Authenticity in Scholarly Communication

At a time when all of us are thinking more about what makes something authentic or true, I’ve been trying to apply my random musings as much as possible to my scholarly and professional expertise.  What makes a source of scientific (or humanistic for that matter) information “authentic?”  In information science, we have some frameworks for thinking about these issues, and perhaps we need to think about them even more earnestly at a time when our institutions of academic authority are being questioned.

Often in science and technology studies we discuss the idea of affordances, or ways in which we take action.  These affordances often take shape in three ways:  cultural, social, and material.  The analogy most frequently used to describe these is a house.  A cultural affordance is the blueprint (the underlying principles for building the house); social affordances are the ways people use to build the house (architects, construction workers, mortgage brokers); material affordances are the objects like the actual physical house.  In terms of scholarly communication, we can think of cultural affordances being the underlying philosophy of scholarship and higher education; social affordances are the ways we carry this out (scholarly associations, peer review systems, publishers); material affordances are the physical artifact like a journal (either in print or more often nowadays digital).

In my view, when the cultural affordances have skewed, then the other affordances begin to do the same thing.  To use the house analogy, if continually create strange blueprints, eventually you start building houses that fall down.  It seems that this is exactly the state we are in for scholarly publishing.  In the early nineteenth century (and before) universities saw themselves as teaching institutions, and over time, when research became more prominent within scholarly associations (like the American Chemical Society), research frequently became more tied to industry.  I wrote a bit about this in the context of two scholars, Theophilus Wylie and J. Lawrence Smith in a previous post.  In that post, I noted that Wylie considered himself a teacher, Smith considered himself a researcher and felt that research should be tied to industry.  This link between universities and industry is one that I think we need to investigate more fully.

In the nineteenth century German model of higher education that the United States eventually imported was built fundamentally to create professionals needed for the state (bureaucrats and other clerical workers).  The concept of bildung, or the Romantic ideal of knowledge for its own sake, was often used to elevate the professional status of professors themselves, who in previous centuries had been devoted to staffing the ranks of professional clergy and devoted, at least theoretically, to understanding God. In the United States, I think, there was a fundamental difference between the kinds of professionals the universities were creating.  Rather than trying to make future bureaucrats or future ministers (though admittedly many universities were doing that too), they de facto began making future managers and workers in industrial and business professions.  Thus, professional scholarship, despite the rhetoric about it being just disinterested knowledge pursued for its own sake, one could argue, was actually meant to serve industry and the needs of the business sector.

One hundred years later, this blueprint for scholarship does not seem surprising.  Scholarship, at least according to some, must become even more accountable to society for practical results that can be monetized for the use of industry.  Furthermore, universities should do more to train people for professional jobs in various industries.  In my view, to go back to the idea of cultural affordances, it seems that universities have a blueprint that says at the top, “Knowledge for its own sake,”  and then goes on to outline a method for researching and training professionals for the use of industry.  Is it any surprise that the social and material affordances, after 100 years of attempting to reconcile this underlying disconnect, are broken?

Perhaps now is a time to re-examine the cultural affordances of higher education.  In scholarly communication it seems that we often focus on the social or material affordances.  We ask, for instance, whether we need to reform journal publishing with open access (a material affordance), whether we need to change peer review or tenure and promotion (both social affordances), but we can’t change either of those things without first dealing with our cultural affordance, or our blueprint.  What should a system of higher education really look like and what is its purpose?  Everything else flows from that, and it seems to me at least that we can’t fix scholarly communication without first determining what the purpose of scholarship is.  Right now it seems that its purpose is to serve industry (despite the higher ideals we might tell ourselves).  What should its purpose be?  In the nineteenth century, Germans reformed their higher education system.  Americans re-purposed it into something that has served it well for 100 years.  Perhaps now, at a time when the entire system is being questioned, it is time for another reform.

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