December, 2014

Polycentric structure and informal norms: competition and coordination within the scientific community

  • Vlad Tarko

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The success of the scientific community challenges in many ways our theories of social cooperation and public goods production. It is a very large-scale, decentralized, international organization lacking any central management or a formalized legislative or rule-enforcement body. Even the entry/exclusion rules are lax and unclear. By many standards it should not work. But, instead, it is one of the most successful human endeavors of all time. This paper provides an updated institutionalist theory of how this community works, with an extended discussion of its informal norms, prestige mechanisms, decentralized resource allocation, and interactions with states and civil society. Second, the paper discusses the ways in which the scientific community can fail at its truth-seeking task as a result of distortions created by outside political pressure and interactions with self-interested funding sources arguing that, as long as the polycentric structure is kept in place and the informal norms are preserved, the distortions are likely to be minor.