“We thus begin to see that the institutionalized practice of citations and references in the sphere of learning is not a trivial matter. While many a general reader – that is, the lay reader located outside the domain of science and scholarship – may regard the lowly footnote or the remote endnote or the bibliographic parenthesis as a dispensable nuisance, it can be argued that these are in truth central to the incentive system and an underlying sense of distributive justice that do much to energize the advancement of knowledge.”

– Robert K. Merton, “The Matthew Effect in Science, II: Cumulative Advantage and the Symbolism of Intellectual Property,” Isis, 79: 621, 1988.

Science is not an individual experience. It is shared knowledge based on a common understanding of some aspect of the physical or social world. For that reason, the social conventions of science play an important role in establishing the reliability of scientific knowledge. If these conventions are disrupted, the quality of science can suffer.

Many of the social conventions that have proven so effective in science arose during the birth of modern science in the latter half of the seventeenth century.

At that time, many scientists sought to keep their work secret so that others could not claim it as their own. Prominent figures of the time, including Isaac Newton, were loathe to convey news of their discoveries for fear that someone else would claim priority, a fear that was frequently realized.

The solution to the problem of making new discoveries public while assuring their author's credit was worked out by Henry Oldenburg, the secretary of the Royal Society of London. He won over scientists by guaranteeing rapid publication in the society's Philosophical Transactions as well as the official support of the society if the author's priority was brought into question. Oldenburg also pioneered the practice of sending submitted manuscripts to experts who could judge their quality. Out of these innovations rose both the modern scientific journal and the practice of peer review.

The continued importance of publication in learned journals accounts for the convention that the first to publish a view or finding, not the first to discover it, tends to get most of the credit for the discovery. Once results are published, they can be freely used by other researchers to extend knowledge. But until the results become common knowledge, people who use them are obliged to recognize the discoverer through citations. In this way scientists are rewarded through peer recognition for making results public.

Before publication, different considerations apply. If someone else exploits unpublished material that is seen in a privileged grant application or manuscript, that person is essentially stealing intellectual property. In industry the commercial rights to scientific work belong more to the employer than the employee, but similar provisions apply: research results are privileged until they are published or otherwise publicly disseminated.

Many scientists are generous in discussing their preliminary theories or results with colleagues, and some even provide copies of raw data to others prior to public disclosure to facilitate related work. But scientists are not expected to make their data and thinking available to others at all times. During the initial stages of research, a scientist deserves a period of privacy in which data are not subject to disclosure. This privacy allows individuals to advance their work to the point at which they have confidence both in its accuracy and its meaning.

After publication, scientists expect that data and other research materials will be shared with qualified colleagues upon request. Indeed, a number of federal agencies, journals, and professional societies have established policies requiring the sharing of research materials. Sometimes these materials are too voluminous, unwieldy, or costly to share freely and quickly. But in those fields in which sharing is possible, a scientist who is unwilling to share research materials with qualified colleagues runs the risk of not being trusted or respected. In a profession where so much depends on interpersonal interactions, the professional isolation that can follow a loss of trust can damage a scientist's work.

Publication in a peer-reviewed journal remains the standard means of disseminating scientific results, but other methods of communication are subtly altering how scientists divulge and receive information. Posters, abstracts, lectures at professional gatherings, and proceedings volumes are being used more often to present preliminary results before full review. Preprints and computer networks are increasing the ease and speed of scientific communications. These new methods of communication are in many cases just elaborations of the informal exchanges that pervade science. To the extent that they speed and improve communication and revision, they will strengthen science. But if publication practices, either new or traditional, bypass quality control mechanisms, they risk weakening conventions that have served science well.

An example is the scientist who releases important and controversial results directly to the public before submitting them to the scrutiny of peers. If the researcher has made a mistake or the findings are misinterpreted by the media or the public, the scientific community and the public may react adversely.

When such news is to be released to the press, it should be done when peer review is complete-normally at the time of publication in a scientific journal.

Sometimes researchers and the institutions sponsoring research have different interests in making results public. For example, a scientist doing research sponsored by industry may want to publish results quickly, while the industrial sponsor may want to keep results private-at least temporarily-to establish intellectual property rights prior to disclosure. Research institutions and government agencies have started to adopt explicit policies to reduce conflicts over such issues of ownership and access.

In research that has the potential of being financially profitable, openness can be maintained by the granting of patents. Patents enable an individual or institution to profit from a scientific discovery in return for making the results public. Scientists who may be doing patentable work have special obligations to the sponsors of that work. For example, they may need to have their laboratory notebooks validated and dated by others. They may also have to disclose potentially valuable discoveries promptly to the patent official of the organization sponsoring the research.

In some situations, such as proprietary research sponsored by industry or militarily sensitive research, openness in disseminating research results may not be possible. Scientists working under such conditions may need to find other ways of exposing their work to professional scrutiny. Unclassified summaries of classified work can compensate for the lack of open scrutiny that allows the validation of results elsewhere in science. Properly structured visiting committees can examine proprietary or classified research while maintaining confidentiality.

–> 2.4 The Allocation of Credit (i)