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.


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