Science Backstage: Episode 2.2

Episode 2.2: CUDOS – The values of science

In the previous episode we talked about the “enchanted view” of science, the myth that science is “the only place on Earth where completely disinterested and exaltedly inspired people are making the most beautiful discoveries” (– Science in Transition).

How do we adopt this image of science? As I described earlier, the social aspects of science, which include how science works and how researchers and society picture the scientific processes, are studied by the sociology of science.

Robert K. Merton, who is regarded as one of the first sociologists of science, introduced the CUDOS model for defining scientists’ values. Arguably, aside from the simplified stories about great geniuses like Einstein and Newton, the ideal values of science itself play a big part in creating the myth of an enchanted science.

Let us look at what those CUDOS values are and what they mean:

Science represents a community of enquirers who work together and share their results openly.

Science should not be the project of a specific group of people. This means that publications of results should not depend on who the authors are.

This term does not mean that the scientist is not interested in research. By contrast, a good scientist is very interested in any kind of discoveries. “Disinterestedness” means that scientists should not be interested in the result in the sense that they are (financially) dependent on one outcome or another. Hence, a scientist ought to pursue research only for the sake of acquiring knowledge and not for any economic reasons. Combined with “Universalism” this value means that a scientist should not attack another scientist’s work for other reasons than scientific ones.

Scientists ought to make new discoveries. Replication should only be performed for the purpose of verifying results, which is important for the scientific process. This value emphasises indirectly the importance of “Communalism”: if scientists worked in isolation and in secret, and competed with each other to be the first to make a discovery, then chances would beare high that they might reinvent the wheel.

A scientist ought to be critical about their own and other scientists’ work.

Some constructive core values for an organisation of human beings – irrespective of academia or business

Merton’s idea of scientists working according to those norms has been criticised by many sociologists of science. They argue that scientists are also human beings and in practice do not always work according to those values. They criticise the CUDOS values of being too “normative”, prescribing the behaviour of scientists, instead of explaining it. Aiming for a more complete picture, the sociology of science has since tried to explain what science is and what motivations and values scientists have. For example, a paper[1] on Apollo Moon scientists I recently read, concludes that for the scientists an ambivalence between disinterestedness and passion to pursue one’s own idea often leads to good science. Since the stubbornness that often comes with passion is sometimes necessary to persist until a breakthrough, being preoccupied by one’s own ideas might also be necessary for the pursuit of science even if it contravenes the CUDOS norm. Hence, just like ambiguity tolerance is a good attitude to life generally, it may be a good balance of subjective passion and objective facts which leads to good quality science. Nevertheless, Merton’s values still remain a model for how science should ideally be practised for many scientists and the public, reinforcing the enchanted view of science.

Despite the myth that science is only done well when the norms are fulfilled, not following them often means that something went wrong. In order to analyse to what extent scientists conform to the values of the enchanted view in reality, it is important to first look at the way scientists are rewarded.

When we talk about science like a fairy tale, we usually think about the well-known scientists of centuries ago. Those scientists could usually read nearly all the literature about a certain field, since back then the amount of information available was still small enough. Moreover, they were often “gentlemen” with huge inheritances, and were therefore financially independent.

Modern science doesn’t work like that anymore. Science is performed by people who were especially trained (by universities) and their science is paid for by society (by taxpayers).

This imposes the necessity to find a way to assess the quality of science, to decide on which scientific projects to spend funding. How does this system work?

Within the current system, the assessment and supervision of research is based on short-term “bean counting[2]: the value of a scientist is a very simple function of his publications, their citations and the so-called impact factors of the journals in which those publications appeared. The more citations and the higher the impact factor – which only haphazardly correlates with the real significance of his research –, the “better” the scientist and the more likely he is to receive funding in the future. Hence, society started using proxy measures to decide which scientist/ projects to fund. This fundamentally changed how science is performed, as scientists had to adapt to these measures. This leads to the question of which problems this system entails. In a system where science is funded upon based on economic principles, it is no wonder that there is competition for the best jobs, grants and awards. The personal interests of the researcher do not automatically correspond with the higher goal of science. This yields many bad, sometimes even fraudulent, publications which do not serve science, but which scientists need to advance their careers. Let us look at how the science assessment system might undermine the CUDOS values:

Ad Communalism:
This value is only met to a small extent in the present system. Scientists from the same institutes might work together and cooperation between institutes is also possible. But it is normal in the current scientific world to be in competition with each other in order to be the first to publish new results. Therefore, data is often only shared by scientists after they have “milked” it for their own papers. The Economist reported in their cover story “How Science Goes Wrong”, that the Editor of the Annals of Internal Medicine, stated in 2008 about 60% of researchers would agree with sharing their raw data if asked and this decreased to 45% in 2013.

Ad Universalism:
Within the current system of science, it actually matters who you are; it is easier to get a paper published if you are well-known, if you have won awards and if your previous papers achieved high citation rates. Bias against scientists from certain ethnic groups is still present. Scientists from developing countries who can’t afford subscription or publishing fees might get excluded from the publishing system and are therefore put at a disadvantage when it comes to competing for funds.

Ad Disinterestedness:
Unfortunately, this value is difficult to pursue in our current system. As less and less science appears to be an individual intellectual quest, but new ideas and concepts are coined within complex socio-political and cultural relationships, scientists are forced to deliver interesting (so-called “sexy”) results in order to publish in prestigious papers and receive funding for future work.

Ad Originality:
This value is also threatened by the “publish or perish” dogma. As scientists need to publish in order to receive funding, they often publish “the smallest publishable unit” (also known as salami slicing 🙂 ). This means that results are split up into the smallest bits possible to get more papers out of them. Therefore, consecutive papers often replicate what has already been presented in previous papers. Furthermore, the bureaucratic and dogmatic character of the assessment system causes the “scientific genius” to disappear. Creativity is severely suppressed by the heavy publishing pressure. Additionally, because the decision of which topics will receive funding, risky ideas are less likely to be investigated.

Ad Skepticism:
In principle scientists are good at being critical. But if criticism threatens the “sexiness” or publishing value of the results, then scientists might feel forced to be less critical or even to manipulate the data in some way to increase its sexiness.

I hope that this and the previous episode on the enchanted view gave you a good overview of what the public expects of science and what scientists expect of themselves. Some of those expectations seem to be unrealistic and outdated. Nevertheless, I hope that my research will contribute to science policies which enable the scientists to follow CUDOS, to the extent that they are free to perform high-quality research.


[1] Ian I. Mitroff (1974), “Norms and Counter-Norms in a Select Group of the Apollo Moon Scientists: A Case Study of the Ambivalence of Scientists“, American Sociological Review, Vol. 39, No. 4, pp. 579-595
[2] University lectures on “Science Methodology”, Dr. V. Gijsbers & Dhr Prof.dr. M. Ubbink

Written by Julia Heuritsch | Last edited: 23rd June 2022

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