Chemistry vs. Physics

As I was doing some more research on the American Chemical Society (ACS) in its early years, I have been particularly interested in the ways that these early professional academics tried to differentiate themselves from other fields.  In some ways, this goes back to the ideas on purity of a profession that I discussed earlier.  In particular, these early chemists seem to be particularly interested in separating themselves from the physicists.  Interestingly this is also a topic that showed up in some of my earlier work on query sampling of the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS) corpus against the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  One of the most common articles similar to the was reductionism in biology, which discusses ways in which biology is reducible to chemistry and potentially reducible to physics.  Other common articles that came up in the query sampling were intertheory relations in physics which also discusses how chemistry may be reducible to physics.

Relations between chemistry and physics seem to date from at least the late nineteenth century. Benjamin Silliman (editor of the journal that eventually became Science) wrote a tribute to J. Lawrence Smith (president of ACS in 1877) in which he quotes a colleague of Smith’s at the University of Virginia who said that Smith “confined his lectures to chemistry proper, leaving physics to the professor in charge of that branch. This he did, I believe, of set purpose, with the result of his giving more chemistry in eight months than his predecessors had done, nominally, in nine” (p. 231).    Later, George F. Barker (president of ACS in 1891) dedicated his presidential address to defining boundaries between physics and chemistry where he said “If it be true that in both physics and chemistry, taken separately, precision of thought and consequent precision of language are dependent upon a precise use of terms, how much more true is it in that limiting region which lies between them.”

Clearly there is some more need for thinking through this complicated relationship between chemistry and physics.  In my earlier post, I had thought about doing some more work on query sampling between the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and a journal that would be equivalent to JACS for physics.  I think that this is an interesting intersection between the philosophy of science and the history of science.  In this case, computational methods like query sampling may be able to demonstrate how the journals are matching up with an established source on the philosophy of science, and historical approaches can help show how these debates are reflected in the historical record.

Are Journals Necessary for Scholarly Communication?

In short no, at least not in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and, perhaps not even for the twenty-first.  Scholarly communication is a system that according to Marcel LaFollette formed between around 1880 and 1940 (in “Crafting a communications infrastructure:  Scientific and technical publishing in the United States.”  In Radway, J., & Kaestle, K. (Eds.), A History of the Book in America:  Print in Motion:  The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880 – 1940, 2009).  It was not inevitable that such a system be centered around journals, however.  At least based on my current (and admittedly preliminary) thinking, journals were a mechanism organically developed between universities and scholarly societies for the purpose of mutual accreditation.  If I’m correct, then perhaps it is simply time to create a new mechanism that facilitates such accreditation.

In Andrew Abbott’s “The Order of Professionalization” in Work and Occupations (1991), he states that “journals appear relatively early in the rise of professional interest in knowledge, whereas enduring organizations appear relatively later in the rise of professional interest in association” (p. 359).  Therefore it is not the journal itself that helps to perpetuate the rise of professional knowledge, rather it is the organization.  In another one of Abbott’s articles, “Linked Ecologies” (Sociological Theory, 2005) he discusses how professions and related organizations (such as governments and universities) develop “hinge” mechanisms whereby the two institutions (or ecologies to use his term) become associated.  Such hinge mechanisms provide mutual benefit for both organizations.  Furthermore in Abbott’s Chaos of Disciplines (2001) and System of Professions (1988), he discusses how scholarly associations and universities formed a kind of mutual dependency that might very well allow for such a hinge mechanism to develop.

Certainly in my work so far, the journal at least was relatively well developed by the late nineteenth century, though as Abbott states the journal in and of itself may not have been so important.  What rather seems to be important is when universities decided that journals and publication were a good way to determine that professors were eligible for things like tenure and promotion, and, conversely, for professional associations to perpetuate themselves by creating an accreditation system through university degrees and standards for professional posts within academic departments.  If I am correct in my initial thinking the journal publication system became the very kind of hinge mechanism that Abbott discusses.

What does this have to do with scholarly communication?  For years we seem to have been talking about ways of replicating the current journal system in some form.  Admittedly we are now talking about electronic versions of articles, and quantitative measures of assessing the content of such journals (through numbers like impact factors), but nonetheless we are still trying to re-create in electronic form a hinge mechanism that was developed over 50 years ago.  Given the current realities of universities and scholarly associations do we actually want to be replicating an accreditation structure from 1940?  Alternatively should we develop a new hinge mechanism that helps to solve current problems?  In Chaos of Disciplines even Abbott seems to suggest a change in career structures for academics would be beneficial (p. 149).  If history is any indication, such a change needs to be done in collaboration with professional scholarly societies.  Maybe universities and societies need to create a new hinge mechanism, one that does not include journals.

Teaching vs. Research in Scholarly Communication

As I was thinking about the idea of “purity” of research topic last week, I’ve begun to draw some rather tenuous connections to another project I’m working on over the summer about Theophilus Wylie and his role as scholar and librarian in the nineteenth century.  In my discussion of purity, I mentioned Andrew Abbott and in Chaos of Disciplines Abbott specifically discusses higher education in relation to the trend of “purity” in research.  Abbott states “Professions are organized around abstract knowledge” particularly “those who exercise the profession’s knowledge in its most pure form” (p. 145). He then goes on to state that “In general, professionals who are doing what the public imagines to be the most basic professional functions are of relatively low status in the eyes of professionals themselves” (p. 146).  In the very next paragraph Abbott talks about university professors and their aversion to teaching.  Furthermore he describes their preference for teaching graduate vs. undergraduate students as a preference for “pre-professionalized votaries rather than demanding dilettantes.”

Certainly, the J. Lawrence Smith presidential address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science fits this pattern.  Smith says that teaching “unfits him [the teacher/scientist] for that free exercise of the mind which leads to new ideas and discoveries. He becomes an educational drudge instead of an intellectual scientist.”  At the end of the post on the “purity” of research I mentioned that there must have been another tradition that opposed these viewpoints. I think some of my work on Theophilus Wylie who would have been ending his career about ten years after J. Lawrence Smith’s speech.  Coincidentally, Wylie was also a professor of chemistry so may have been aware (though I of course cannot prove it) of Smith’s views.

From what I know about Wylie, he was the very definition of what Abbott might term a “dilettante.”  He was a Presbyterian minister, professor of ancient languages, natural philosophy, chemistry, and other disciplines.  Additionally Wylie seemed to put a stress on teaching.  I have only so far been looking at his role as a librarian.  Even within that, however, he clearly feels that libraries should help to aid the teaching mission of the university.  When President Lemuel Moss tried to move the library into a more research oriented position, Wylie made a note in his diary about how much he objected to Moss’s actions.  Also, in his 1865 library committee report, Wylie spends roughly a third of it talking about how students in the sciences need to learn ancient languages both to better learn the scientific nomenclature and to broaden their minds.  In all, it seems that Wylie represents kind of view of a professor as a generalist interested in many subjects who dedicates himself primarily to teaching. This is the very conception of a professor that Smith is arguing against.  Smith is advocating for the kind of professional that Abbott suggests later dominated universities.

Abbott goes on to say that “the intellectual consequences of academic regression [focus on the pure science that Smith advocates] of this kind are considerable. . . . It is rather the general public and above all undergraduate students who now find that the social sciences give less compelling interpretations of social life than do the less technical humanists” (p. 146).  That Abbott quote is in the context of a chapter about a push toward interdisciplinarity and professional norms within the social sciences.  Though Chaos of Disciplines is about 15 years old at this point, it seems that his points are no less valid today.  Furthermore, I wonder about whether higher education needs to think about ways of re-professionalizing university professors.  Later in the chapter, Abbott discusses how academics are incentivized and suggests that “a change in academic hiring and/or in career structures could easily transform the system” (p. 149). I wonder what those norms might look like.  I also wonder if the kinds of activities that incentivized Wylie such as an emphasis on multi-disciplinarity and teaching would be beneficial for the university of the future.  Certainly the scholarly communication system as it is incentivized now is very similar to the kind of “pure science” that Smith envisioned.  I wonder if that structure is best suited to the needs of modern universities.  Should researchers become better teachers and communicators with the public?  Personally, I think that they should.

Should Academic Research be “Pure?”

In doing some reading about professionalization, and some research on the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, one of the forbears of the American Chemical Society), I came across the presidential address of J. Lawrence Smith, a chemist and president of AAAS in 1873.  The discussion covers several topics, but prior to reading Smith’s lecture, I was reading an article by Andrew Abbott, “Status and Strain in the Professions,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 86, No. 4 (Jan., 1981), pp. 819-835 where Abbott states, “Over time, professional knowledge develops a system of such relative judgments of purity and impurity. . . the accretion of such judgments produces a social structure in which these judgments are loosely associated with positions in a division of labor” (p. 13).  In other words, professionals within a field eventually determine what is “pure” professional practice and what falls outside of that.  Overall, this is not a particularly controversial statement, what I found in my reading in AAAS though, is that it reflects a moment when the exact process Abbot describes happened.

The first part of Smith’s address is about the division between application of research (specifically inventors) and “pure science” (Smith’s words), meaning research without specific practical application.  Smith goes on to argue that such pure science is the basis for the inventions that follow.  Again, nothing particularly surprising here since such arguments were not unique to Smith.  He goes on to say though in a discussion of why science in America is less respected than that of Europe that “What can a physicist, a chemist or a naturalist, do who has three or four classes to teach, usually in the most elementary part of their studies ? This very labor unfits him for that free exercise of the mind which leads to new ideas and discoveries. He becomes an educational drudge instead of an intellectual scientist.”  Toward the end of the address, in a reflection about science and religion, Smith states that “any chemist who would quit his method of investigation, of marking every foot of his advance by some indelible imprint, and go back to the speculations of Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, and other alchemists of former ages, would soon be dropped from the list of chemists and ranked with dreamers and speculators.”  Overall, Smith seems to be arguing for two characteristics of a scientist.  First they should be free to do research and not be burdened with teaching.  Second, they should stay within a narrowly defined area and not move into philosophical speculations of previous eras.

From a modern viewpoint there is nothing controversial here.  Smith is basically arguing for what is more or less the current definition of a tenure track professor.  I am more interested in what the contrary view might have been.  It would seem that people like J. Lawrence Smith were arguing against a different viewpoint which, hypothetically, would state that teaching in universities should be more important and that philosophical speculations are a part of the job of a professor.  Clearly Smith here is reflecting the kinds of trends that Abbott identifies in which “purity” becomes an important part of professional identity.  Additionally, Smith himself went on to help found a professional society in which chemistry arguably became more pure because it was not mixed in with other sessions about the other sciences.

Why is all of this important?  Today debates about interdisciplinarity have become more important as we seek to understand issues such as climate change, social phenomena occurring on the internet, or the interdependencies between economics, politics, and culture in a global context.  Harvey Graff in his book Undisciplining Knowledge, however, suggests that “Throughout this history, and still today, efforts to understand interdisciplinary are marked by a signal failure to scrutinize definitions, disciplinary and interdisciplinary relationships, and the locations, organization, and institutionalization of declared or developing interdisciplines” (p. 215)  Furthermore, Graff argues that “What is at stake is nothing less than the framing of efforts to make progress on major intellectual and social problems; issues of public policy; expectations and anticipations; the allocation of resources, including the time and efforts of people and institutions; the articulation of organizations and structures; and professional careers and human lives” (p. 214).  Perhaps in light of modern debates it would be helpful to think about this earlier debate in which one side (that of creating a “pure” professional discipline) won.  The question is whether the forces that allowed them to triumph are similar today, and whether it might be time for a different framework (that of a less pure and less professionalized discipline) might be valuable in modern universities.

19th Century Information Use

I’ve finished gathering data on Theophilus Wylie’s personal library and his work as the librarian of Indiana University.  Overall, I think what is interesting, is a clear indication that Wylie seems to have different ideas about what is important to his own work as a scholar and what is important for the library to maintain.

First, some visualization of his personal library.  It contains about 700 books, and thanks to the director of the Wylie House, I have a list of all of the books which are still held at the Wylie House Museum. I went through all of the titles and created some general categories to see what we might say were the most important subjects in the collection.

Wylie_Personal_LibraryReligious subjects are clearly favored with the largest category with near even coverage in Humanistic and Scientific disciplines (with Science having a slight edge), followed by books about education and a few miscellaneous items (like cookbooks).  It seems that Wylie takes his role as a Presbyterian minister quite seriously, and it is likely that many of the religious works helped him prepare his sermons.  Wylie also taught science and languages, with science being his primary subjects in his later career.

There some additional questions though.  Did Wylie collect the same subjects for the Indiana University Library?  If not, how where they different?  Why? There  are a few ways to answer these questions.  Unfortunately no complete catalog of the library exists from Wylie’s tenure as librarian.  The library burned down twice between 1840 and 1880 and many of the records were lost.  There are, however, a few hints.

The first is a catalog that Wylie created of the library in 1842, shortly after he took over as librarian.  It likely does not show much of his collecting interest, but it does show what the subjects of the library were when he took over.  Fortunately there is a dissertation by Mildred Lowell on the History of Indiana University Library which has already done some analysis on this topic.  Instead of re-categorizing the thousands of books held in the library, I mapped her work onto the categories I used for the Wylie’s personal library and this is what the subject categorization looks like.

IU_Libraries

Clearly there is quite a difference.  The Humanities are very dominant.  The “other” category contains mostly reference works (like dictionaries and encyclopedias of various kinds), and neither science nor religion are particularly well represented.  The question still remains though as to what influence Wylie himself may have had when he collected books for the library.

There are two lists of books Wylie procured for the library both through gift and donation, one of which is available digitally.  Though this is probably not a representative sample containing just over 100 books, it is the best I could find to try and answer this question.  Here is the visualization of that sample.

purchasesAgain there are some interesting difference.  The stress on the humanities seems to be the same.  There is clearly more emphasis on scientific subjects, a slight increase in religious subjects, and some less emphasis on “other” subjects.

In all, it seems like there are some clear differences between what Wylie felt was important for a university library to hold and what it was important for him to use personally.  I am still working through the Indiana University archives which house his papers.  Fortunately there are some existing reports on his activities as librarian and a lecture he gave on books and libraries.  Perhaps there are some hints there about his views on the difference between personal information use and the perceived information needs of the students and faculty of Indiana University.