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.

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