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.


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