Alexander Dallas Bache


Alexander Dallas Bache (1806-1867) was a founder of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a Regent of the Smithsonian Institution, Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Superintendent of the United States Coastal Survey, and one of the foremost organizers of both American science and education in the nineteenth century.  Unsurprisingly, he also had some ideas on how scientists should organize and communicate.

In 1842 Bache stated that, “voluntary associations for the improvement of agriculture, manufactures, and the arts, exist all over our country, not supported, it is true, by our great sovereign the people, but by a few, who are either immediately or remotely interested or who desire to advance the weal of their country.  If the eyes of this most august sovereign might but be opened to the importance of fostering these institutions!” Bache was expressing a need to organize science more broadly in the U.S.  Over the course of the next fifty years Bache and like-minded scientists created the origins of a system of professional scientific organizations, university research departments, national academies, and scientific publications that could all be considered components of the current scholarly communication system.  One might ask, however, what the motives of Bache and his fellow scientists were?  Why did they create the scientific ecosystem in the way that they did?  Perhaps most importantly, how might the early debates of these scientists help in current debates about the need for change in scholarly communication?  Around ten years later, during his term as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Bache further elaborated on his motives for organizing science, “While Science is without organization, it is without power:  powerless against its enemies, open or secret; powerless in the hands of false or injudicious friends.”

In other words, the reasons for scientists to organize and communicate is so that the American “sovereign” (i.e. the American people) will support scientific institutions.  Furthermore the reason for such scientific institutions is to achieve “power” against the enemies of science.  At a time when it seems that science’s power is diminishing, it is worth asking whether Bache and his supporters achieved their dreams, and more importantly how scientific organizations and their communication methods achieved the authority they currently enjoy.  Perhaps a better understanding of the history American scientific system’s institutional and communication practices can help to shape the debates about changing its future in the digital age.

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Theories for Scholarly Communication

Christine Borgman has defined 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. 413-414).”  Much of the current scholarly communication literature focuses on the structure of scholarship as measured by scientometric analysis.  Furthermore, much of the theory for such analyses rest on the ideas of Robert Merton.   Merton concentrated on the values of the modern scientific system and the ways in which individual scientists achieved status within their profession.  Scott Frickel and Neil Gross have, however, criticized Merton’s suppositions saying, “we find it difficult to believe that the quest for prestige and status is the sole motive shaping intellectual innovation” (p. 211).  Thus, in light of this criticism, it is important to ask whether there may be another theoretical framework to approach the process of scholarly communication.  James J. Gibson first developed the idea of “affordances” or ways in which humans interact with an environment.  Rom Harré further developed Gibson’s concept to identify three types of affordances:  cultural (society-wide assumptions), social (social structures utilize to implement those assumptions), and material (mechanisms resulting from cultural and material affordances).

Harré’s framework provides an excellent mechanism to investigate the ways in which scholarship has evolved in cultural, social, and material aspects.  For cultural affordances, Maurizio Ferraris argues that acts of inscription are a foundation that allows other social processes to happen.  Science is one example, “in the sciences at large, documentality sets the conditions for the transmission of knowledge, for the progress of the sciences, for appointments of universities chairs and for the awarding of Nobel prizes and Field medals” (p. 293-294).  Ferraris also alludes to social affordances that are discussed by Andrew Abbott who suggests that when two “ecologies” such as universities and professional societies come together, they form a “hinge mechanism” that provide them a way for effectively interacting.  The journal has become a hinge mechanism, and Fiorella Foscarini and Emily Marshall have argued that textual analysis and genre study prove authenticity of documents, “Genres provide social codes of behavior including not only the official ‘rules of the game,’ but also any other components of ‘ceremony’ . . .  surrounding the main ‘moves’ of the game – that all those involved in a dialogic exchange must learn in order to be able to ‘act together’” (Foscarini, p. 401).

In all, it seems that Gibson’s theories of affordance combined with the ideas of Ferraris, Abbott, Marshall and Foscarini, can help to explain Borgman’s assertion that 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).  The journal article has elements of all three essential affordances, and, until another medium also provides a way to satisfy the cultural, social, and material needs of science, the journal article will remain the cornerstone of the scholarly communication system.