The crucial role of conference papers in an era of hyperspecialization

In an era when science is becoming increasingly specialized, scientists run the risk of increased isolation from the broader scientific community. Specialization also fosters a lack of communication between the discrete disciplines. However, conference literature can be an important way to bridge the gap between different scientific specialties — and to broaden the general knowledge base of specialists.

Science becomes Hyperspecialized

Medicine, like many scientific fields, has become specialized — and fragmented — to a greater extent than ever before. Because the amount of available knowledge is too great for any one individual researcher to master, science has increasingly broken down into specialties and sub-specialties, which have become discrete areas of study.

This hyper-specialization, however, can cause a number of problems. The authors of Specialized Science posit that highly specialized groups are prone to isolation, a lack of creative or innovative thinking, and a tendency to compete with other specialized groups. They also note that it becomes more difficult to coordinate efforts among these groups. In his blog post Does Hyper-specialization in Science Stifle Innovation?, award-winning scientist Dr. Ben McNeill argues that “cross-fertilization of ideas within science is hugely important for innovation. The problem is, the more specialized we become, the more disconnected we become with other scientists outside our field.”

Fortunately, conference literature can play an important role in reconnecting an increasingly disparate scientific community.

Why Conference Papers Help

The authors Analyzing the Scientific Conference Presentation (CP), A Methodological Overview of a Multi-Modal Genre define conference literature as a genre that “occurs in a particular socio-cultural context and … has a specific communicative function.” In this era of hyper-specialization, conference papers have become increasingly important. The authors of the paper The Pivotal Role of Conference Papers in the Network of Scientific Communication report that conferences offer many benefits to the scientific community, not all of them easily quantifiable. One of these benefits is to “broaden the scientific culture of participants” in an era where researchers, of necessity, have restricted their activity to ever-narrower fields of inquiry.

The article also notes that conference papers often cover a wide array of scientific topics. The inter-disciplinary communication fostered by conferences can help to strengthen the intellectual ties between researchers and lead to greater innovation across a range of fields. The authors believe that strengthened ties can help scientists “recapture some of the wider dimension lost in this very focused, specialized research and thus reconstruct, at least partially, a richer intellectual network.”

So, the vast array of knowledge available in scientific research is unprecedented, and it has led scientists to work in increasingly narrow areas of activity. While this is inevitable due to the exponentially increasing amounts of data, it has also led to a scientific community where researchers are increasingly isolated from each other. However, the broad range of subjects covered by conferences can help scientists regain a broader range of general scientific knowledge and increase the ties of communication that knit this community together.