When Public Relations and Particle Physics Collide: An Ethnographically Informed Account of Life in the CERN Communications Group

Dorey, Jamie (2016). When Public Relations and Particle Physics Collide: An Ethnographically Informed Account of Life in the CERN Communications Group. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000ba90


This thesis explores how ‘big science’ becomes public within an era of digital scholarship and evolving professional practices. Focusing on research conducted at CERN, I explore the strategic approaches and operational principles and practices of communication professionals and researchers working in High-Energy Physics.

A review of current research into the dissemination of scientific information in the digital age shows a dearth of empirical studies that explore the role of communication professionals within scientific organisations. I argue that communication professionals within scientific organisations play an important intermediary role between scientists, external media professionals and publics, often being the first to mediate information for audiences beyond academia. Such groups, therefore, should be explored in order to understand the role they play in mediating science for the contemporary public sphere. This requires that some account be taken of the context within which the communication is produced. At CERN this includes issues of openness and transparency, organisational structures, whilst also taking account of the role of technology in mediating information.

A mixed methods approach was used, combining document analysis with ethnographic observations and semi-structured interviews to create eight detailed case studies. In my analysis I argue that scientific public relations is integral to the process of mediation, yet has so far been unrepresented within it. This thesis contributes to a wider understanding of the role organisation plays in the production of High-Energy Physics communication, noting the importance of timing in relation to openness and proposing a methodological approach for the continued research of communications groups in other scientific organisations. Furthermore, this thesis has demonstrated that digital scholarly practices are yet to be fully realised. Instead, a muddled culture of practices exists across CERN, with multiple analogue and digital tools used by individuals and groups working in distinctly separate ways.

Overall, the thesis adds to the growing discussion in a number of fields, including the role of scientific public relations in the process of mediation of scientific information and how digital scholarly practices are enacted within a ‘big science’ project.

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