Proceedings of the AoIR-ASIST 2004 Workshop on Web Science Research Methods























The role of informal communication practices in shaping the production and use of the scholarly web

Jenny Fry, Networked Research and Digital Information (NERDI), NIWI-KNAW (Netherlands Institute for Scientific Information Services/Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences), Joan Muyskenweg 25, 1090 HC Amsterdam, The Netherlands. jenny.fry @ niwi.knaw.nl http://www.niwi.knaw.nl/en/nerdi2/group_members/jenny/toon

“The occupants of a space shuttle approaching earth will see, from a few hundred miles, a uniform and undifferentiated sphere. As the distance reduces, land masses can be distinguished from oceans, cloudless from cloud-covered areas. Nearing touchdown, the visibility of the whole planet gives place to a localized but much more detailed view, which may well include coastlines and mountain ranges, forests and lakes, and later, rivers, roads, railways tracks, houses, gardens, trees and traffic. After landing, the perspective is still more bounded and more detailed – the kind of outlook we ordinarily see as we go about our everyday business. At each successive stage, there is a trade-off between comprehensiveness and specificity. To see the whole is to see it in breadth, but without access to the particular; to see the part is to see it in depth, but without the general overview”. (Becher, 1987, p.271)

Studies of scientific communities and their patterns of communication have focused rather fixedly upon formal modes of communication as representations of scholarly activity, particularly within information science. For example, growth in the number of journals in a field has been used as a measure of the growth and decline of a field (Price, 1969), and co-authorship patterns have been used as an indication of the costs and benefits of collaboration (Katz and Martin, 1997). Bibliometric studies have been very effective in identifying broad overviews of disciplinary communities through the lens of journals and journal articles. With a few notable exceptions, however, such as the work by Garvey and Griffith (1969) who used bibliometrics to study informal communication, they have tended to be limited to constructing narratives from the outside of intellectual fields looking in, and thus, do not reveal the motivations, practices and traditions underlying the patterns that they bring to light.

To a certain extent this legacy has been inherited by the emerging field of webometrics (Ingwersen, 1998) with early studies of hyperlinking patterns conceptualising in-links to a web pages as analogous to citations between published articles (Rousseau, 1997). Authors such as Latour (1998) and Thelwall, Harries, and Wilkinson (2003) observe, however, that the web has provided visibility and accessibility to informal communication. This has validated its importance in the role of knowledge production, giving the web credence as a focus of research within the realm of digital communication (Fry, 2003).

Despite the fact that research in science and technology studies has shown that the informal exchange of information through social networks plays a primary role in the diffusion of knowledge (Crane, 1972) and building reputations (Hagstrom, 1965), informal communication practices and their influence upon patterns of formal communication and communication on the web, such as citation practices and hyperlinking patterns, are little understood in studies of scientific communication. It is important to recognize informal communication as complementary to formal communication in the production of knowledge, dissemination of ideas, establishment of reputations and growth of intellectual fields.

Qualitative approaches that are immersed in the intellectual and social life of the scholarly communities that inhabit intellectual fields are necessary if we want to understand what norms and motivations underlie the type of macro patterns of scholarly activity, or in-activity (Kretschmer, 2004), identified by quantitative scientometrics. Furthermore, research that synthesises qualitative and quantitative approaches (Scharnhorst, 2003) needs to be culturally sensitive to disciplinary identities, as earlier studies have shown that the production and use of the web is differentiated across disciplines (Walsh and Bayma, 1996, Kling and McKim, 2000, Fry, 2003; Heimeriks, Hörlesberger, and Van den Besselaar, 2003).

Theories developed within the tradition of science and technology studies can illuminate both local and global accounts of scholarly activity on the web from the perspective of disciplinary cultures. For example, by qualitatively applying Whitley’s (1984) theory of ‘mutual dependence’ and ‘task uncertainty’ Fry (in preparation) has shown that communities inhabiting fields with a high degree of ‘mutual dependence’ coupled with a low degree of ‘task uncertainty’ are adept at coordinating and controlling channels of communication and will readily co-produce web-based digital information resources, whereas communities that inhabit fields characterised by the opposite cultural configuration, a low degree of ‘mutual dependence’ coupled with a high degree of ‘task uncertainty’, are less successful in commanding control over channels of communication and are less concerned with co-producing web-based digital resources and integrating them into their epistemic and social structures. This is because the dual manifestation of ‘mutual dependence’ and ‘task uncertainty’ has an influence on levels of interpersonal recognition, significance criteria, impact of lay audiences, funding resources and coordination of research techniques and outcomes (Fry, 2004).


Becher, T. (1987). The disciplinary shaping of the profession. In: Clark. B. R (ed) The academic profession. Berkeley, University of California Press. 1987. pp. 271-301.

Crane, D. (1972). Invisible colleges: Diffusion of knowledge in scientific communities. London, University of Chicago Press.

Fry, J. (2003). The cultural shaping of scholarly communication within academic specialisms. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Brighton.

Fry, J. (2004). The Cultural Shaping of ICTs within Academic Fields: Corpus-based Linguistics as a Case Study. Literary and Linguistic Computing 19(3): Forthcoming.

Fry, J. (in preparation) Scholarly research and information practices: A domain analytic approach.

Garvey, W., D. & Griffith, B, C. (1979). Scientific communication as a social system. In: W. Garvey, D. (ed) Communication: The essence of science. Oxford, Pergamon Press. 1979. pp. 148 - 164.

Hagstrom, W. (1965). The scientific community. London, Basic Books, inc.

Heimeriks, G., Horlesberger, Van den Besselaar, P. (2003). Mapping communication and collaboration in heterogeneous research networks. Scientometrics 58(2), pp. 391-413.

Ingwersen, P. (1998). The calculation of Web Impact Factors. Journal of Documentation 54(2): 236-243.

Katz, J. S. and B. R. Martin (1997). What is research collaboration? Research Policy 26, pp. 1-18.

Kling, R., and McKim, G. (2000). Not just a matter of time: Field differences and the shaping of electronic media in supporting scientific communication. Journal of the American Society for Information Science 51(14): 1306-1320.

Kretschmer, H., (2004). Location of hyperlinks. 10th June. Email to Jenny Fry.

Latour, B. (1998). Thought Experiments in Social Science: from the Social Contract to Virtual Society. 1st Virtual Society? Annual Public Lecture, Brunel University, London.

De Solla Price, D. (1963). Little science, big science. New York, Columbia University Press.

Rousseau, R. (1997). Sitations: an exploratory study. Cybermetrics 1(1). Retrieved June 21, 2004 from http://www.cindoc.csic.es/cybermetrics/articles/v1i1p1.html.

Scharnhorst, A. (2003) Complex networks and the web – insights from nonlinear physics. JCMC 8(4). Retrieved June 21, 2004 from http://www.ascusc.org/jcmc/vol8/issue4/scharnhorst.html.

Thelwall, M., Harries, G., & Wilkinson, D. (2003). Why do Web sites from different academic subjects interlink? Journal of Information Science 29(6), pp. 445-463.

Walsh, J., P. & Bayma, T. (1996). "Computer networks and scientific work." Social Studies of Science 26: 661 - 703.

Whitley, R. (1984). The intellectual and social organization of the sciences. Oxford, Clarendon Press.