Untangling (American) Academic Publishing

I have recently been reading  Untangling Academic Publishing: A history of the relationship between commercial interests, academic prestige and the circulation of research, an excellent report which I highly recommend to anyone interested scholarly communication, and particularly those interested in looking at historical perspectives on the issues of scholarly publishing.  The report has also been covered by the press in the Guardian and Times Higher Education.  In a very eloquent way, Aileen Fyfe and her team have been able to distill four hundred years worth of academic publishing history in Britain into a clear call for new ways of thinking about scholarly communication.  I can only hope to achieve a fraction of what they have been able to do with my own work on the history of the American academic publishing system.

Largely, I agree with everything stated in this report.  I do, however, wonder how the situation in the US might differ from that in the UK, particularly in the pre-1940 period that I’ve studied more extensively.  In the 19th century, there are at least three key differences between the situation in the UK and the US.  First, the US had a much larger number of institutions of higher education than the UK, and in the late nineteenth century these colleges and universities ranged from small religious seminaries sponsored by a single denomination to large agricultural and mechanical universities sponsored by state governments.  Second, and perhaps more important, there was always a strong emphasis on “practical” knowledge of use to industry rather than the kind of gentlemanly prestige discussed in Untangling Academic Publishing report.  This is not to suggest that there was not some element of prestige capital in US academic publishing during the 19th century, far from it.  It does seem though that the culture of US scholarly publishing, even from the beginning emphasized industrial use, perhaps more than its European counterparts.  Third, and this may be similar to the context in the UK, there was a strong emphasis on “professional” academics as the main market for scholarship from the very beginnings of the academic publishing system.

In the Preface to the first issue of the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society (the rough equivalent of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society within the American colonies)published in 1769, it states that, “Knowledge is of little use when confined to mere speculation:  But when speculative truths are reduced to practice. . . are applied to the common purposes of life; and when by these agriculture is improved, trade enlarged, the arts of living made more easy and comfortable. . . .knowledge then becomes really useful.”  One could also find statements similar to this within the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.  Nonetheless, the emphasis on practicality seems to become more pronounced over time.  In 1818, the preface of the first issue  of Benjamin Silliman’s American Journal of Science (the major scientific journal in the U.S. during much of the 19th century) said that it would focus on certain scientific areas because, “the applications of these sciences are obviously as numerous as physical arts and physical wants; for one of these arts or wants can be named which is not connected with them.”

Moreover, some of the earliest professional associations were strongly tied to industry.  The American Chemical Society, though unique in some respects, was one of the first professional scientific societies to form in the United States in 1876, and many of the early leaders of science within the US were part of the chemical industry.  I have mentioned the work of Andrew Abbott before and his emphasis on the ties between industry and academe, particularly in his book The Chaos of Disciplines.  This linkage between practical knowledge within scientific journals and the industrial emphasis of many of the early professional associations seems to make the situation different from that of the UK where the previous history of “gentlemanly” pursuits was not as strong (though still present in some ways), but professional identifications were arguably very strong.

Why is this focus on industry important? Marcel LaFollette in “Crafting a communications infrastructure:  Scientific and technical publishing in the United States.” in A History of the Book in America:  Print in Motion:  The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880 – 1940 traces the business of scholarly publishing in the US during the late 19th and early twentieth centuries.  LaFollette suggests that the market for academic publishing in the US was unique  because the consumers and the producers were the same people. This phenomenon created an insularity that encouraged research communities to believe that they owned their content when in fact they did not.  For scholars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century U.S., universal access to knowledge meant only that professional scientists who served as both producers and consumers of content were able to read the scholarship within their fields.

Thus in the United States context these three characteristics (different configuration of universities, focus on “practical” and industrial knowledge, and focus on academic publishing as part of a profession also tied to industry), somewhat differentiate the US from the UK.  In particular, I am interested in whether the emphasis on “practical”/industrial knowledge does or does not separate the two academic cultures.  Does “open access” , at least in the US historical context, not really mean universal access to knowledge by all citizens, but rather access by professionals who are meeting industrial needs?  If so, then this characteristic has, I think, profound implications for scholarly communication.  It would mean that the ideal of university research was always (at least practically) secondary to the needs of industry.  Thus, the present situation of scholarship being itself a commodity seems a logical continuation of previous trends.  Does this differentiate U.S. science from the U.K.?  More importantly, how should the current U.S. scholarly communication system evolve to meet future needs?


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