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Understanding the nineteenth century origins of disciplines: lessons for astrobiology today?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 August 2009

William J. Brazelton*
Center for Astrobiology and Early Evolution, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195, USA School of Oceanography, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195, USA
Woodruff T. Sullivan III
Center for Astrobiology and Early Evolution, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195, USA Department of Astronomy, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195, USA


Astrobiology's goal of promoting interdisciplinary research is an attempt to reverse a trend that began two centuries ago with the formation of the first specialized scientific disciplines. We have examined this era of discipline formation in order to make a comparison with the situation today in astrobiology. Will astrobiology remain interdisciplinary or is it becoming yet another specialty?

As a case study, we have investigated effects on the scientific literature when a specialized community is formed by analyzing the citations within papers published during 1802–1856 in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (Phil. Trans.), the most important ‘generalist’ journal of its day, and Transactions of the Geological Society of London (Trans. Geol. Soc.), the first important disciplinary journal in the sciences. We find that these two journals rarely cited each other, and papers published in Trans. Geol. Soc. cited fewer interdisciplinary sources than did geology papers in Phil. Trans. After geology had become established as a successful specialized discipline, geologists returned to publishing papers in Phil. Trans., but they wrote in the new, highly specialized style developed in Trans. Geol. Soc. They had succeeded in not only creating a new scientific discipline, but also a new way of doing science with its own modes of research and communication.

A similar citation analysis was applied to papers published over the period 2001–2008 in the contemporary journals Astrobiology and the International Journal of Astrobiology to test the hypothesis that astrobiologists are in the early stages of creating their own specialized community. Although still too early to reliably detect any but the largest trends, there is no evidence yet that astrobiologists are drifting into their own isolated discipline. Instead, to date they appear to remain interdisciplinary.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2009

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