AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXIX, No. 1, Spring 1997


Study of Large Collaborations Coming to Closure

The Study of Multi-Institutional Collaborations conducted by the AIP Center for History of Physics is nearing the conclusion of its final stage. Having intensively studied high-energy physics in the first phase and space science and geophysics in the second, project staff and the study´s sociological consultants are now covering collaborations in four diverse areas of physics -- uses of accelerators, ground-based astronomy, materials science, and medical physics -- and continuing to examine problems facing the documentation of these significant but transitory organizations. The goal is to construct a general typology of collaborations that will serve the needs of archivists and administrators concerned with these organizations. (For further background see this Newsletter, Fall 1995.)

The staff has completed interviewing participants in the collaborations and is now analyzing transcripts and starting to draw conclusions. We have again discovered that the world of collaborative research is more interesting and varied than we previously knew. Though the internal structures of some of the collaborations we are currently studying are reminiscent of previous cases, in many projects we are encountering structures that are either entirely novel or recombinations of ones we found in the earlier phases with new factors.

For example, some of our findings rom high-energy physics seem applicable to other collaborations that use accelerators, but in several of our current cases, the collaborators distinguish collective from individual responsibility very differently. Collaborations in ground-based astronomy split into those that build facilities that are too expensive for any one institution and those that pursue observations requiring the coordination of several observatories. Though the former are formally organized, the latter can be so casual as to have no formal collaboration-wide administration at all. In materials science collaborations, internal structure is often based on participants´ common scientific interests, not their experimental specialty or knowledge of particular instrumentation. This structure seems correlated with a collaboration-wide administration whose main task is providing fiscal responsibility to a funding agency. To satisfy regulations on the use of human subjects, medical physics projects routinely generate much documentation, though what historians and policy analysts will find useful is often overwhelmed by records of the individual patients on whom the research is conducted.

Each variation in organizational structure is reflected in different communication and records-creation patterns. Coding of the interviews for some 100 variables is underway in the hope that generalizations can be put on an objective basis through computer analysis.

The overall goal of the long-term study is to identify problems and make recommendations to improve the documentation of multi-institutional collaborations. Throughout the study, project staff has been meeting with archivists and records officers at academic, corporate, government, and other institutions involved with our selected case studies. Information about their records programs is combined with data derived from the interviews on such topics as communication patterns, administrative structure, and retention of records. Parallel with this analysis, survey instruments have been designed to investigate academic archives and corporate archives with regard to their capability to document multi-institutional collaborations. Similar surveys of Federal Agencies and their Federally Funded Research and Development Centers are planned. Together, these findings will form the basis for identifying documentation problems and potential solutions.

The long-term study of collaborations is directed by Joan Warnow-Blewett with the assistance of Spencer Weart. Joel Genuth is project historian an Anthony Capitos is project archivist; Wesley Shrum and Ivan Chompalov are the consulting sociologists. Support for the study has come from the American Institute of Physics, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and the Department of Energy. Final reports on the long-term study will include historical, sociological, and archival findings, appraisal guidelines, and project recommendations; they will be issued around the end of 1997.

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