As I reflect on the field of scholarly communication, it seems that those of us trying to change the ways we publish research, often ask ourselves several questions. How should we make scholarship available? Should research be made available in open access journals? Should scholars write for more public audiences? Should shorter pieces such as blog posts should count for tenure and promotion? As a historian, I know that this not the first time people have asked these types of questions, and I’d like to focus on how one person in the nineteenth century answered them, at least for his own career. His example, I think, may help modern librarians and scholars reflect on the communication of scholarship in the future.
For the past year, I have been working on a project called Leadership at Indiana University: Andrew and Theophilus Wylie, 1820-1890. This digital humanities/public history project has created online exhibits that focus on aspects of the lives and careers of two early leaders at Indiana University, Andrew Wylie, the university’s first president, and Theophilus Wylie, a long-serving faculty member, interim president, and librarian. I have already written several times about Theophilus Wylie, and I am particularly excited about one exhibit called Communicating Scholarship in the Nineteenth Century that focuses on the media Theophilus Wylie used to communicate his research.
There are two interesting aspects about Wylie’s scholarly communication practices. First, as I’ve discussed in earlier posts about Wylie, he focused more on teaching than research; many of the articles he publishes are little more than records of his public lectures. Second, Wylie used not just the medium of the scholarly journal, but also several other outlets such as newspapers, literary magazines, popular science periodicals, and books meant for broader audiences. Wylie even utilized a very old practice of writing letters to his contacts in Philadelphia, and asked that these letters be read out in scientific conferences (the earliest journals like the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society were often just records of early editors’ correspondence and attendance at meetings, and Philadelphia was the center of scientific research in the U.S. during the mid-nineteenth century). Overall, Theophilus Wylie utilized many different methods for disseminating his ideas. Wylie’s practices stand in contrast to many other scholars during the same time period, such as J. Lawrence Smith, who only published in scientific journals of the time.
Do Wylie’s scholarly communication practices have lessons for today? I think they do. Like Wylie, modern scholars have many options for disseminating their work, and they have the capability of distributing their work to a broader audience. I would argue that the Leadership at Indiana University project is itself a form of scholarship. Furthermore, I would say that projects like this allow me to create other forms of scholarly communication. In addition to this blog, I co-wrote another blog post that analyzes Wylie’s library. This research will reach a much broader audience than would an academic article, and hopefully will be further shared in platforms like Twitter. I am also preparing a conference presentation about Wylie’s library that, hopefully, will be presented at a conference for a more specialized scholarly audience. When I’ve finished the presentation, I hope to use the feedback I receive to write an academic article about Wylie’s library. I also plan on using some of the research I did for this project in my dissertation. Overall, I think this project will allow many different kinds of scholarly output, similar perhaps to the multiple media Wylie used to disseminate his work.
To answer my original question of how we should publish scholarship. I think that researchers like me need to publish scholarship in more ways varied than just articles in academic journals. Though scholarly articles are important, I think digital humanities projects such as Leadership at Indiana University, as well as the blog posts, conference presentations, tweets, and other outputs resulting from the project are also methods of publishing scholarship. In the same way that Theophilus Wylie used multiple media to communicate his scholarship, perhaps it is time for modern scholars to follow his example and make their work available both to academic audiences and to the broader public. Doing so allows scholars to engage more fully with the many kinds of digital publishing technologies available, and could lead to a more healthy scholarly publishing system.