Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society

by User Not Found | Dec 13, 2016

This is a guest post written by Sigma Xi President Tee L. Guidotti.


Tee GuidottiWelcome to Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society. 

“Well thank you very much,” you may reply, “but you know my name. I’m already a member (or affiliate) of the organization.” That may be true but what is different is our name. 

Sigma Xi is changing its name from Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society to Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society, in order to emphasize that it is an honor society for scientific research. In fact, it’s the largest multidisciplinary honor society in the world. This may seem to be a simple insertion of the word “honor” but as always with Sigma Xi there is a long and distinguished history behind the new name. 

Sigma Xi, of course, is our basic name and has been since the organization was founded in 1886 as the scientific and engineering counterpart to Phi Beta Kappa. Like all “Greek letter” societies, whether professional or social, it is an acronym for the motto of the organization, Σπουδων Ξυνωνες (Spoudon Xynones), which translates as "companions in Zealous Research." For many years, we were referred to as “Society of the Sigma Xi.” 

RESA EmblemIn the early twentieth century, some in the leadership wanted “Sigma Xi” to be dropped altogether in favor of some formulation such as “Scientific Research Society of America.” In a strange quirk of history, both names survived because the organization split in the 1940s into an academic honor society (Sigma Xi) and an honor society for applied research and engineering (the Scientific Research Society of America, called RESA). RESA was a separate entity, wholly owned by Sigma Xi, and represented engineers and scientists at non-academic institutions, such as government and industrial research laboratories. 

In an even stranger development, Sigma Xi and RESA merged back together in 1974 and eventually began calling itself Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. A bit of Sigma Xi trivia is that although the second part of the name has functioned as a description of the first, it actually pays homage to RESA. 

As a practical matter, the name Sigma Xi is a “brand” (in the good sense of an identity associated with tradition and respect) and carries great weight within the scientific community. It is too valuable and venerable to change, even though some people on first encountering the name think that we are a college fraternity. Actually, in a very real sense we are a “fraternity” (in the sense of fraternité) but one as it was understood in 1886, when professionalism, social competence, networking, maturity, and “character” were seen as virtues cultivated in young men and women by a community of young scholars (a brotherhood or sisterhood). As a side note, Sigma Xi inducted its first female members in 1888, at a time when almost all graduate programs in science and engineering excluded women. 

Now we add “Honor” to our name to emphasize that we are an honor society, keeping in mind that honor is just the beginning of what it means to be part of Sigma Xi. Once elected, our members “pay back” the support they received in their career by mentoring up-and-coming researchers. In turn, the younger generation can pay this support forward by supporting their local chapter’s efforts to bring the research community together and to promote the public understanding of science. 

Although it was a change, adding “Honor” to a name with this tradition was an easy decision for your Assembly of Delegates to make at the recent Annual Meeting. It is new but it is not a break in tradition at all. The new name clarifies our mission and honors both the main line of Sigma Xi and nearly three decades of RESA. Our name carries our history. 

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