Mertonian norms

From The Embassy of Good Science

Mertonian norms

What is this about?

Mertonian norms are the four norms of good scientific research first introduced by the American sociologist, Robert K. Merton. These norms are communism, universalism, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism. [1]

  1. Merton RK. 1942. The Ethos of Science, J. Legal and Political Sociology. 1: 115‐126. Reprinted In: Merton RK, Sztomka P., editor., editors. Social structure and science, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Why is this important?

Robert Merton developed his norms as a way to describe what constitutes the ethos of modern science. Since then, research has shown that various practice-based problems still occur, such as research misconduct, falsification, fabrication, plagiarism and questionable research practices. Scientists are still aiming for improvement, and Mertonian norms are still very much relevant.

For whom is this important?

What are the best practices?

According to Merton:

  • Communism (sometimes referred to as communalism) addresses common ownership of scientific discoveries and the need for scientists to publicly share their discoveries. This could be seen as a precursor to modern initiatives such as open science;
  • Universalism is the idea that everyone can do science, regardless of race, nationality, gender or any other differences, and that everyone’s scientific claims should be scrutinized equally. In science, it’s all about your arguments, line of evidence and methodology, regardless of who you are;
  • Disinterestedness expresses the idea that scientists should work only for the benefit of science;
  • Organized scepticism expresses the idea that the acceptance of all scientific work should be conditional on assessments of its scientific contribution, objectivity and rigor. [1]

These norms describe the ideal scientific community. In reality, however, the research climate falls short of this ideal. Scientific discoveries can often be found behind paywalls or remain unpublished. Research can sometimes be appraised and published on the basis of the authority and status of its authors. The culture of ‘publish or perish’ and the increased dependence on grants for success can sometimes obfuscate the value of scientific research.

These phenomena are described as counter-norms: secrecy, particularism, interestedness, dogmatism. [2] Some have suggested employing originality and replication as additional norms. [3]

  1. Merton RK. 1942. The Ethos of Science, J. Legal and Political Sociology. 1: 115‐126. Reprinted In: Merton RK, Sztomka P., editor., editors. Social structure and science, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  2. Mitroff, Ian I. “Norms and Counter-Norms in a Select Group of the Apollo Moon Scientists: A Case Study of the Ambivalence of Scientists.” American Sociological Review 1974. 39;4:579-595.
  3. Turner S, Mccreery G. Scientific Norms/Counternorms. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, G. Ritzer (Ed.), 2015.

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