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Table of Contents
Index
Glossary
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Next: A profile of the Up: Requirements for scientific articles Previous: Requirements for scientific articles

  
Rational communication

Rational communication is a goal-oriented interactional activity, which has three aspects. Firstly, the messages of the interactants are means to achieve some end and responsive to the requirements of the situation. Secondly, rational interactants take into account the goals and plans of the other interactants. And thirdly, rational interactants actually take up the other's purposes working towards an accepted common goal, so that their interaction truly is a joint activity [Van Eemeren et al., 1993, p.6].2.27 Scientific communication, in particular, is rational communication in which the interactants are scientists and the primary common goal of the interaction is the advancement of science.2.28

An influential theory that articulates standards of rationality for the usage of ordinary language is `speech act theory'.2.29 According to [Searle, 1969], speech acts are performed successfully if they satisfy specific `felicity conditions' for rational communication.2.30 The felicity conditions imply an abstract model of presumptions and expectations, shared by all language users, of what rational communication involves. The best known example of such a model is Grice's Co-operative Principle, to which the participants of a conversation are assumed to adhere [Grice, 1975, p.45]:

Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.
Although the Co-operative Principle is formulated for conversation, Grice explicitly states that this principle also applies to other types of rational interaction. The maxims2.31 that Grice derived from this Co-operative Principle have been reformulated by Van Eemeren and Grootendorst, in terms of five rules of communication based on Searle's felicity conditions.2.32 These rules read as follows [Van Eemeren and Grootendorst, 1988, p.501]:
1.
Perform no incomprehensible speech acts.  
2.
Perform no insincere speech acts.
3.
Perform no unnecessary speech acts. 2.33
4.
Perform no pointless speech acts.
5.
Perform no new speech acts that are not an appropriate sequel or reaction to preceding speech acts.

Grice's Co-operative Principle and the ensuing maxims and rules represent the basic expectations of participants in a conversation: speakers generally act according to them and listeners may base their interpretation of an utterance on the fact that they expect the speaker to adhere to them.  In discourse analysis, adherence to the maxims is often taken as a starting point and the Co-operative Principle is used as a tool for the reconstruction of discourse. The maxims, and the rules for communication derived from them, can also be interpreted as norms for a rational, effective exchange of information. As such, they can be made explicit into the following - intenrtwined - basic requirements for rational communication and then used to provide senders with guidelines: quantity, clarity, quality and relevance.

In order to determine if a particular message satisfies these requirements, the requirements have to be further specified, by determining the goals of the sender and receivers, and thereby the `communicative purpose' of the message. Therefore, the `genre' and domain of the message have to be specified. A (rather general) working definition of the concept `genre' is given in [Swales, 1990, p.58]:

A genre comprises a class of communicative events, the members of which share some set of communicative purposes. These purposes are recognised by the expert members of the parent discourse community, and thereby constitute the rationale for the genre. This rationale shapes the schematic structure of the discourse and influences and constrains choice of content and style. Communicative purpose is both a privileged criterion and one that operates to keep the score of a genre as here conceived narrowly focused on comparable rhetorical action. In addition to purpose, exemplars of a genre exhibit various patterns of similarity in terms of structure, style content and intended audience.
In this thesis, we focus on the genre of experimental scientific articles , and we concentrate on the domain of experimental molecular dynamics in particular.

As communication via articles is strongly indirect, the author has to pay particular attention in advance to the fulfilment of the receiver's potential requirements. These requirements are particularly important in scientific communication, because scientific research is a co-operative effort. Incorporating existing scientific information into new work is constructive only if the information has a high quality and if it is relevant to the new situation. It is feasible only if it is presented sufficiently clearly to allow the scientist to understand and evaluate it, and it is practical only if the information is presented in an appropriate quantity.

1.
Quantity: The message is required to represent all information that is necessary for the achievement of the sender's and the receiver's goals, and no unnecessary or pointless information. In other words, the sender has to provide precisely the appropriate amount of information. This requirement is derived from the communication rules to perform no unnecessary and no pointless speech acts.

The existence of a research programme (an accepted model or pattern) in science has a direct impact on the quantity requirement of scientific communication. The sender is required to provide the receiver with all necessary information. This implies that he not only has to give a full account of his latest findings, but that he also has to make all relevant background information available. In the context of a shared programme, that background has already been established. Once the background has been properly presented, it does not have to be repeated in each publication.

The consequence of the heterogeneity of communication via articles is that it is difficult to fulfil the quantity requirement for all potential receivers.

2.
Clarity: The message has to be clear, orderly and brief, avoiding obscurity and ambiguity, so that the receiver can understand and critically test it. This requirement is based on the communication rule to perform no incomprehensible speech acts. This implies that the restrictions of the information and all relevant dependency relations between information units must be made explicit. It also implies that the problem-solution pattern of the research has to be taken into account in the presentation.

As all scientists are in principle supposed to study the same `real universe' systematically, regardless of place and time, they must be able to communicate with each other, regardless of place and time. Furthermore, In experimental science, relevant information is related to the `real world', so that scientists require the possibility to claim their priority:

[Scientists believe] that there is just one real world waiting to be explored. Since several scientists may be working along similar lines at the same time, this means that the first to give public notification of a discovery pre-empts the work of the others. Consequently, the communication system must be able to establish clearly who has priority for each step forward. [Meadows, 1998, p.49]
Therefore, the organisation, presentation and implementation of scientific information has to be compatible with the practices of scientists in other places and times. Consequently, there are handbooks about writing scientific publications (such as [Day, 1979]), and there is a prototypical format of (some types of) scientific publications.

3.
Quality: The message is required to be correct or to have adequate grounds for belief. The sender is supposed to be honest and to be reasoned, and he can be held accountable for the message. This requirement is based on the communication rule against insincere speech acts.

Absolute correctness can be guaranteed only in cases where rigorous proofs are possible. Therefore, the requirement of quality is specified to the requirement that the information has to be correct given the current state of affairs in science, i.e. that it has to be based on adequate grounds for belief. This implies that the information has to be controllable.

Consequently, scientific communication has to meet particular clarity and completeness requirements. To control a scientific claim, the receiver requires a full and clear description of the procedures and methods that have been used. In particular, the receiver has to be made aware of the restrictions of these methods, and the consequent restrictions of the validity of the findings. Furthermore, if information depends on other information, that dependency relation has to be explicit. In particular, it is necessary to specify the sources of previous results used in this work. When the dependency relations are made explicit, it is possible to trace the consequences of adjustments or refutations of particular information to the validity of other information. If, for example, an assumption used in a method turns out to be unwarranted, all findings based on that method are suspect.

4.
Relevance: The message has to be relevant given the goals of the interactants at each stage of the interaction.2.34 In other words, the sender has to provide the appropriate type of information. The requirement for relevance follows from the rule to perform no speech act that is not appropriate at that point in the sequence of speech acts.



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