Christina's LIS Rant

(I’m posting things from my old blog while I’m on a much-needed vacation)
This originally appeared December 21, 2007
Implications of newer models of popularization of science for science library collection development*
When we look at science communication – communication about science or by scientists – we normally divide that into communication among scientists (scholarly communication) and communication to non-scientists (variously: popular communication of science, popularization, or the French – vulgarization). Within scholarly communication we have formal scholarly communication (journal articles, books, textbooks, etc.) and informal scholarly communication (sometimes conference papers, but basically any communication among scientists besides what’s in formal – see my review(pdf)). The formal/informal bit was really solidified in the Garvey and Griffith models [e.g., 1].

The “dominant model” of popularization developed over the 20th century (maybe starting in the 19th), but it has become obvious from SSS research that it no longer adequately models reality, if it ever did [2,3, 4]. Some of the proponents of the dominant model are the scientists themselves. The dominant models makes some very large assumptions. Namely:

  • scientists produce genuine knowledge and then it is dumbed down, translated, distorted, simplified, and polluted
  • the public is ignorant — essentially a blank slate
  • the information flows one way — scientist to public [5]
  • scientists don’t want to talk to the public, but they will if they have to to get funding [4].

But we understand now from Paul’s study [4] and others cited by her that:

  • popularization is a continuum
    • writing journal articles in general scholarly publications is a form a popularization
    • textbooks are a form of popularization
    • can be children’s books, to heavy duty journal articles that require a high level of more general science knowledge
  • science is so very specialized now, that anyone outside of the exact area needs a popularized view
    • science professors need textbooks outside their particular field (more to come out of my current research project)
    • scientists are big consumers of popularizations to get ideas from adjacent and disparate research areas for their own work as well as for their own popularizations or teaching
  • popularizations are used by scientists to gain the support for their revolutionary ideas (in the Kuhnian sense) from other scientists


About Libraries

Academic and Research libraries in the sciences (in my experience) collect “popular works” as extra or entertainment reading. These are the first to go because they are seen as extra or not real science. When libraries collect these, they may be shelved in a special place for popular books, and not in with the subject area. Yet, these works can spark creativity and connections for the scientists. In a place with applied scientists who have their heads down in their work, these may serve the very important purpose of connecting the scientists to new relevant research.

But they have to be the right popularizations. There exist book reviews written by scientists of popular science books. How do librarians tell if this popularization is more on the sciencey end of the continuum? Probably from reviews in science magazines and journals as well as by the publisher. Maybe by browsing within the pages? Looking at the footnotes and citations. Hey, how about looking in the science blogosphere (hm, oh that’s another post there…)!

Here’s my point: research science libraries should make more effort to collect and market popular science materials. These materials should be an important part of the service we do — plus they’re cheap. Compare $25 for a popular book and minimum $125 for a specialized science book (yep, really).

Notes (in some strange half apa half other format):

[1] Garvey, W. D., & Griffith, B. C. (1967). Scientific communication as a social system. Science, 157(3792), 1011-1016.

[2] Whitley, R. (1985). Knowledge producers and knowledge acquirers: Popularisation as a relation between scientific fields and their publics. In T. Shinn, & R. Whitley (Eds.), Expository science: Forms and functions of popularisation (pp. 3-28). Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Pub. Co.

[3] Hilgartner, S. (1990). The dominant view of popularization: Conceptual problems, political uses. Social Studies of Science, 20(3), 519-539. (or actually probably Whitley in 1985, but I don’t have e- access to this to check it)

[4] Paul, D. (2004). Spreading chaos: The role of popularizations in the diffusion of scientific ideas. Written Communication, 21(1), 32-68. DOI:10.1177/0741088303261035

[5] Myers, G. (2003). Discourse studies of scientific popularization: Questioning the boundaries. Discourse Studies, 5(2), 265-279. DOI:10.1177/1461445603005002006


* since this was written there have been a few well argued articles that the “dominant” model is not passe and is in place the same time as those developed by Wynne and others. I’m sure I’ll be looking at that stuff again the way my dissertation topic is forming up