History and Public Communication of Scholarship

Lately it seems that many articles have been coming through my news-feed about the failure of scholars to communicate their research to the public.  Some of these articles have even taken a historical viewpoint in order to propose solutions.  Still others propose communicating historical scholarship as a way to contextualize modern issues (like the 2016 election).  In all, this has led me to reflect a bit about my own work on the history of scholarly communication and why it is actually quite important in today’s world.  If one agrees with all of these articles, there is one common denominator:  the ways in which academics disseminate their research are ineffective, and need reform.  The question I ask myself is how might my work help to solve this problem?  Hopefully, by using history to investigate the scholarly communication system (such as it was) in the nineteenth century, it may be possible to think more about why it changed, and, more importantly, whether there may be ways for us to think about reforming it in the future.

So far I have been working on two, somewhat related, projects.  First, I have been looking at the ways in which the American Chemical Society (ACS) formed in the late nineteenth century.  For much of the work I have been doing on ACS, I have relied on Andrew Abbott’s work on professionalization. Additionally, I have been thinking about how scholars, particularly Theophilus Wylie, used information in the mid-late nineteenth century.  To some degree, these two topics seem to have little relation between each other.  On the other hand, I think that these two projects show different aspects of a system for communicating scholarship that was in transition.  Wylie represents an older system, before the modern scholarly communication system institutionalized and became dominated by journals, books, and other kinds of research outputs.  The American Chemical Society shows how that system began to change, even during Wylie’s lifetime.  Finally, Abbott’s work on professionalization shows the ways in which that system became institutionalized.  How do these three themes connect?  The story ends, obviously with the current scholarly communication system in which research (using Abbott and even early ACS presidents’ terms) becomes “pure” and untainted by the issues of applied science.

Such pure research is disseminated in journals that are reviewed and assessed by other specialist researchers.  Arguably, such research becomes less and less accessible by those without particular professional training.  Therefore, since it is difficult to assess scholarship across disparate fields,  if one wishes to assess the quality of such research by academic administrators, government accountability requirements, and other non-specialists with an interest in higher education, it becomes necessary to create metrics that can be applied across research (such as the impact factor, or alt-metrics).  Prior to this  contemporary system of research publication, however, there was a different way of communicating research, represented by professors like Theophilus Wylie.  Rather than disseminating his research through books and journals (though he did write one book, more on that later), Wylie spread knowledge through his teaching at Indiana University.  Even in his position as librarian, Wylie collected resources that would support his (and other faculty members at the university’s) teaching mission.

There is also another aspect to Wylie’s information use.  In his personal library (which was dominated by theology), Wylie focused on a kind of teaching mission.  I suspect that many of Wylie’s theological works helped to aid his other occupation as a Presbyterian minister.  Thus, in a way, his personal library was dedicated to another kind of teaching: preaching to his congregation (and to some degree even his students perhaps).  In his lifetime, Wylie did publish one book a history of Indiana University.  In my view, this work too was written not for an audience of other specialist historians (Wylie was not trained in history), but rather for alumni and others who might be interested in the history of Indiana University.  In any case, it seems that the majority of Wylie’s “scholarly communication” was not through journal articles, but in lectures either to his students or to his congregation.  In other words, Wylie focused on public communication to non-specialists, similar in some ways to what is being advocated in the articles I mentioned in the introduction to this post.

In some ways, it seems that we are going back to an earlier system in which scholarship needs to be communicated to non-specialists.  With current technologies, that goal can be achieved much more widely than Wylie or members of the ACS could ever have imagined.  The main problem it seems is to think about how a scholarly communication system focused more on public communication of scholarship can be measured and assessed.  Andrew Abbott’s theories discuss the idea of a hinge mechanism on which two social systems (like universities and scholarly societies, or universities and the government) rely. Currently the hinge mechanism which is predominant in academe is academic journals or books.  Perhaps that should change, and it should change in a way that privileges communication of scholarship to a different audience, one that is not comprised primarily of other academic specialists in a small and “pure” field.

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