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.