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--> Planned and Unplanned Scientific Communication HERBERT MENZEL Under a grant from the National Science Foundation of Washington, D.C., the Bureau of Applied Social Research of Columbia University has undertaken to explore ways in which communication research by interview survey methods can contribute to an understanding of the needs and means of scientific information-exchange. On the basis of such an understanding, proposals to improve scientific communication might be generated and evaluated. As a first step, it was decided to study the information-exchanging behavior of the biochemists, chemists, and zoologists on the faculty of a single academic institution—a prominent American university1. This paper reports selected results. A more complete account is on deposit with the National Science Foundation. The objectives of the research that is ultimately envisaged had been defined as follows: To distinguish the types of informational needs which scientists have, and to determine in what respects they remain unsatisfied. To examine the means and occasions of scientific information-exchange, HERBERT MENZEL Bureau of Applied Social Research, Columbia University, New York. This paper is Publication A-259 of the Bureau of Applied Social Research, Columbia University. It is based on a pilot study carried out at the Bureau under the supervision of Charles Y.Glock. William A.Glaser and Robert H.Somers collaborated with the author in the execution of the work. The Bureau operated under a grant from the Office of Scientific Information of the National Science Foundation. The encouragement given this work by Helen L.Brownson and Harry Alpert of the Foundation is gratefully acknowledged. Special thanks are due the biochemists, chemists, and zoologists whose generous contributions of interviewing time and attention made this work possible. Their visible interest in the matters discussed was a source of continuous stimulation. 1 The 77 scientists whose interviews are analyzed here include all but 8 of the following: teaching faculty in biochemistry; teaching faculty and research associates in chemistry and zoology; provided they were in residence on the campus of the university during the spring of 1957. (Four biochemists, one chemist, and one zoologist refused to be interviewed, or to complete an interrupted interview. Two zoologists were interviewed for background information only.)
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--> in order to single out the features which make them more or less able to meet the scientist’s several needs. To analyze characteristics of the scientist’s specialty, his institution, and his outlook as possible conditions which influence his needs for information, his opportunities for satisfying them, and, hence, his information-gathering habits and felt satisfactions. The exploratory study was intended to define problems, categories, and procedures for more systematic investigation. Although this report contains numerous frequency counts based on interview responses, they are to be regarded as illustrations of the possible outcome of further work and not as reliable findings. They may not even reliably describe the three academic departments studied, since the interview schedule was continuously modified and developed as the work proceeded.2 A SYSTEMIC VIEW While the population of the initial study is small, it was decided to cast a broad conceptual net: to consider all the channels through which scientists exchange and gather information, and all the functions which scientific communication facilities are called upon to perform. In fact, the functions which the facilities must serve were made the organizing principle of the study. Rather than to ask, at the outset, “How well does this journal perform? How much does this meeting accomplish? What is wrong with that indexing system?” it was decided to ask as a first set of questions: “What are the functions of the scientific communication system? What mechanisms are now available for performing them? What are the inadequacies in the present performance of each function?” This decision was founded on the belief that specific topics for investigation can be wisely selected and defined only after the broader context has been scanned. Furthermore, studies of communication processes among non-scientific publics3 had shown that different communication functions are often performed, at their best, through different channels, and that the diverse channels may supplement one another in intricate ways. Accordingly, we include in our purview not only the scientific literature and 2 The schedule contained both structured and unstructured questions. A copy of the most recently used version is appended. The average interview took 1.9 hours. 3 Many such studies are reviewed in Elihu Katz and Paul F.Lazarsfeld’s Personal Influence: The Part Played by People in the Flow of Mass Communication, Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1955, and in Elihu Katz’ The two-step flow of communication, Public Opinion Quarterly, 21, 1957, pp. 61–78.
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--> its manifold storing, abstracting, and indexing appendages; not only the formally established meetings and conferences, but also the informal, person-to-person modes of communication like correspondence, visits, and corridor conversations. Secondly, we conceive of scientific communication as not necessarily limited to simple transactions between an individual scientist and a source of information. Communication includes more complex processes: several different channels of communication may have to interact to complete a transaction; one or more persons may serve as relays between the source of a message and its ultimate consumer; and contacts at each intervening step may be initiated now by the receiver, now by the bringer of the message. For these reasons we shall speak, somewhat loosely, of the “scientific communication system,” meaning the totality of all publications, facilities, occasions, institutional arrangements, and customs which affect the direct or indirect transmission of scientific messages among scientists. Thirdly, we believe that policies to improve the scientific communication system must be planned in terms of the entire range of its contributions to scientific progress, and not only in terms of the most obviously necessary informational services. At the present time, most plans are quite naturally directed at maximizing the efficiency of the system in the performance of its two most obvious functions: that of bringing scientists the available answers to specific questions, and that of keeping them abreast of current developments in given areas. Yet the policies that recommend themselves for these purposes may not be adequate to assure the fulfillment of other functions of the scientific communication system; and it is just possible that some of these same policies, say the shortening of papers at meetings or the streamlining of periodicals, may be detrimental to the system’s other functions, which are not so obvious, but nevertheless important. MULTIPLE FUNCTIONS OF THE SCIENTIFIC COMMUNICATION SYSTEM The scientific communication system serves the progress of science not merely through the reference services it performs and through keeping scientists up to date in their chosen areas of attention. It serves in a variety of other ways as well: by enabling scientists to brush up on past work in additional areas; to verify the reliability of one source of information through the testimony of another; to ascertain the current demand for research on given topics; to locate rare materials; and so on. In fact it would be a mistake to think that the functions of scientific communication for the progress of science are limited
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--> to satisfying the informational needs of which each scientist is aware; that the only important job of the scientific communication system is, so to speak, to give each scientist what he wants, and knows he wants. One important function of scientific communication which transcends the informational requirements each scientist can define for himself is that of directing the scientist’s attention to new topics beyond those with which he has “kept up” in the past. Another is to assure the eliciting of suggestions and criticisms from fellow scientists. These and other rarely considered functions of the scientific communication system, and some of the mechanisms by which they are satisfied, are discussed in the report which has been deposited with the National Science Foundation. Keeping scientists up to date Yet even the performance of functions of which everyone is well aware requires more than the prompt appearance of information in the official channels (journals, meetings, etc.) and more than painless access to these media. It is, for example, not these formal media alone that keep scientists informed of current developments in their chosen areas of attention, in spite of the prodigious amounts of planned effort devoted to this communication function by individual scientists as well as by the professional organizations and publishers. In fact, the news which comes to the attention of scientists is not restricted to the information obtained when they intentionally “gather information,” as it is called. Fortunately so! For a good deal of the news which comes to their attention in unplanned and unexpected ways, during activities undertaken and on occasions sought out for quite different purposes, proves to be of considerable significance to them. At least this was a frequent experience among the scientists we interviewed, in spite of the fact that their intentional activities for gathering information about current developments ranged all the way from the assiduous perusal of current periodicals to the button-holing of colleagues who had returned from conferences. It was thought that it would be instructive to examine instances of significant scientific news coming to the attention of scientists through other ways than those which they systematically employ to “keep up.” This line of investigation was included in our study not only to learn about the operation of communication through informal and personal channels; by implication, it was thought, this approach would also throw light on possible inadequacies in the formally established methods of bringing current news to the scientist. Under an ideally functioning communication system, it was thought, the routinized and regular methods of gathering information would convey to each man all
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--> the scientific news that is pertinent to his work. Any pertinent information that actually reaches a man in some extra-routine or accidental way would therefore indicate a service not adequately performed through the routine system. As will be seen below, however, this form of interrogatory also taught some unanticipated lessons which are, perhaps, even more important. In order to obtain records of instances of useful scientific news obtained during activities not undertaken for this purpose, the following question was asked: Have there been any instances where some unlooked-for piece of information came your way that turned out to have bearing on your work? (If Yes) Tell me about the last time this happened. Supplementary questions were asked in order to obtain complete accounts of the experiences. Not all the replies given proved pertinent to the present topic. Excluded from the list finally used were all accounts of information obtained in the course of routinely scanning the literature, attending meetings, or engaging in any other activity which was explicitly designed to find out what is new. Also excluded were episodes of information learned in the course of ordinary intercourse with departmental colleagues. Thirty-five usable accounts were obtained. UNPLANNED MECHANISMS The extra-routine mechanisms by which these messages reached the interviewed scientists are of four basic types: 1. The scientist searches the literature for one particular item of information, and in the process stumbles across another which proves useful to him. This, of course, is in addition to the countless times when a scientist comes upon some useful information which he had not anticipated in the course of his routine perusal of journals, or in the course of listening to the program of meetings which he regularly attends. What is meant here is rather a scientist searching the literature in order to find the answer to some specific question, and coming across pertinent information of another sort, information which he would probably not have seen had it not been for the accident of his search for the first topic. Thus a paleontologist reported:4 This morning my assistant wanted information on the geology of Southern Britain at a certain time. The same journal happened to contain information which will be interesting to our formal analysis problem…. (Do you think you would have seen this particular item otherwise?) It is doubtful. 4 Unless otherwise indicated, matter set in smaller type is quoted from scientists’ statements during the interviews. Matter in brackets [ ] paraphrases or supplements scientists’ statements. Matter in parentheses ( ) quotes what the interviewer said to the scientist.
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--> 2. The second kind of situation which leads to the unexpected acquisition of information pertinent to one’s work occurs when a scientist, in the course of contact for another purpose, informs a colleague of his current work or of some obstacle which preoccupies him at the moment, and is rewarded with an item of information that becomes important to his progress. A zoologist made an unexpected find in this way: I learned in this way the whole technique for solving the problem of the recording technique for…. This had baffled scientists for twenty years. I went to a man at… Institute to buy some wire—Dr…., in the…Laboratory. He is an able and imaginative fellow. In conversation, we talked about my research and problems, and he dropped the hint which enabled me to solve the problem of the recording technique. 3. Sometimes a scientist hears about new developments from a colleague who volunteers the information while they are thrown together for another purpose. (We exclude here information gleaned during corridor conversations at scientific meetings, or on any other occasion attended for the explicit purpose of gathering news.) This may happen frequently during informal visits by one scientist to the laboratory of another. For example: I went to the…Institute two months ago to give a talk. I stopped to see Dr. A. He is working in a different field. He found that a certain substance crystallized under certain conditions. We are interested in finding many different kinds of crystals. We will try using his experimental methods here. What Dr. A. found may not ever be published by him—it was a side effect, as far as he was concerned. 4. There is a fourth manner in which information of immediate relevance comes to the attention of scientists by what appears to be accidental routes. Frequently a colleague will deliberately seek out a scientist whom he knows to be interested in the matter, in order to convey to him some information that he happens to have heard. Thus, for example, a biochemist: started a new project because I heard that someone in Germany had positive results in a related field. He published it one-half year later…. (How did you hear about the German scientist?) He had sent his unpublished results to another man in America who knew my interests and told me. And a chemist gives a very detailed and instructive account of such an incident: One of the problems in our work is to do a certain chemical separation. Recently a friend of mine had been in Europe. He met a young German who was developing a new technique. So we now try to apply this to our problems. Neither my friend nor I knew about the existence of this procedure before the encounter. The young German had invented this. My friend had not been looking for it—he was going through Europe, visiting labs and drinking beer with the people at the various labs. This technique was of no particular interest to my friend, but he knew it would interest me, and told me when he got back.
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--> Table 1 shows how many accounts of experiences of each of these four kinds were reported by the interviewed scientists. It also shows that about half of the messages transmitted in these personal ways were actually in print at the time. TABLE 1. Useful information obtained “accidentally”:a how obtained Manner in which message reached the interviewed scientist Number of messages Total Published Not published Found in the literature while searching for another topic 4 4 — Contributed by a fellow scientist upon being informed of colleague’s current work 13 8 5 Spontaneously mentioned by a colleague while together for another purpose 4 — 4 Specifically addressed to the interviewed scientist by a colleague 9 2 7 Other, or not specified 5 2 3 Total 35 16 19 a Exclusive of information learned during ordinary intercourse with departmental colleagues, while scanning the literature, while attending meetings, or while engaging in any other activity explicitly designed to find out what is new. CONTENT OF INFORMATION OBTAINED What was the content of these messages which reached their consumers in such unexpected ways? Ten of the messages informed the scientist of new findings or principles (a biological mutant described, an archaeological find reported, a chemical reaction performed, etc.); eight informed him of the existence of new techniques, procedures, or apparatus; four furnished him details on the performance or adaptation of a technique; five told him who was doing work on a given topic or from whom a particular material could be obtained (Table 2). TABLE 2. Useful information obtained “accidentally”:a content Number of messages Content of message Total Published Not published New findings or principles 10 6 4 New procedure or apparatus 8 3 5 Details on procedure 4 2 2 Who does what; where to obtain material 5 1 4 Not indicated 8 4 4 Total 35 16 19 a Exclusive of information learned through ordinary intercourse with departmental colleagues, while scanning the literature, while attending meetings, or while engaging in any other activity explicitly designed to find out what is new.
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--> The figures in Tables 1 and 2, as most of the figures throughout this report, are to be regarded as no more than suggestive and illustrative of possible findings of more systematic studies, as mentioned earlier. What they do suggest is that the apparently accidental obtaining of pertinent information plays a large role in the work of the interviewed researchers. Examples of it come up again and again in our interview protocols. INDIVIDUAL ACCIDENT—AGGREGATE REGULARITY? Why should this manner of learning of new developments be so prevalent? Part of the reason must be sought in the nature of specialization among basic researchers at the top level. They not only specialize to a high degree, but they also delineate their specialties in highly individual and original ways; often no more than a small handful will be specializing in precisely the same area. All the possible ways of classifying content cannot possibly be taken into account in the organization of journals, in the indexing and abstracting services, or even in the selection of titles for papers. Any given researcher is likely to find that the way of classifying reports which would be most relevant for his purposes has not been used. Within the confines of a narrow field, he attempts to scan everything that comes out; but beyond that he must depend largely on friends who work in the adjoining specialties, yet know what is of interest to him, to flag the pertinent material for him. You see what happens around here [says a biochemist]. Everyone knows what problems you’re working on. Whenever you come across something which might be of interest to another you make a note of it. This way the individual is able to be acquainted with a lot more than he would be if he didn’t have the others on the look-out too. If this is true, it becomes imperative to consider the information network as a system, and not merely as an aggregate of information-dispensing or information-consuming individuals. What is little better than an accident from the point of view of the individual may well emerge as an expected occurrence from a larger point of view. For while there is only a small likelihood that any accidentally obtained piece of information will be of use to the individual scientist who obtained it, the likelihood that it will be of interest to at least one of his departmental colleagues is much larger. And if enough members of a given department or research group are plugged into branches of the professional grapevine through consultantships, secondary appointments at other institutions, committee services, and personal correspondence and visits, they may collectively be able to assure each of them a good share of the news about work in progress that interests him. The formal and organized means of communication—especially the periodi-
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--> cal literature, including its voluminous abstracting services and review publications—serve the scientist most efficiently when he knows precisely what he is looking for, when he needs the answer to a specific question. When it comes to bringing scientists together with information the significance of which to their own work they have not anticipated; when it comes to pushing out the frontiers, it may be that the system of informal and “accidental” means of communication, inefficient though it may be, is as reliable a mechanism as one can get. In fact, the very frequency of the “chance” occurrences of information transmittal, which was illustrated in the preceding pages, suggests that they may not be altogether accidental; perhaps, if knowledge of a particular item hadn’t come to the researcher one way, it would have come through another, although a little later. One chemist told us of an experience which seems to bear this out rather dramatically. He had done some experimental work in 1955 and had published a report without fully realizing the relevance of his work to the chemical theory of a certain reaction mechanism. Between 1955 and 1957, he was led to earlier literature which suggested this significance of his experiment to him. During the same period, this fact was also brought home to him through three contacts with other scientists which had ensued from his work in three quite independent ways. To what extent one can depend on these apparently fortuitous mechanisms of communication to bring the right combination of scientist and information together is, of course, not known. It is, however, worthwhile to consider the totality of information exchanges among scientists as a system, to accept what appears as “accidental” communication as part of the system, and to examine the ways in which the system, including its unorganized components, may be made to operate more efficiently and more reliably. Furnishing answers to specific questions These pages make it fairly clear that the functions of the scientific communication system extend beyond the bounds of enabling the scientist to get the information which he knows he wants. Yet even to get the scientist the information which he knowingly seeks takes more than the means officially established for this purpose. This can be seen when one examines the ways in which scientists secure the available answers to specific questions. Yet no other function of the scientific communication system has received more solicitous care through formal arrangements than this “reference function.” Copious amounts of planned effort and many specially designed devices—indexes, abstracts, card files, compendia, handbooks, loose-leaf services, and what not—are employed
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--> in its service. Analysts study the completeness of coverage of these facilities, the time lags involved in their preparation, the suitability and logical structure of the categories they employ. Scientists and engineers streamline the existing facilities and devise new ones—microfilm libraries, new cataloguing systems, mechanical retrieval systems. These are also the topics which occupy the largest single portion of the program of the present International Conference. SEARCHES OUTSIDE THE LITERATURE Here, once again, our exploratory study sought to gain insight by examining the reverse side of the coin. Instances when scientists secured answers to specific questions in other ways than those deliberately designed for this purpose were recorded. As before, it was hoped that this procedure would, on the one hand, illumine the operation of the informal avenues of communication, and that it would, on the other hand, point up the services which the formal reference facilities fail to perform. Eventually, such knowledge may suggest ways of having the formal facilities do more adequately the job they presently fail to do. Or, depending on the circumstances, it might be found more practicable to improve the operation of informal avenues of communication. More of this later. The following question was included in the interview: …Can you tell me about the last time you used another channel than just the literature to find the answer to some question that arose in connection with your work? CONTENT OF INFORMATION SOUGHT In examining the replies to this question, it is striking how intimately the content of the information sought is tied up with the reason for seeking it outside of the regular channels of the literature search. For in two-thirds of the reported cases, the nature of the information sought either made it improbable that it would appear in the literature at all, or made it seem very difficult to track down, even if published. Most of these searches were for practical details to supplement basic knowledge which was already at hand: unpublished minor details of already published findings; information about the use of techniques and the adaptation of apparatus; quests for the fruits of experience and know-how. For example: I have two former Ph.D.’s at…Institute. We have some equipment that was developed there, and I called them up for questions about it not long ago. Or: Last week there was a conference…in the city…. There were specific questions that were troubling me, about modifications in our instruments. I made it my
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--> business to have lunch with some people who were working at other laboratories in the country, and found out if…they had any experience with specific devices that are mentioned in the literature. E.g.,…I asked someone, “Have you used this? Does it work as well as the article reports?” In the remaining one-third of the episodes, the information was secured through personal channels although the nature of its content would not seem to have barred it from appearing in print, or from being traced if published. But in half of these cases, the information sought had not, in fact, appeared in print at the time it was secured by the interviewed scientists. For example, I now intend to write someone in Chicago and he will answer me…. A number of things are not available to me [otherwise], and they have it in Chicago…[It is on] the purely theoretical calculations of electronic structure of molecules. In the other instances the information is known to have been available in print at the time it was secured. Personal channels were used in the following ways: obtaining citations from students; having a friend at a pharmaceutical company arrange for the searching, excerpting, and collating of literature; securing in conversation with a local fellow zoologist the published background information about an organism. Table 3 summarizes the types of specific information which the interviewed scientists reported having secured through informal channels rather than through a literature search. TABLE 3. Answers to specific questions sought through personal channels: nature of the information sought Number of episodes related by: Nature of the information sought Total Biochemists Chemists Zoologists Publication or indexing unlikely Facts to be newly established 2 — 1 1 Practical details on: Materials 2 1 — 1 Apparatus 2 — 2 — Techniques 10 1 2 7 Findings 2 — 2 — Publication, indexing not unlikely Techniques 5 2 1 2 Findings 5 2 2 1 Total 28 6 10 12 PERSONS CONSULTED AS SOURCES Given that information was sought through personal channels, how did these scientists know to whom to address their questions? How did they decide whom to ask, when more than one possible source existed? Did they address inquiries “cold,” or did they tend to seek out colleagues with whom they had
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--> CHART 2 Q. 4.12 Which of these are most important in calling to your attention the current developments in certain fields? listening to papers at meetings and conferences scanning abstracts of meetings periodical abstracts reports from your students or assistants own scanning of journal content review articles and volumes, general science journals, books conversations with colleagues here conversations with scientists elsewhere correspondence, pre- or reprints, abstracts directly from authors references in reading on other subjects presentations in seminars, etc. CHART 3
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