The shift towards the use of electronic media in scholarly communication appears to be an inescapable imperative. However, these shifts are uneven, both with respect to field and with respect to the form of communication. Different scientific fields have developed and use distinctly different communicative forums, both in the paper and electronic arenas, and these forums play different communicative roles within the field. One common claim is that we are in the early stages of an electronic revolution, that it is only a matter of time before other fields catch up with the early adopters, and that all fields converge on a stable set of electronic forums. A social shaping of technology (SST) perspective helps us to identify important social forces – centered around disciplinary constructions of trust and of legitimate communication – that pull against convergence. This analysis concludes that communicative plurality and communicative heterogeneity are durable features of the scholarly landscape, and that we are likely to see field differences in the use of and meaning ascribed to communications forums persist, even as overall use of electronic communications technologies both in science and in society as a whole increases.
The use of electronic media to support scientific communication is one of the major shifts in the practice of
science in this era. There are other shifts in the science system, such as the rise of global science, the increasing importance of the biomedical sciences, the plateauing of support for mega-science projects after the end of the Cold War. There are interdependencies in these shifts – since electronic communication media can often expedite special kinds of communications between scientists who work across continents and 10-15 time zones while reducing the marginal costs of communication. Today, the Internet is the primary medium of this communication. In North America, public access to the Internet has become the occasion for both discourse about and changes in ways of doing business, forms of entertainment, communication within families, and so on. As a consequence, the shift towards using electronic media as a major communication medium seems to be an inescapable imperative. The concept of an inescapable imperative has not become popular as a finding of scientific research; rather, it is popular because it fits simple cultural models of computerization and because it is advanced in many important forums. We do not agree with this view, and will present our arguments in this article. It is easy to give enough examples of diverse practices such as the communication of conference programs as they jell, the sharing of preprints, access to electronic versions of journal articles (both before and after paper publication), and the development of shared disciplinary corpuses so that they appear to be sweeping across the sciences. However, each of these practices seems to be emblematic of specific fields rather than developing in ways that will make them universal.
It is also easy to be sanguine about this differential pattern of developments. One argument is that “sooner or later everyone will catch on” and learn to use the various emedia structures in all fields. It is just a matter of time before laggard fields catch up with the leaders, and the scholarly community converges on a stable set of electronic forums, such as “pre-print” servers, discussion lists, and electronic journals. A second common argument is that the variety of e-media initiatives reflects a creative...