Social Problems of Scholarly Communication

I’ve been reflecting on a few recent articles and meetings lately that have focused on problems in scholarly communication.  In particular, I’m thinking about Micah Vandegrift’s recent post on Open Knowledge where he suggests that open knowledge is about “creating a new academic value system for/as a public good.”  This is certainly a laudable goal, but contrasts with an editorial on a journal from the American Anthropological Association which observes that the association’s journal is viewed as a money-making effort to subsidize work of the organization.  Similarly an article focusing on the UK perspective and advocating for a definition of scholarship similar to Vandegrift’s, points out that, “Universities in the UK are increasingly adopting corporate governance structures, a consumerist model of teaching and learning.”  Overall, it seems like there is a major divide here.  On the one hand practicing scholars (certainly not all of them but enough) see their research as a private good, and on the other hand, members of the open access community (myself included) would like to see knowledge become a public good.  As a historian of scholarly communication and as a citizen who cares about education and access to knowledge, I have to ask myself, why does this divide exist?

The scholarly communication system that began developing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has always been in part about creating a community to disseminate research.  Yet, the definition of community has often not meant that research should be “open.” In the 1840s, professional scholars sought to create exclusive domains including only a small number of people. There was a belief among many of these early researchers that it was important to exclude people from the system.  For instance in 1838 Joseph Henry, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, wrote to Alexander Dallas Bache, later founder of the National Academy of Science that, science had to be strictly controlled “otherwise third and fourth rate men would soon control the affair and render the whole abortive and ridiculous” and “a promiscuous assembly of those who call themselves men of science in this country would only end in our disgrace.”  Both of these men argued for a centralized system for science under their control.  They later went on to found the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and some of their students and colleagues founded more specialized societies like the American Chemical Society

Moving forward in time, Marcel LaFollette in a chapter called “Crafting a communications infrastructure:  Scientific and technical publishing in the United States” in A History of the Book in America:  Print in Motion:  The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880 – 1940 (2009) has suggested that scholarly communication became a “business of knowledge production”  with a bi-furcated market in the United States.  There was the market for professional academics in which “the intended consumers were the same group of people who produced and evaluated the work” and also created an insularity that “encouraged development of an attitude within the research communities whereby scientists claimed ownership of their publication outlets, perceiving the journals and monograph series as ‘theirs,’ even though the intellectual property may have been produced, sold, and copyrighted by the publishers, who bore the financial risk of market failure and reaped much of the profit” (p. 243- 244).

In all, this very brief historical overview suggests to me that there is a major social problem in scholarly communication.  For many academics, research is a private good meant only to be viewed by fellow-practitioners.  If this is true, then why are movements like open-access even necessary, except perhaps to include scholars who work at less wealthy universities?  Additionally, if one sees scholarship as a private good, then attitudes like those of the American Anthropological Society become possible.  After all, if scholarly research is a private good, one should be able to make a profit from it and subsidize necessary operations of the kinds of professional associations for which people like Henry and Bache were advocating over one hundred years ago.

If the open access community wants to create a new scholarly communication system, it will be necessary to change a very entrenched mindset.  Major social reforms will be necessary to create this.  Scholars will need to be convinced that their work is a good for the general public, not just their colleagues.  Universities that have institutionalized the attitudes of their employees in tenure and promotion systems will need to have a groundswell of opposition to these policies.  Professional associations and other scholarly communities (not just the publishers who serve these organizations) that profit from the distribution of scholarship must be convinced that they give up a major revenue stream on which they have depended.  These are not easy problems to fix.  Nonetheless, unless the open access community does so, it will not be able to create a value system in which knowledge is a public good, a goal that I wholeheartedly endorse.


How should we publish scholarship?


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.

Networking Social Scholarship. . . Again

In the digital age, technological change and evolving scholarly practices have transformed the ways in which university faculty communicate their work.  In the twenty-first century, the scholarly communication system is a complex social mechanism encompassing publishers, peer-reviewers, tenure committees, and many other actors.  Journals have a long history dating perhaps as far back as the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1665.  The first American scientific journal, however, has a much shorter history.  One could possibly date American scientific journals back as far as 1745 with the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, a journal dedicated to all knowledge and founded by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia.  Over time, however, Franklin’s journal was rather localized and competed with other local scientific journals in cities such as New York and Boston.  It was not until 70 years later with the American Journal of Science, founded by Benjamin Silliman of Yale University in 1819 that the United States had a journal that was both consistently published and dedicated only to science.

There was, however, another important element to the networking of scholarship beyond the journal during in late nineteenth-century America:  the professional association. Therefore, by looking not only at journals and the ways that they form in nineteenth-century America, but also at the formation of professional associations and the ways that such associations affect journals, one can begin to understand the complex network of scholarly communication, and perhaps think about ways that the current professional network may need to develop.

Early leaders of professional organizations such as the American Chemical Society (ACS) and American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) believed that science needed organization in order to protect itself from charlatans and the public who did not have the ability to practice the field that they wished to foster in the United States.  Furthermore, rather than have a broadly distributed and federated structure of science, these early leaders created a very aristocratic form of science in some ways mimicking their European counterparts, but in other ways attempting to safeguard pure science from the potential pitfalls of having members of the public diluting the truth.  Finally, these leaders of ACS and AAAS tied the discoveries of their profession and the work of the universities that employed them to the United States’ perceived need to meet the knowledge requirements of a rapidly developing industry.

What does all of this mean for science both in the nineteenth century and today?  At a time when science is again organizing in order to meet the perceived threats of enemies, it may be good to think about why the modern system of scientific professions formed.  Fundamentally, science in the nineteenth century was built by a small number of people in order to meet the needs of a new industrial nation.  Though that system certainly evolved over time, one might argue that some of the characteristics of nineteenth century scientific professionalization still exist today.  The question is whether science, its professions, and its universities need to reform to meet different needs in the twenty-first century.


Open Access in Historical Context

As Open Access Week commences, and the community rightly celebrates its achievement and discusses what needs to happen in the future, I thought I might take a chance to reflect on open access historically.  Rather than looking at the Budapest Initiative and the development of current open access developments, however, I thought I might go back even further in time, to the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the U.S. (a topic I cover quite widely within this blog) Coincidentally, this period is also the point in time when the scholarly communication system as we know it began to develop in the U.S..  What might the term “open access” mean to someone then?  Additionally, could that definition help current open access advocates think about where we want to go in the future?

Marcel LaFollette in a chapter of the History of the Book in America gives a fairly good definition of what researchers at least felt about making their scholarship available at that point in time.  LaFollette suggests that the market for academic publishing in the US was unique because the consumers and the producers were the same people. This phenomenon created an insularity that encouraged research communities to believe that they owned their content when in fact they did not.  For scholars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century U.S., “open” access to knowledge meant only that professional scientists, who served as both producers and consumers of content, were able to read the scholarship within their fields.  Open Access would not have meant access to knowledge to everyone in the world.  I suspect, if one were to ask most current university faculty about access to their own scholarship, they would also prioritize access to other practitioners rather than to the entire world.

I do not mean to suggest that academics do not engage with the public; there has been a continuing debate about that issue for some time.  I do, however, want to make a point about the idea of what a “research community” is.  LaFollette was discussing scholars practicing in an academic field.  Now that definition would be much broader, and commercial publishers, professional associations, librarians, technologists, the general public, private foundations, government and many others would probably need to be included.  Thus, even though the definition of research community has changed, how has that been reflected in open access debates?

Fundamentally, I think that another way to frame this issue would be to discus how communicate their scholarship.  In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was only one medium available:  print.  In order to make that medium cost-effective, research communities that endeavored to communicate scholarship to fellow-practitioners delegated much of the day-to-day operations to commercial companies that have since evolved into large multi-national scientific publishers.  The media available to scholars now are much wider: print, radio, television, the internet.  Nevertheless, I suspect the motive of scholars for communicating their work (i.e. to make it available to fellow practitioners) has not changed.

In earlier posts, I have utilized the work of Andrew Abbott to suggest that in the late nineteenth century, a “linked ecology” of universities and professional scholarly associations have created a “hinge-mechanism” in order to accomplish their shared interests.  In the past, that hinge-mechanism was the scholarly journal.  For the purposes of tenure and promotion, it still is.  Historically that hinge-mechanism was designed, as LaFollette pointed out, as a method for scholars to share work with their fellow practitioners, and for commercial companies to deal with day-to-day management.  Unless the entire research community tries to create a new hinge-mechanism, then our debates about the future of open access will continue to lack the richness of social and historical context, that are so desperately needed as we continue both to celebrate the achievements of open access and to envision its future.

Alexander Dallas Bache


Alexander Dallas Bache (1806-1867) was a founder of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a Regent of the Smithsonian Institution, Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Superintendent of the United States Coastal Survey, and one of the foremost organizers of both American science and education in the nineteenth century.  Unsurprisingly, he also had some ideas on how scientists should organize and communicate.

In 1842 Bache stated that, “voluntary associations for the improvement of agriculture, manufactures, and the arts, exist all over our country, not supported, it is true, by our great sovereign the people, but by a few, who are either immediately or remotely interested or who desire to advance the weal of their country.  If the eyes of this most august sovereign might but be opened to the importance of fostering these institutions!” Bache was expressing a need to organize science more broadly in the U.S.  Over the course of the next fifty years Bache and like-minded scientists created the origins of a system of professional scientific organizations, university research departments, national academies, and scientific publications that could all be considered components of the current scholarly communication system.  One might ask, however, what the motives of Bache and his fellow scientists were?  Why did they create the scientific ecosystem in the way that they did?  Perhaps most importantly, how might the early debates of these scientists help in current debates about the need for change in scholarly communication?  Around ten years later, during his term as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Bache further elaborated on his motives for organizing science, “While Science is without organization, it is without power:  powerless against its enemies, open or secret; powerless in the hands of false or injudicious friends.”

In other words, the reasons for scientists to organize and communicate is so that the American “sovereign” (i.e. the American people) will support scientific institutions.  Furthermore the reason for such scientific institutions is to achieve “power” against the enemies of science.  At a time when it seems that science’s power is diminishing, it is worth asking whether Bache and his supporters achieved their dreams, and more importantly how scientific organizations and their communication methods achieved the authority they currently enjoy.  Perhaps a better understanding of the history American scientific system’s institutional and communication practices can help to shape the debates about changing its future in the digital age.

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Theories for Scholarly Communication

Christine Borgman has defined scholarly communication as, “the study of how scholars in any field (e.g. physical, biological, social, and behavioural sciences, humanities, technology) use and disseminate information through formal and informal channels (p. 413-414).”  Much of the current scholarly communication literature focuses on the structure of scholarship as measured by scientometric analysis.  Furthermore, much of the theory for such analyses rest on the ideas of Robert Merton.   Merton concentrated on the values of the modern scientific system and the ways in which individual scientists achieved status within their profession.  Scott Frickel and Neil Gross have, however, criticized Merton’s suppositions saying, “we find it difficult to believe that the quest for prestige and status is the sole motive shaping intellectual innovation” (p. 211).  Thus, in light of this criticism, it is important to ask whether there may be another theoretical framework to approach the process of scholarly communication.  James J. Gibson first developed the idea of “affordances” or ways in which humans interact with an environment.  Rom Harré further developed Gibson’s concept to identify three types of affordances:  cultural (society-wide assumptions), social (social structures utilize to implement those assumptions), and material (mechanisms resulting from cultural and material affordances).

Harré’s framework provides an excellent mechanism to investigate the ways in which scholarship has evolved in cultural, social, and material aspects.  For cultural affordances, Maurizio Ferraris argues that acts of inscription are a foundation that allows other social processes to happen.  Science is one example, “in the sciences at large, documentality sets the conditions for the transmission of knowledge, for the progress of the sciences, for appointments of universities chairs and for the awarding of Nobel prizes and Field medals” (p. 293-294).  Ferraris also alludes to social affordances that are discussed by Andrew Abbott who suggests that when two “ecologies” such as universities and professional societies come together, they form a “hinge mechanism” that provide them a way for effectively interacting.  The journal has become a hinge mechanism, and Fiorella Foscarini and Emily Marshall have argued that textual analysis and genre study prove authenticity of documents, “Genres provide social codes of behavior including not only the official ‘rules of the game,’ but also any other components of ‘ceremony’ . . .  surrounding the main ‘moves’ of the game – that all those involved in a dialogic exchange must learn in order to be able to ‘act together’” (Foscarini, p. 401).

In all, it seems that Gibson’s theories of affordance combined with the ideas of Ferraris, Abbott, Marshall and Foscarini, can help to explain Borgman’s assertion that that “essential elements such as the scholarly journal article are remarkably stable and print publication continues unabated, despite the proliferation of digital media” (p. 413).  The journal article has elements of all three essential affordances, and, until another medium also provides a way to satisfy the cultural, social, and material needs of science, the journal article will remain the cornerstone of the scholarly communication system.

A (Brief) History of Scholarly Communication

The historical issues that universities faced and continue to face with regards to scholarly communication, specialized disciplines, journal publishing, and higher education bureaucracy, are a part of a long narrative going back perhaps as far back as the 17th century when the scientific revolution first began to create organizations such as the Royal Society of London.   Most certainly these issues date to the late nineteenth century in the United States.  At a time when research universities were still in their infancy, when scientific journals served as a source of news in addition to research, and at a time when professional disciplinary societies were just beginning to define themselves, the scholarly communication system first began to take shape, and continues to evolve even now.  Scholarly communication is a product of three distinct histories:  a history of professionalization, a history of journals, and a history of U.S. higher education.  Though there has already been extensive research on all of these areas, if one is to really understand the complete history of scholarly communication, it is necessary to understand how all three of these areas of scholarship interrelate.

The Royal Society of London is often credited as the first scientific society in the English speaking world.  Though certainly it played a significant role in the history of science, the true history of professionalization begins much later in the nineteenth century, at least in the United States.  There have been many strands of scholarship that have endeavored to better understand the ways that professional societies have impacted society, particularly in science.  Sociologists of Science like Robert Merton have used methods to better understand the structure of scientific research, many of which are still used today.  Additionally, other historical sociologists like Andrew Abbott have looked at ways in which professions, more broadly than just science, have developed.  Historians of science have also long been interested in the ways organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or the American Chemical Society were created, and how these organizations formed because of larger social trends in early America.

In the same way that the Royal Society is often recognized as the first scholarly society, its journal the Philosophical Transactions often takes a prominent place as the first scientific journal.  There is some credibility to this claim, yet historians of science have long studied the ways in which important factors shaped the Philosophical Transactions and the scientific journals that followed it.  In particular historians seem to agree that two issues are paramount:  authority and sociability.  Authority is created by a variety of means.  In the seventeenth century, journals achieved authority through patronage or state institutions.  Journals also achieved authority through a second means of sociability.  Sociability refers both to the ways in which individual scientists interact but also to the ways in which scientists write.  Over the course of hundreds of years, scientists created a certain genre of writing that today is known as the research article, and that type of writing became the foundation of authority on which much of the system of scholarly communication rests.

At the same time that professions were developing and journals were growing out of new professional associations in the United States, so too were universities changing.  Just one of the many ways in which the higher education system changed was through the importation of aspects of the German system, where many American academics studied and obtained Ph.D. degrees.  More fundamentally, however, universities too were concerned with the issues of authority and sociability as well.  Unlike Germany, American universities obtained some authority from government sources, but, additionally, universities made themselves a part of an educational system that served some of the needs of a rapidly industrializing economy.  When universities made these changes, there came an inherent conflict between the need to teach new students skills in an environment that required ever more specialized skills, and, at the same time, a need for an increasing need of sub-disciplines to claim dominance and power within a fractured and increasingly bureaucratized university structure.

Why do all of these overlapping histories matter?  First, people form the foundation of all of these activities, and, the people who are most responsible are the scientists who both publish journal articles and govern the scientific enterprise.  Second, these people are acting within a system that has evolved over a long period of time and has a tradition of practicing in certain ways.  The question is how it might be possible to integrate all of these activities. One of the ways to accomplish the task of integrating these behaviors is to measure current human activities within the scholarly communication system, and it is very apparent that sociologists of science and knowledge have understood the ways in which scientists currently operate.  Eugene Garfield, founder of the Institute for Scientific Information citation index is but one example of the many sociologically trained scientists who has investigated scholarly communication, and has recognized the importance of the work of Robert K. Merton.  Though the work of both Merton and Garfield is valuable, it has also focused on a very particular method of measuring impact of scholarly work: citations within journal literature.

There is, however, another potential approach.  Merton and Garfield’s approach stresses the importance of prestige in academic publishing.  Yet, there are other motives including authority, sociability, and the many other factors that historians have investigated.  Historians already have a good understanding of the smaller pieces of a larger scholarly communication system (professions, journals, and universities).  Nevertheless, there needs to be a more holistic integration of these histories.  Human beings, like scientists, never operate in a vacuum, but rather act in accordance with a long tradition of behavior.  Only by understanding why such behaviors developed, and how they evolved, might it be possible to change the system to best meet current needs.  The history of journal publishing is only a piece of a much larger historical narrative, at least in the United States. Furthermore, the history of the journal has been driven by the decisions of many individuals and institutions over a period of over one hundred years.


100 Years of American Science


Over the past few weeks, I have been working on a project to topic model the American Journal of Science between 1819 (its first year of publication) and 1922; this journal, during much of the 19th century, was the only specialized scientific journal in the United STates.  I can release data sets later, but just wanted to share some preliminary results.  Though this research is far from conclusive, it does provide a useful proof of concept for the method of using topic modelling to determine how genres of material change over a long period of time.  Moreover, understanding this evolution of topics within a single important journal in 19th century America, helps to understand how these topics can provide a useful source of evidence to supplement more traditional historical and “close reading” methods.

The above graph shows that over the entire roughly 100 year period, topics discussing geology are the most dominant topic over time, representing roughly 35% of topics between 1819 and 1922.  Interestingly, however, the “other sciences” are also represented equally at 35%.  Yet, no one of the subtopics within “other sciences” dominates.  Astronomy, Botany, Engineering, Medicine, Meteorology, Physics, and Zoology, individually represent less than 10% of whole.  In any given year, none of these topics represent more than 13%, physics being the only exception which represents 17.5% of topics in 1840.  Chemistry is one major exception.  As a discipline, it represents 13% of the total topics over this 100 year period, and, in individual years within the period, often represents 20% – 25% of topics.  Topics related to news, another important genre of content during most of the 19th century, represent 17% of total topics, and often represent 20% of topics for individual years.   Every issue had a section called Intelligence that was dedicated to news from the field.  Additionally, individual articles, particularly in the earlier years of the journal, would be dedicated to translating articles published abroad and commenting on them and also on publishing letters to the editor that would discuss scientific endeavors both in the U.S. and abroad.


The topic models also demonstrate some other interesting, though not particularly surprising trends.  Above is a simple line graph showing the number of topics within particular categories; the graph shows that geology topics increase over time, whereas other topics generally decrease.  The graph also shows that until about 1871, “other sciences” were actually significantly higher than geology.  Also in 1871 “other sciences” decline precipitously and geological topics increase and overtake “other sciences.”  Since the American Journal of Science is currently a journal dedicated to geology, one would expect to see this trend.  It is interesting to note, however, that this shift happens in the period from 1871 to 1897.  The 1890s are a period when multiple other scientific professional societies are created, along with related scholarly journals.  For instance the Journal of the American Chemical Society was founded in 1879 and the American Physical Review (journal for the American Physical Society, the society for physicists) began in 1893.  The trend line for chemistry topics also shows a decline during this period.  Clearly more detailed analysis of these topical trends is needed.  Nonetheless, the trends illustrated in this line graph may be evidence of scientists leaving the more generalized American Journal of Science for more specialized journals when they are created.  The decline of “other sciences” does seem to happen at exactly the right period of time.


Finally, I have one more graph that shows much the same data, however it represents the topics as a percentage of the whole, rather than as raw numbers of topics as shown in the line graph.  This graph of percentages presents some nuance to the picture presented in the line graph.  Geology topics represent fewer than 30% of the entire number of topics in 1819, and that number gradually increases to nearly 40% in 1922.  Conversely, other sciences represent a high of nearly 60% in 1845, but decrease to a low of about 35% in 1922.  Thus, one can see that other sciences are still an important number of topics even as late as 1922.  This could complicate the story about scientists departing to other journals.  It is possible that many scientists, despite the appearance of alternative journals, are still choosing to publish in the American Journal of Science.  Additionally this relatively high percentage of “other science” topics could simply demonstrate that geology is a discipline that requires knowledge of other disciplines such as physics or biology in order to perform geological work.  Again, more research and closer reading of the individual articles represented by these rather broad topics is needed to better understand how individual scientists are responding to a changing scholarly communication landscape.

The gradual decline of other sciences in these graphs may demonstrate that the nature of the authority within the American Journal of Science changed over time.  As other societies created their own authority in competing journals like the Journal of the American Chemical Society, scientists within fields such as physics and chemistry decided to publish their work in those other venues. At the same time, many scientists, particularly geologists, continued to publish in the journal long after the death of Benjamin Silliman, the journal’s founder, in 1864.  Therefore, one has to assume that the journal created a kind of authority that outlasted its founder.  The nature of that authority, most likely, is through the same kinds of trust-building that other journals established, such as affiliation with a professional scientific society, peer-review, and reliance on authors’ credentialing within university hiring systems.  Perhaps the method of topic modelling and text analysis by itself cannot answer the question of how authority is constructed.  Topic modelling can, however, provide a useful source of evidence that identifies trends for further investigation and can be used to further strengthen traditional historical analyses of the history of scholarly communication.

Untangling (American) Academic Publishing

I have recently been reading  Untangling Academic Publishing: A history of the relationship between commercial interests, academic prestige and the circulation of research, an excellent report which I highly recommend to anyone interested scholarly communication, and particularly those interested in looking at historical perspectives on the issues of scholarly publishing.  The report has also been covered by the press in the Guardian and Times Higher Education.  In a very eloquent way, Aileen Fyfe and her team have been able to distill four hundred years worth of academic publishing history in Britain into a clear call for new ways of thinking about scholarly communication.  I can only hope to achieve a fraction of what they have been able to do with my own work on the history of the American academic publishing system.

Largely, I agree with everything stated in this report.  I do, however, wonder how the situation in the US might differ from that in the UK, particularly in the pre-1940 period that I’ve studied more extensively.  In the 19th century, there are at least three key differences between the situation in the UK and the US.  First, the US had a much larger number of institutions of higher education than the UK, and in the late nineteenth century these colleges and universities ranged from small religious seminaries sponsored by a single denomination to large agricultural and mechanical universities sponsored by state governments.  Second, and perhaps more important, there was always a strong emphasis on “practical” knowledge of use to industry rather than the kind of gentlemanly prestige discussed in Untangling Academic Publishing report.  This is not to suggest that there was not some element of prestige capital in US academic publishing during the 19th century, far from it.  It does seem though that the culture of US scholarly publishing, even from the beginning emphasized industrial use, perhaps more than its European counterparts.  Third, and this may be similar to the context in the UK, there was a strong emphasis on “professional” academics as the main market for scholarship from the very beginnings of the academic publishing system.

In the Preface to the first issue of the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society (the rough equivalent of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society within the American colonies)published in 1769, it states that, “Knowledge is of little use when confined to mere speculation:  But when speculative truths are reduced to practice. . . are applied to the common purposes of life; and when by these agriculture is improved, trade enlarged, the arts of living made more easy and comfortable. . . .knowledge then becomes really useful.”  One could also find statements similar to this within the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.  Nonetheless, the emphasis on practicality seems to become more pronounced over time.  In 1818, the preface of the first issue  of Benjamin Silliman’s American Journal of Science (the major scientific journal in the U.S. during much of the 19th century) said that it would focus on certain scientific areas because, “the applications of these sciences are obviously as numerous as physical arts and physical wants; for one of these arts or wants can be named which is not connected with them.”

Moreover, some of the earliest professional associations were strongly tied to industry.  The American Chemical Society, though unique in some respects, was one of the first professional scientific societies to form in the United States in 1876, and many of the early leaders of science within the US were part of the chemical industry.  I have mentioned the work of Andrew Abbott before and his emphasis on the ties between industry and academe, particularly in his book The Chaos of Disciplines.  This linkage between practical knowledge within scientific journals and the industrial emphasis of many of the early professional associations seems to make the situation different from that of the UK where the previous history of “gentlemanly” pursuits was not as strong (though still present in some ways), but professional identifications were arguably very strong.

Why is this focus on industry important? Marcel LaFollette in “Crafting a communications infrastructure:  Scientific and technical publishing in the United States.” in A History of the Book in America:  Print in Motion:  The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880 – 1940 traces the business of scholarly publishing in the US during the late 19th and early twentieth centuries.  LaFollette suggests that the market for academic publishing in the US was unique  because the consumers and the producers were the same people. This phenomenon created an insularity that encouraged research communities to believe that they owned their content when in fact they did not.  For scholars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century U.S., universal access to knowledge meant only that professional scientists who served as both producers and consumers of content were able to read the scholarship within their fields.

Thus in the United States context these three characteristics (different configuration of universities, focus on “practical” and industrial knowledge, and focus on academic publishing as part of a profession also tied to industry), somewhat differentiate the US from the UK.  In particular, I am interested in whether the emphasis on “practical”/industrial knowledge does or does not separate the two academic cultures.  Does “open access” , at least in the US historical context, not really mean universal access to knowledge by all citizens, but rather access by professionals who are meeting industrial needs?  If so, then this characteristic has, I think, profound implications for scholarly communication.  It would mean that the ideal of university research was always (at least practically) secondary to the needs of industry.  Thus, the present situation of scholarship being itself a commodity seems a logical continuation of previous trends.  Does this differentiate U.S. science from the U.K.?  More importantly, how should the current U.S. scholarly communication system evolve to meet future needs?

Research, Documentality, and Industry

Maurizio Ferraris in his book Documentality: Why It Is Necessary to Leave Traces has argued that it is essential for all social systems (science, law, and the like) to create inscriptions or written traces in order to survive.  One of the largest such social systems, of course is state bureaucracy “the state’s first succumbing to bureaucratic documentality and then to informatics documentality” (p. 287).  According to Ferraris, informatics documentality is a way in which sovereign power is extended over a larger number of people.

The documents that I have been studying are largely nineteenth century scientific journals such as the Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Journal of Science and the Journal of the American Chemical Society. In those journals, one might argue that professional scientists institutionalized larger cultural ideas.  In several previous posts, I have suggested that within the system of scholarly communication created in the late nineteenth century, industry dominated.  For nineteenth century American scientists more generally and for chemists in particular, their world was heavily influenced by the needs of a rapidly industrializing nation. These professionals tied their own futures to the needs of these industries, and often wrote in ways within their journals that would serve the needs of industry.

Why are such historical developments important in thinking even about the modern scholarly communication system?  Over time, throughout the twentieth century, the government became more involved with the work of scientists, and currently, federal funding through the National Science Foundation or other federal agencies continues to dominate the higher education landscape.   If indeed there has been such a heavy industrial influence for over 100 years, what does that say about the purpose of the scholarly communication system?  More importantly, if indeed the system needs significant reform, should the tie to industry be one of the things that is reformed?  Though history cannot perhaps answer these questions, it can, I think, help to identify these questions that certainly need to be addressed.