A (Brief) History of Scholarly Communication

The historical issues that universities faced and continue to face with regards to scholarly communication, specialized disciplines, journal publishing, and higher education bureaucracy, are a part of a long narrative going back perhaps as far back as the 17th century when the scientific revolution first began to create organizations such as the Royal Society of London.   Most certainly these issues date to the late nineteenth century in the United States.  At a time when research universities were still in their infancy, when scientific journals served as a source of news in addition to research, and at a time when professional disciplinary societies were just beginning to define themselves, the scholarly communication system first began to take shape, and continues to evolve even now.  Scholarly communication is a product of three distinct histories:  a history of professionalization, a history of journals, and a history of U.S. higher education.  Though there has already been extensive research on all of these areas, if one is to really understand the complete history of scholarly communication, it is necessary to understand how all three of these areas of scholarship interrelate.

The Royal Society of London is often credited as the first scientific society in the English speaking world.  Though certainly it played a significant role in the history of science, the true history of professionalization begins much later in the nineteenth century, at least in the United States.  There have been many strands of scholarship that have endeavored to better understand the ways that professional societies have impacted society, particularly in science.  Sociologists of Science like Robert Merton have used methods to better understand the structure of scientific research, many of which are still used today.  Additionally, other historical sociologists like Andrew Abbott have looked at ways in which professions, more broadly than just science, have developed.  Historians of science have also long been interested in the ways organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or the American Chemical Society were created, and how these organizations formed because of larger social trends in early America.

In the same way that the Royal Society is often recognized as the first scholarly society, its journal the Philosophical Transactions often takes a prominent place as the first scientific journal.  There is some credibility to this claim, yet historians of science have long studied the ways in which important factors shaped the Philosophical Transactions and the scientific journals that followed it.  In particular historians seem to agree that two issues are paramount:  authority and sociability.  Authority is created by a variety of means.  In the seventeenth century, journals achieved authority through patronage or state institutions.  Journals also achieved authority through a second means of sociability.  Sociability refers both to the ways in which individual scientists interact but also to the ways in which scientists write.  Over the course of hundreds of years, scientists created a certain genre of writing that today is known as the research article, and that type of writing became the foundation of authority on which much of the system of scholarly communication rests.

At the same time that professions were developing and journals were growing out of new professional associations in the United States, so too were universities changing.  Just one of the many ways in which the higher education system changed was through the importation of aspects of the German system, where many American academics studied and obtained Ph.D. degrees.  More fundamentally, however, universities too were concerned with the issues of authority and sociability as well.  Unlike Germany, American universities obtained some authority from government sources, but, additionally, universities made themselves a part of an educational system that served some of the needs of a rapidly industrializing economy.  When universities made these changes, there came an inherent conflict between the need to teach new students skills in an environment that required ever more specialized skills, and, at the same time, a need for an increasing need of sub-disciplines to claim dominance and power within a fractured and increasingly bureaucratized university structure.

Why do all of these overlapping histories matter?  First, people form the foundation of all of these activities, and, the people who are most responsible are the scientists who both publish journal articles and govern the scientific enterprise.  Second, these people are acting within a system that has evolved over a long period of time and has a tradition of practicing in certain ways.  The question is how it might be possible to integrate all of these activities. One of the ways to accomplish the task of integrating these behaviors is to measure current human activities within the scholarly communication system, and it is very apparent that sociologists of science and knowledge have understood the ways in which scientists currently operate.  Eugene Garfield, founder of the Institute for Scientific Information citation index is but one example of the many sociologically trained scientists who has investigated scholarly communication, and has recognized the importance of the work of Robert K. Merton.  Though the work of both Merton and Garfield is valuable, it has also focused on a very particular method of measuring impact of scholarly work: citations within journal literature.

There is, however, another potential approach.  Merton and Garfield’s approach stresses the importance of prestige in academic publishing.  Yet, there are other motives including authority, sociability, and the many other factors that historians have investigated.  Historians already have a good understanding of the smaller pieces of a larger scholarly communication system (professions, journals, and universities).  Nevertheless, there needs to be a more holistic integration of these histories.  Human beings, like scientists, never operate in a vacuum, but rather act in accordance with a long tradition of behavior.  Only by understanding why such behaviors developed, and how they evolved, might it be possible to change the system to best meet current needs.  The history of journal publishing is only a piece of a much larger historical narrative, at least in the United States. Furthermore, the history of the journal has been driven by the decisions of many individuals and institutions over a period of over one hundred years.

 

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