Science as Conversation, Part 2: Evolution of Scientific Conversation

Picking up on the earlier blogpost about Science as Conversation, there was something in particular about ScienceRoll that intrigued me — the selected search targets. They are all fairly high quality resources, but they cover a broad range of topics and tools (articles, drugs, consumer health, biomaterials, biotechnology, specific diseases, textbooks, link portals, research sites). Even more interesting, they are very different types of resources — databases, news services, clinics, organizational web sites, even some that are sort of half-blog / half-publication.
Science Roll Example - Sources
Now I don’t want to get sidetracked by talking about the specific choices. What interests me is that this search tool, ScienceRoll, whether through design or happy coincidence, is embracing a range and variety of voices and communities, thus implicitly recognizing that significant scientific conversation is occurring in more places than it did, say, perhaps a dozen years ago?
For most of my life, the primary sources for science and scientific controversy / discussion have been the peer-reviewed scientific journals. The tools we, as librarians & researchers & care providers, have developed to support decision making have been based primarily on that fact. This doesn’t mean that the published articles were the only scientific communications, however. Other discussions happened, but informally, off-radar, so to speak, in hallways & restaurants & bars at conferences, in lab groups, by phone. This part of scientific discussion was never overt and never really captured. There was a certain amount tracked in what is known as grey literature, but that has always been challenging to discover and to preserve. Winker and Fontanarosa noted in 1999 (JAMA) that Letters and Editorials are the main places that this type of informal conversation has been preserved in the scientific literature.
“Scientific discourse occurs in many forms: among colleagues, at scientific meetings, during peer review, and after publication. Such discourse is essential to interpreting studies and guiding future research. However, most forms of discourse become part of the scientific record only indirectly, such as through revision of a manuscript in response to peer review or through the influence of colleagues’ comments on the author. Only one form of discourse—letters—becomes part of the permanent biomedical record, linked with the scientific article through its citation in databases such as MEDLINE.”
Winker MA; Fontanarosa PB. Letters: A forum for scientific discourse. JAMA 1999 281(16):1543. NOTE: Accessible only to subscribers with password.
Let’s go back a little farther, though. Science has always been a dialogue, a conversation, based in an informed and delightfully contentious community. Agreement was not the point – learning, discussion, discovery, challenge and progress played larger roles than consensus in much of science. Consensus actually has often proved to be dangerous, but that is a different topic altogether.
Briefly, in the early scientific journals, it was not unusual to have a stenographer present to transcribe the presentations. (Just imagine, if you didn’t need to write your article — just say what you thought, and someone else would write it down for you? Wow.) The stenographers did not stop at transcribing the presentations, however. They continued by transcribing the following discussion — the questions and answers, the conversations, the arguments. These were often published either completely or as a synopsis in the printed journals. Sometimes they told some wild stories or argued in language that we would now be astonished to find in a scientific journal. Here is one example, but there are (trust me on this) many, many more.
Sometimes the debates crossed from journal to journal. There is one example I am familiar with, The Gies-Marshall debate over salivary factors. James Marshall had been a student of William Gies. Dr Gies was famous as the founding editor of the Journal of Dental Research (JDR) and the author of the formative work Dental Education in the United States and Canada Bulletin Number Nineteen (The Gies Report) (1926) (equivalent to the Flexner report in medical education). He as a personage of some influence.
Marshall was, I believe, the first to introduce the concept of salivary diagnostics. At the time, Dr. Gies took exception to what he considered sloppy science, and was offended that a student of his would be guilty of the same. Marshall would publish an article in one journal, Gies would publish an article strongly expressing concern in his journal (that became the JDR), Marshall would reply to , etcetera. The discussion was, at some points both heated and wounded, and rather dramatic for a scientific publications.
Gies Marshall Debate
I am sure there are many similar examples in the early literature of other disciplines. Indeed, there are researchers who explicitly study ways in which scientific discourse has evolved and changed. Here are just a couple examples that caught my interest. (NOTE: These are probably only accessible to UM affiliated patrons.)
Second JA. How scientific conversation became shop talk. Trans. RHS 17(2007):129-56. action/cjoGetFulltext?fulltextid=1400236
McCarthy, Gavan; Sherratt, Tim. Mapping Scientific Memory: understanding the role of record-keeping in scientific practice. Archives and Manuscripts 24(1) May 1996.
Bereiter C. Implications of postmodernism for science, or, science as progressive discourse. Educational psychologist 1994 29(1):3-12.
Yes, I am going somewhere with this, but am saving the denouement for part 3 of this series. For now, I hope this line of thought has piqued your interested. Here is a web search, if you want to explore more.
Here are my slides from the Medical Library Association meeting in which I discussed this a small bit.


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