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.

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