Social Capital and Scholarly Communication

After reading an interesting article by Alex Cummings lately about information and its role in education, it made me think some more about several of the posts I’ve been writing lately, particularly my question of whether scholarly communication is itself a commodity.  My answer was that I did not think journal articles and other “scholarly outputs” should be treated as a commodity, but we should be looking at the social organization behind them.  Nonetheless, in some ways I ignored the question of what exactly is the commodity we should be thinking about for scholarly communication.  Despite my own misgivings about education being a commodity, clearly in this day and age we have to think about it in those terms.  We also need to think about the ways that our scholarly outputs (articles, books, and maybe even blog posts) fit into that larger system of commodification in higher education.

In some ways, this brings me back to some of my work on Theophilus Wylie and the American Chemical Society.  In those posts, I was thinking about how Wylie used information in the 19th century (as a tool for education), and what J. Lawarence Smith (President at the time of the American Association for the Advancement of Science) believed was the ideal scientific knowledge (theoretical and not applied research).  Cummings asks the question of what exactly is it that universities are selling.  Cummings notes a disconnect that “In frank moments, most faculty members at research universities would probably say their research is the most important aspect of their work. . . .In contrast, many students and parents probably assume that colleges are primarily institutions of learning, where people go to acquire knowledge and skills and (most crucially) credentials.”  I have been noticing some of the same disconnects in the nineteenth century.

Nor am I the only one to have seen this.  As I also discussed, Andrew Abbott has noticed some of the same trends.  Cummings in passing mentions that “social capital” is an important component.  Social capital is a complex term, but for now if we just define it as networks of contacts that a person is able to utilize in their work and daily lives, then maybe that is actually the commodity that is being bought and sold within universities.  For students this social capital comes in terms of powerful professors who can help get jobs within academe or with fellow students who will one day be in the professions in which they hope to work.

Regardless of the goal for students, what is of interest to me is how this works organizationally.  For scholarly communication in particular, we have been measuring the commodity as scholarly outputs, like journals.  If we think about social capital as the commodity, the question is how could it be measured or monetized.  I do not have the answer to that here, but I do think that it is important to understand the social organizations behind journals and universities more thoroughly before we can even begin to answer that question effectively.

Trust and Openness

Open dissemination of science is an important debate for scholars today.  Some open access advocates like Cory Doctorow have even made historical analogies claiming “The difference is between the alchemist and the scientist is that the alchemist never tells anyone else what she’s learned. . .  the scientist isn’t doing science until she tells everyone around her what she thinks she’s learned.”  In other words, scientists openly disclose their results in a public forum, like an academic journal.  Interestingly, the system of professionalization and institutionalization of scholarly journals happens in a very particular time period between about 1880 and 1940.  As debates continue about open access and what are the best ways to disseminate the results of science, it is increasingly important to understand why the current system formed in the ways that it did, and how it might continue to evolve in the future.

Steven Shapin has provided an interesting framework that might help to understand the ways in which this transition from an informal network of practitioners into a more professional system of academic scholars happened.  In a Social History of Truth, Shapin states “Seventeenth-century commentators felt secure in guaranteeing the truthfulness of narratives by pointing to the integrity of those who proffered them. . . . Trust is no longer bestowed on familiar individuals; it is accorded to institutions and abstract capacities thought to reside in certain institutions” (p. 411).   Christine Borgman in her work about the modern scholarly communication system seems to reaffirm Shapin’s argument, “As digital content becomes the primary form of scholarly discourse, the need for trust mechanisms will grow. . . .  Trust is an inherently social construct that varies widely by culture, context, and time” (p. 261).

I too hope to understand how trust develops within the context of one particular profession and set of journals between 1880 and 1940.  The American Chemical Society, one of the earliest professional academic societies, formed in 1876 and started the Journal of the American Chemical Society in 1879.  During this time period, the journal expanded rapidly and eventually created new journals.  How did trust form within these early communities, and, more importantly, how did scientists decide to publicly disclose some data and withhold other knowledge.  Pamela Long discusses the ways in which scientists in the ancient and early modern periods made decisions about what to disclose.  I hope to bring that story forward into a period where open disclosure became institutionalized through journals, and hopefully shed light on the future of how “publication” should continue on the open internet.

Political Economy of Scholarly Communication

The current political economy of scholarly communication is a complex ecosystem consisting of individual faculty members, learned societies, commercial publishers, non-profit publishers, academic administrators, funders, government agencies, and many others.   The current market of payments, incentives, and rewards is one that has developed over a period of at least 100 years.  One could argue that before thinking about new methods for creating a political economy of scholarly communication, it is essential that one understand why and how the current one formed.

There is already a long tradition studying the history of scholarly communication.  Fields such as Library and Information Science, Sociology of Science, and History of Science have been interested in the topic for many years.  Dennis Carrigan argues that the current system developed along with the idea of a research university (such as Johns Hopkins) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and as a result has demanded an ever increasing production of new knowledge (mostly in the forms of materials purchased by libraries).  John Budd in a study of more current problems in the scholarly communication system, further suggests that “a great amount of empirical work is required to examine the details of the systemic elements” and that the “the initial stage of addressing this matter should be raising the consciousness of academic administrators. . . . Little can be done without teleological change that embraces the entirety of the scholarly endeavor.” Fortunately, much of the empirical work (at least from a historical perspective) is already being done.  Scholars in the history of science such as Melinda Baldwin and Alex Cziszar have begun to research histories of journals and peer review, and scholars in the UK have been doing the same with new research on the history of the Royal Society.  Furthermore, sociologists like Joanne Gaudet have tried to bring together the sociological literature on scholarly communication with these historical perspectives.

It is important, however, as Budd points out, to use the findings of this research in “raising the consciousness of academic administrators.” Overall, it seems to me that a historical perspective is rarely brought into discussions of political economy, but with the momentum currently behind the study of the history of academic discourse, now is a perfect time to bring a historical perspective to bear on important current issues of scholarly communication.  A question remains, however.  What are the best ways of bringing this historical discourse to the administrators?  Is there a way of bridging the gap and breaking down the silos between the research on scholarly communication in sociology, information science, and the history of science and the library literature?  I think there must be  a way of accomplishing this.  More importantly the gap between these silos must be bridged if we are going to help achieve the kind of the “teleological change” Budd discusses.  Scholarly communication is a complex topic, there are many disciplines dealing with it in their own ways, and in order to achieve real, lasting, and sustainable change, it is essential that all of the scholarship on the evolution of scholarly communication be synthesized and communicated more effectively.

Is Scholarly Communication a Commodity?

The answer of course in the modern world is yes.  Therefore, the only question remaining is how that commodity (usually defined as journal articles or other “scholarly outputs” like books or data) should be measured.  This does not seem to be true for the earlier periods I have been discussing so far, however in the case of the American Chemical Society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and scholars like Andrew Abbott seem even to go so far as to say at points that journals are a kind of ancillary byproduct of an organizational system.  So the question for me is how this idea of scholarly communication became a commodity, and, perhaps more importantly, should we think about it in a different way?

From my initial research, it seems like many of the scholars talking about modern scholarly communication are drawing on the work of Robert Merton or Thomas Kuhn.  Kuhn of course talks generally about how “scientific revolutions” happen over time in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and Merton’s work spans a variety of areas, but for the purposes of scholarly communication, his work on the sociology of science and in particular his discussions on how individual scientists achieve status and credit seem to be of particular importance.   Scholars like Abbott on the other hand seem to be less interested in individual scientists and how they attain credit for their ideas and more interested in how movements and organizations sustain themselves and replicate themselves over time.  It seems to me like this has created two strains of research on scholarly communication.  The first is based on the work of Merton and the second on scholars like Abbott.  It also seems, at least in current debates about scholarly communication, that Merton’s conceptions of credit and status tend to dominate.  Should the contours of this discussion change?  I think it should.

Scholarly communication, I think is not just about the commodity of scholarship, it is about how scholars determine the ways to advance research.  I am still working out for myself how they did that in the early twentieth century and when exactly journals came to become dominant.  My suspicion, however, is that there is another way of thinking how scholarship perpetuates and replicates itself organizationally in the ways that Abbott discusses. I also suspect that there may be alternative methods to move scholarship forward that might not require a commodity of a scholarly output like a journal article.

I hope that by working on this historical evolution of scholarly communication, it may become clearer that the current discussion of how we evaluate scholars was very complex.  I also hope that we can think about alternative paths.  Compared to other historical systems, modern scholarly communication is relatively young (only solidifying in the mid-twentieth century).  It may not be too late to change direction, perhaps in more useful ways.