Note on Science and Technology in a Democratic Order,” has been renamed five times to reflect changing values in the scientific community, and to conform to various contexts of publication. In this article, we refer to the third version, entitled “The Normative Structure of Science,” which can be found in Merton’s book The Sociology of Science.
Merton, Robert K. 1973. The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. University of Chicago Press.
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