Scholarly Communication as a Historical Process

Scholarly communication is a relatively recent field of study that Christine Borgman  has suggested goes back to the 1960s and 70s, but really only became prominent with the advent of new information technology in the 1990s and early 2000s.  Borgman defines scholarly communication as “the study of how scholars in any field (e.g. physical, biological, social, and behavioural sciences, humanities, technology) use and disseminate information through formal and informal channels” (p. 414). and goes on to say that “essential elements such as the scholarly journal article are remarkably stable and print publication continues unabated, despite the proliferation of digital media” (p. 413). Furthermore, Borgman identifies two research areas within scholarly communication.  First, there is the study of the structures of scholarly communication that can be revealed by scientometric and bibliometric analyses.  Second is the process of scholarly communication which encompasses how and why scholars publish.  Much of the literature on scholarly communication has focused on what Borgman defines as structure.

Such scholarship has suggested that “individual imperatives for career self-interest, advancing the field, and receiving credit are often more powerful motivators in publishing decisions than the technological affordances of new media.”  These conclusions rest on a particular line of thinking advocated by researchers such as Eugene Garfield, the founder of the Institute for Scientific Information citation index who has stated that “Those of us who have worked in the field of scientometrics and its antecedent bibliometrics almost universally recognize the debt we owe to Robert K. Merton” (p. 54).  Merton focused on the importance of status as a motivator for scholarly communication.   Garfield measured such status with a very particular method: citations within journal literature.  Other scholars, namely Scott Frickel and Neil Gross, when discussing the approach of Merton and others to measurement of status argue that “we find it difficult to believe that the quest for prestige and status is the sole motive shaping intellectual innovation” (p. 211).  In other words, there may be another way of investigating the ways in which what Borgman defines as the “process” by which scholarly communication forms and sustains itself.

My work, I think, focuses on the “process” of scholarly communication, or, how it developed in the ways that it did and why it did so.  In my view, history is the best way to answer such a question.  In the United States, the earliest journals were founded in the mid to late nineteenth century. Therefore, there are many sources that can help to understand the ways in which scholars institutionalized the communication of their research.  By looking at the careers and debates of scholars from the the mid to late nineteenth century, it may possible to determine the contours of their discussion about scholarly publishing before it developed into the modern system described by Borgman and Harley.  Moreover, these nineteenth century debates may help to think about how modern discussions regarding scholarly communication.  In fact, I think that this debate still continues today.  Steve Miller has stated that “we are entering a new age for public understanding of science,  it is important that citizens get used to scientists arguing out controversial facts, theories, and issues” (p. 119).  The question is, how can these historical debates help us to answer these modern questions.  I hope that by understanding the historical process of scholarly communication, I may be able to answer that question.

Open Access Alchemy


One of my first posts when I launched this blog asked the question,  why don’t alchemists share?  Another scholar I mentioned in that post, Pamela Long, has discussed the issue of authorship and secrecy.  She has also written about the separation and mixing of two kinds of practice, artisinal (or for lack of a better analogy “applied” work) and academic (work performed at universities.  She argues that there were “trading zones” in which people moved between these two spheres with relative fluidity.  She also notes that in the modern age, such trading zones are less fluid because of current requirements (university degrees, licensure, etc.) to be considered a professional.  For the most part, Long is discussing the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but her arguments could apply equally well, I think, to the mid to late nineteenth century. That period was one where the professional “modern” requirements Long mentions were just beginning to form. The question is, where were the trading zones in a pre-professionalized, scientific community?

The political cartoon at the top of this post provides a potential answer.  It dates from 1887 and satirizes the presidential aspirations of James G. Blaine who had just lost the 1884 election. It depicts three newspaper moguls (Charles Anderson Dana, Joseph Pulitzer, and Whitelaw Reid) trying to make gold for Blaine’s future ambitions (he was expected to run again in 1888).  What does this have to do with scholarly communication?  The cartoon tacitly shows that the presidential campaign was not entirely in the hands of the politicians, but, in the hands of the publishers (newspaper owners) who formed public opinion on these issues.  Scholarly communication too is about the media and the places where scholars choose to discuss their research.

My post about the publication careers of Theophilus Wylie and J. Lawrence Smith is just one example of the ways these two men shaped their careers by choosing different kinds of publishers. I noted that Wylie seemed to choose a public audience (including popular newspapers), whereas Smith chose only (or at least primarily) an audience of other scientific practitioners.  What do these respective choices tell us about how these two men saw their roles as a professor and researcher, and whom did they see as their colleagues?  I am merely speculating at this point, but I would suspect that Wylie would have seen himself primarily as a teacher and in the same company as other teachers within the state of Indiana.  His papers seem to consist of many addresses on education that were prepared for other teachers, and Wylie also published in a teacher’s journal.  Smith, on the other hand, seemed to dislike teaching and wanted to pursue only research.  In fact at the end of his life, he left academe in order to pursue research within industry.

In the modern world, scholarship is increasingly dictated by the impact scholarship has.  That can be measured by metrics like impact factor, eigenfactor, altmetrics, or others.  Nonetheless, all of these impact metrics are useless if one first does not ask questions that professors like Wylie and Smith (at least implicitly) asked themselves. Who is your audience?  How do you want to affect their perceptions?  At the time when scholarship was professionalizing, these two men had very different answers to those questions.  More importantly, in the same ways that publishers (broadly construed) shaped the fates of politicians like Blaine, publishers also shaped the careers of people like Wylie and Smith.  Wylie published with newspapers and other largely public venues.  Smith published primarily in Silliman’s journal, controlled by a fellow academic.  Such publishers help to reach audiences and shape public perception in various ways.  No doubt they will continue to do so in the future.

To go back to my original question of why alchemists don’t share.  One might answer it simply by saying that they had no need to.  Alchemists were trained as practitioners in an “art form” by masters within the same field; those masters no doubt did share with others in their field in some informal ways.  Scientists on the other hand, felt a need to have a different kind of impact.  If Theophilus Wylie were alive today, I suspect he might have supported movements like science communication or history communication, both emphasizing discussing scholarship to non-experts.  Smith, rightly, might have argued against Wylie, saying that science should be subject to rigorous peer review, ensuring its quality.  Neither of these approaches is wrong, but the answer to modern scholarly communication is in a balance between the two.  Alchemy was not shared because it was communicated only to fellow practitioners; on the other hand alchemy was more practically based and of more use to members of the public (after all who doesn’t want more gold).  Science was communicated more publicly through journals in order to have a larger impact.  At the same time, science publishing became more closed as scientists began to talk more to each other and less to the general public and their language became more impenetrable.

The key to these contrasting viewpoints that people like Wylie and Smith might still have, is the same as it was in the nineteenth century: publishers.  Publishers helped to find audiences.  Publishers helped to craft the messages of sciences.  Publishers helped to make material more widely known.  Today, publishers need to help create the kind of “trading zone” that Pamela Long discusses in which applied practitioners and scholarly experts can meet freely.  In other words, perhaps we should find a way to facilitate open access alchemy.

(image from the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Distillations magazine,

A Tale of Two Chemists


I was thinking more about my post last week that discusse the publication record of Theophilus Wylie, and was wondering how his record might compare to other scientists of his time.  One of the scientists I have also written about in relation to the American Chemical Society, is J. Lawrence Smith, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a founder of the American Chemical Society, professor, and writer of an address on how science should be practiced.  I thought it might be interesting to compare their respective scholarly publication records.  Needless to say, they are very different.  I think there is something important about what these two records of publication tell us about scholarly communication (such as it was in the nineteenth century).  These two scholars address very different audiences, and clearly have divergent views on the role of an academic in society.

Smith published about 145 articles in his lifetime.  A full listing of them can be found in a tribute to Smith published by Benjamin Silliman (editor of Silliman’s Journal/the American Journal of Science).  In reviewing these publications, they seem to be the kind of publications one would expect from a scholar (even today). They are research articles, and they are published in journals intended to be read by other scholars.  Most of the publications appear to be in Silliman’s journal (which would make sense because it was the only major American scientific journal at the time).  Smith also published in some other chemistry journals and some international journals as well.  Thus, in many ways, J. Lawrence Smith seems to be publishing in ways that might be similar to a modern chemist.  Importantly, the audience for which Smith seems to be writing is primarily other chemists, most likely those employed at other universities.

Theophilus Wylie was also a chemist; yet, his publication is very different.  Altogether, Wylie published just 7 items (at least that I could track down) including:

  1. Catalogue of the Library of Indiana State University (1842)
  2. Letter on gold found in Indiana read by Prof. John Frazer, Journal of the Franklin Institute (1850)
  3. Teeth and Bones of Elphas Primogenius, Lately Found Near the Western Fork of the White River in Monroe County, Indiana” in American Journal of Science (Silliman’s Journal) (1859).
  4. Baccalaureate Discourse to the Graduating Class of Indiana State University” Indianapolis Journal Company, Printers (1859)
  5. Andrew Wylie, D. D., First President of Indiana University” in the Indiana School Journal (1860)
  6. Interesting Report of Prof. Wylie of the State University.” Indianapolis Journal (1869)
  7. Indiana University: Its History from 1820, when Founded to 1890 (1891)

The catalogue is not attributed to Wylie, but is likely his work.  Only two of the articles were distributed in scientific journals, but seem more similar to his article in the Indianapolis Journal than they do to any kind of research article (like what Smith was publishing).  All of Wylie’s  articles in both the academic journals and the Indianapolis Journal are really geological reports (keep in mind that mining and geology were linked to chemistry in the nineteenth century, many of Smith’s articles are also on geology) that could be of interest to a fairly broad audience.

Is it possible to draw any conclusions from this very different publication record between Wylie and Smith?  I think it is, Wylie seems to be writing for a very different audience, the public.  In this case, Wylie seems to be writing for an audience that would include those interested in using the library (library catalog), all people interested in geology (academic and newspaper articles), students at Indiana University (Bacalaureate address), and all people interested in the history of Indiana University (book on the history of Indiana University, and biography of Andrew Wylie).  On the other hand, it would seem that  Smith sees the role of a scientific author as one which reports only to fellow scientists (which would be in line with what Smith advocates for in his address to the AAAS), Wylie seems to see his role of scientist as a person dedicated to the public.

Therefore, one might question whether these two chemists have competing views about what “scholarly communication” (in this case meaning dissemination of their ideas) should be.  Perhaps as we think about reform of the scholarly communication system currently, it might be worth thinking about the seeming division of roles exemplified by both Smith and Wylie.  What is the role of the scholar to the public?  As I said in my post last week, I am not advocating for a return to Wylie’s point of view, but I do think that scholarship should play a more public role.  The publication of Theophilus Wylie shows that prior to the formation of the current scholarly communication system, others thought that way as well, and can perhaps serve as a way for modern academics to think about the role of publicly disseminating their ideas.

Image Credit: (Left, Theophilus Wylie, image from and right, J. Lawrence Smith, image from

Purpose of (19th Century) Academic Publishing

I was looking a bit more on some of my work on Theophilus Wylie, and thought about a question related to scholarly communication.  Wylie lived in a time when (more or less) the only scholarly journal in the United States was the American Journal of Science better known at the time as “Silliman’s Journal” (Benjamin Silliman, Jr. being the editor at the time).  In the modern scholarly communication system, publishing in such a journal would be essential for continuing an appointment as a professor.  In Wylie’s day, however, that was not true.  What were Wylie’s practices for disseminating his scholarship?  They were obviously very different from today.  Also, in my view, knowing about previous methods of sharing scholarship may help modern scholars think in new ways about how scholarship should be shared.  Should modern scholars return to the earlier system used by Wylie?  Probably not, but in some ways Wylie represents a tradition where sharing of scholarship happened primarily through teaching to non-specialist audiences.  Such a practice might also benefit modern scholarship.

The first way of addressing the question of how Wylie disseminated his scholarship would be to look at his publications.  That is how a professor now would be judged, and by modern standards no doubt Wylie would never advance in his career.  He published just one book (a history of Indiana University) which was not until after his retirement from the university in 1891.  In 1860 he wrote a biography of his cousin Andrew Wylie, first president of Indiana University in the Indiana School Journal. In terms of scientific research in his field, Theophilus Wylie published one article in Silliman’s journal, on mastadon bones (which is really more of a report of what he saw rather than a scholarly article, even by 19th century standards).  If one wishes to count it as a publication, Wylie is mentioned by Prof. John Frazer in the Journal of the Franklin Institute, about the discovery of gold in Indiana (similar to his article in Silliman’s journal, this too  is more of a report than a scientific article).  In 1859, Theophilus Wylie published two items.  He wrote an article for a local newspaper, the Indianapolis Journal that, like his articles in Silliman’s Journal and the Journal of the Franklin Institute, was more of a report (this time on mining conditions in Indiana) and his baccalaureate addresses.  That brings Wylie a grand total of 6 publications, only one of which appeared in an academic journal, over a career of 49 years (1836-1885).

Such a list gives to simplistic a picture of Wylie’s activities at Indiana University, however.  Over the same period of time, Wylie gave a large number of public addresses and sermons (many of which survive in note form at the Indiana University Archives).  I have not counted them all, but needless to say they far outnumber Wylie’s print publications.  What conclusions might one draw from this disparity between public addresses and printed publications?  First, I think it is fair to say that Wylie put more emphasis on his preaching and teaching than on his publishing.  I think there is one key aspect to Wylie’s practices, though which goes beyond mere numbers of his printed publications and lectures.

If one looks at all of Wylie’s outputs (lectures and publications alike), I think there is one common denominator:  the audience for which they were intended.  Only two articles (Journal of the Franklin Institute and Silliman’s Journal) were intended for fellow scientists.  The rest were intended for various members of the general public.  Therefore, it seems to me at least that Wylie saw his purpose in sharing knowledge as a public duty, a not one that was meant to be shared only among fellow academics.  In this time where there is increasing debate about whether academic professionals should be engaged in the public sphere, perhaps it is worth thinking about the ways in which professors communicated their scholarship to the public prior to the creation of academic journals.  Might the career of people like Theophilus Wylie be an interesting window into that debate?  I think it certainly could.

Authority in Scholarly Communication

There are three words that are rarely used in the same sentence, but I think may need to be brought more closely together in future discussions about scholarly discourse: Diplomatics, scholarly communication, and digital curation.  Diplomatics was originally a method within archival science designed to establish authenticity in medieval legal documents (now of course expanded to electronic and other media).  Scholarly communication is of course about the ways in which academics disseminate their scholarship.  Digital curation as a field seeks to preserve and add value to content, particularly electronic resources, for future generations.  All of these fields share one characteristic – an interest in authority – that I think needs to be thought about in more depth.

Though authority is not always something discussed that overtly in much scholarly communication literature, is is an issue underlying many of those debates.  Who determines what articles are “valid” through the peer review system?  Who determines the peer reviewers?  How are those peer reviewers selected?  Are certain citations more valuable than others?  Why are certain journals more authoritative than others?  There is of course much scholarship devoted to some of these questions, but I think it is important to see how those questions are similar in many ways to similar questions posited within the field of digital curation.

Digital curation also seeks to understand better how to create “trustworthy” or to put that another way, authoritative digital repositories.  A digital curator might ask questions similar to those above about scholarly communication.  How can we determine what materials are more trustworthy than others?  Who determines and selects such materials for such a repository?  How is the authority of such selectors determined? Are certain repositories more authoritative than others?  Are certain methods of collecting more authoritative than others?

I discussed the concept of “organic information” previously, a concept that comes from the field of diplomatics.  I think this may be a useful framework to think about the concept of authority, particularly in the intersections of both scholarly communication and digital curation.  The theory of “organic information” that recognizes documents as an ever-changing material object that is dependent both on a physical (or in the case of electronic documents a virtual) form, but also is part of a dynamic social system that places different values on that object at different periods in history.  Additionally, the field of diplomatics has several criteria for evaluating authenticity within these contexts that can help to frame discussions of trust for any type of information that might be found within a digital repository.

Some scholars  define the fundamentals of diplomatics as a method of knowledge organization.  In the nineteenth century diplomatics established the principle of respect de fonds defined by Michel Duchein as “to group, without mixing them [documents] with others, the archives (documents of every kind) created by or coming from an administration, establishment, person, or corporate body.”  From this principle, other scholars have identified a differentiation between organic and non-organic information.  The former is defined as information gathered by an individual in the course of some practical activity; the latter refers to something that is contained in a bibliographic reference.  Respect de fonds, therefore, is about honoring the groups and individuals who have gathered certain documents together.  To put this another way, this principle is a method for studying how individuals create authority for certain documents and place those texts together in a kind of archive with other materials that might explain the collection of records as a whole.  In order to systematize this study, there are several methods diplomatistes (practitioners of diplomatics) utilize.

With the arrival of new kinds of documents and the recent explosion of information, scholars have been calling for an expansion of the field into these new areas. Francis Blouin tries to create a framework in which such developments could happen.  He identifies two sub-fields within diplomatics.  The first of these focuses on documents themselves.  This is the field practitioners most commonly associate with the word diplomatics, the study of an individual document (often a historical one like a medieval manuscript), and whether or not it is an original or a forgery.  Tied to that kind of study is a second, less well known, but equally important sub-field however that Blouin describes as “organizational context” or the connections between a particular document and the institution in which it was created and the people who created a document for a particular purpose.  He stresses that these two approaches are complementary and cannot be separated from one another.

Bruno Delmas identifies the purpose of diplomatics as a discipline that establishes authority within a particular document.  To do this, he identifies four characteristics: memory, evidence, understanding, and communication as essential elements of any document whether physical or electronic.  Delmas also distinguishes the methods of practice in which all diplomatists must engage.  These include the study of form (or what a document looks like and what its original purpose was), genesis (or the original context of a document), edition (whether a document was added to at a later time), and selection (how a document was chosen to represent a certain type of characteristic such as memory or evidence).  Olivier Guyotjeannin identifies the same basic methods as Delmas, though he describes them slightly differently.  He identifies form, tradition (similar to edition but including a concept of an author’s heritage and whether an author fits within a particular literary tradition), genesis, critique of false (the historical method of determining authenticity from previous scholarship and opinions), and chronology (study of dating of materials and how earlier dates translate into modern ones).  Guyotejeannin further argues (in ways similar to Blouin) that these methods ought to be applied to modern print and electronic materials.

How might diplomatics shape further discussions about authority in scholarly communication?  Fundamentally, all electronic documents, whether they are published through a scholarly journal or deposited in an online repository (and many documents go through both processes), are subject to these questions about authority.  Diplomatics, particularly the concept of “organic information,” I think provides an interesting framework to investigate these questions further.  Documents are a product of various social processes that shape them.  Using a historical and social analysis to determine authority might help reframe some of the ways we talk about establishing authority within the scholarly communication system.