Scientific communication and scientific work: a survey of four disciplines

Internet Research

ISSN: 1066-2243

Article publication date: 1 October 1998



Walsh, J.P. (1998), "Scientific communication and scientific work: a survey of four disciplines", Internet Research, Vol. 8 No. 4.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 1998, MCB UP Limited

Scientific communication and scientific work: a survey of four disciplines

Scientific communication and scientific work: a survey of four disciplines

Researcher: John P. WalshDepartment of Sociology, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL 60607-7140, USAEmail:

The Internet and related computer-mediated communication technologies are becoming increasingly central to scientific work. Given recent policy debates and the growing importance of the Internet, there is a need for empirical research on scientists' uses of these technologies. In particular, because the work of science varies across different fields, it is important to collect information from researchers in a broad variety of fields. This research involves a mail survey of scientists in four fields (experimental biology, mathematics, physics, sociology) to understand how research is organised and how communication activity varies by field. This information will provide systematic descriptive information on how the Internet has been incorporated into scientific work. The information will also be used to test several hypotheses from the literature on the relationship between social structure and technological change.

As the net has become institutionalised in the work of science and as it is increasingly being used by the general public, it raises the question of what has been the impact of this new technology on science? There have been a number of studies in this area. Walsh and Bayma (1996b), for example, find that one of the biggest effects of computer-mediated communication technologies (CMC) has been the growth of collaboration. While CMC was not the sole, or even primary cause of this increase in collaboration, CMC did facilitate more collaboration, particularly more remote collaboration. Similarly, Bishop (1994) finds that aerospace engineers claimed that CMC facilitated larger collaborations. Based on the claims in these studies, the research reported here aims to test the following hypothesis:

H1: Scientists who make greater use of CMC will also participate in more collaborations, and particularly, more remote collaborations, than those in the same field who use CMC less.

The few systematic surveys of CMC use in science have also found a consistent relationship between CMC use and productivity (Bishop, 1994; Cohen, 1995; Hesse et al., 1993). Walsh and Bayma (1996b) and Bishop (1994) find that respondents felt that use of the Internet made them more productive, largely by increasing the efficiency of communication within a collaboration, though improved access to information also had an effect. In this study, we will test the hypothesis of the relationship between CMC and productivity, controlling for overall communication (to see if relatively more CMC use has an effect) and controlling for effort (to see if CMC increases efficiency).

H2: Scientists who make greater use of CMC will be more productive. This relation will hold, controlling for overall communication and for overall research time.

We will also collect descriptive information on the extent to which respondents feel that their use of e-mail has contributed to increased research productivity.

Earlier studies have found mixed results on the peripherality hypothesis (that those in a more peripheral position disproportionately benefit from CMC). Hesse et al. (1993), for example, found that oceanographers who were younger or at inland institutions were particularly advantaged by making more use of CMC. Walsh and Bayma (1996b) also report evidence that younger scientists and those at more peripheral institutions were especially likely to benefit from the more open access that CMC was providing. However, Cohen (1995) found no interaction effect of peripheral status and CMC use on productivity. Van Alstyne and Brynjolfsson (1996) go even further, arguing (based on a formal economic model) than the increasing access that CMC provides should lead to an increasing inequality in scientific productivity. Thus, to further explore this relationship (which is at the core of many policy debates about the effects of the Internet on educational opportunities) this research will examine the following hypothesis:

H3: Peripheral scientists (younger or those from less prestigious institutions) who make greater use of CMC will be more productive than peripheral scientists who are less active CMC users.

Recent research in the sociology of innovation has been driven by the question of the relationship between social structure and technology. Walsh and Bayma (1996a) find that different fields used CMC technology very differently, and that the work organisation of a field (see Whitley, 1984) seemed to be associated with the extent and types of use. Prior work on communication in organisations suggests that communication is heavily structured by the level of interdependence (Lawrence and Lorsch, 1967; Thompson, 1967; Van de Ven et al., 1976). CMC may be particularly suited for coordination, especially among geographically dispersed work groups. This contingency theory of the effects of technology recommends an investigation of the following hypotheses:

H4a: Scientists whose collaborations are more interdependent will make heavier use of CMC. This effect will be stronger for geographically dispersed collaborations.

H4b: The relationship between productivity and CMC use will be stronger for geographically dispersed collaborations with high interdependence than for those with low interdependence.

Research methods

To test the hypotheses on the relations between CMC use and the various individual and work group outcomes and to generate systematic data on CMC use across different work settings, we are doing a mail survey of scientists in four fields (experimental biology, mathematics, physics and sociology). These fields were chosen because they represent variation in work organisation (Walsh and Bayma, 1996a; Whitley, 1984), because they are likely to differ in CMC use (based on Walsh and Bayma, 1996a) and because sampling frames were available. We have sampled 885 scientists. During the Spring of 1998, each person in the sample was sent a questionnaire containing items measuring communication activity (including CMC use), productivity, work organisation and collaboration structures. As of May, 1998, after two follow-up mailings, we have received 403 responses (a 46 percent response rate). We will use data from archival sources to help us test for non-response bias, as well as to provide measures of additional variables (such as productivity and institutional prestige).

Expected findings and future research

This research strategy will provide substantial information on how workers and work groups that are steeped in the information sector are using this new technology. Multivariate analyses will show what outcomes (e.g. more collaboration, bigger collaboration, more remote collaboration, more interdisciplinary collaboration, more tight-knit research groups, more productivity, and fewer problems in the team) are associated with use of these technologies, and how these relations vary in different contexts. The results will answer several questions about the relations between CMC use and work place outcomes that until now have not been answered. The results will also add to our understanding of the more general question of the relation between social structure and technology. Finally, the results will be useful to policymakers who are interested in science policy, particularly for dealing with questions of further investment in the communication infrastructure for science.

Three important follow-up studies will be needed. The first is to replicate the study in other countries. There is a need for cross-national comparative data on these questions, particularly since the context (both the institutional context of science and the availability of CMC) varies by country. The second is to re-survey respondents at a later point to test for changes over time and look at the cross-correlations between CMC use and productivity. Finally, there is a need for qualitative research to develop greater understanding of the relationships suggested by the survey data.

References and further reading

Bishop, A.P. (1994), "The role of computer networks in aerospace engineering", Library Trends, Vol. 42 No. 4, pp. 694-729.Cohen, J.A. (1995), "Computer mediated communication and publication productivity among faculty in Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) Institutions", unpublished, dissertation, SUNY-Buffalo, NY.Dillman, D.A. (1978), Mail and Telephone Surveys, Wiley Interscience, New York, NY.Hargens, L. (1975), Patterns of Scientific Research, ASA Rose Monograph, Washington, DC.Hesse, B.W., Sproull, L.S., Kiesler, S. and Walsh, J.P. (1993), "Returns to science", Communications of the ACM, Vol. 36, August, pp. 90-101.Lawrence, P.R. and Lorsch, J.W. (1967), Organizations and Environment, Harvard, Cambridge.Thompson, J.D. (1967), Organizations in Action, McGraw-Hill, New York, NY.Van Alstyne, M. and Brynjolfsson, E. (1996), "Communication networks and the rise of an information elite", de Ven, A., Delbecq, A., Koenig, R. Jr (1976), "Determinants of coordination modes within organizations", American Sociological Review, Vol. 41, pp. 322-38.Walsh, J.P. and Bayma, T. (1996a), "Computer networks and scientific work", Social Studies of Science, Vol. 26, pp. 661-703. Walsh, J.P. and Bayma, T. (1996b), "The virtual college", Information Society, Vol. 12, pp. 343-63.Walsh, J.P. and Roselle, A. (forthcoming), "Computer networks and the virtual college", Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science.Whitley, R. (1984), The Intellectual and Social Organization of the Sciences, Clarendon, Oxford.

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