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.

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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.

 

100 Years of American Science

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Over the past few weeks, I have been working on a project to topic model the American Journal of Science between 1819 (its first year of publication) and 1922; this journal, during much of the 19th century, was the only specialized scientific journal in the United STates.  I can release data sets later, but just wanted to share some preliminary results.  Though this research is far from conclusive, it does provide a useful proof of concept for the method of using topic modelling to determine how genres of material change over a long period of time.  Moreover, understanding this evolution of topics within a single important journal in 19th century America, helps to understand how these topics can provide a useful source of evidence to supplement more traditional historical and “close reading” methods.

The above graph shows that over the entire roughly 100 year period, topics discussing geology are the most dominant topic over time, representing roughly 35% of topics between 1819 and 1922.  Interestingly, however, the “other sciences” are also represented equally at 35%.  Yet, no one of the subtopics within “other sciences” dominates.  Astronomy, Botany, Engineering, Medicine, Meteorology, Physics, and Zoology, individually represent less than 10% of whole.  In any given year, none of these topics represent more than 13%, physics being the only exception which represents 17.5% of topics in 1840.  Chemistry is one major exception.  As a discipline, it represents 13% of the total topics over this 100 year period, and, in individual years within the period, often represents 20% – 25% of topics.  Topics related to news, another important genre of content during most of the 19th century, represent 17% of total topics, and often represent 20% of topics for individual years.   Every issue had a section called Intelligence that was dedicated to news from the field.  Additionally, individual articles, particularly in the earlier years of the journal, would be dedicated to translating articles published abroad and commenting on them and also on publishing letters to the editor that would discuss scientific endeavors both in the U.S. and abroad.

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The topic models also demonstrate some other interesting, though not particularly surprising trends.  Above is a simple line graph showing the number of topics within particular categories; the graph shows that geology topics increase over time, whereas other topics generally decrease.  The graph also shows that until about 1871, “other sciences” were actually significantly higher than geology.  Also in 1871 “other sciences” decline precipitously and geological topics increase and overtake “other sciences.”  Since the American Journal of Science is currently a journal dedicated to geology, one would expect to see this trend.  It is interesting to note, however, that this shift happens in the period from 1871 to 1897.  The 1890s are a period when multiple other scientific professional societies are created, along with related scholarly journals.  For instance the Journal of the American Chemical Society was founded in 1879 and the American Physical Review (journal for the American Physical Society, the society for physicists) began in 1893.  The trend line for chemistry topics also shows a decline during this period.  Clearly more detailed analysis of these topical trends is needed.  Nonetheless, the trends illustrated in this line graph may be evidence of scientists leaving the more generalized American Journal of Science for more specialized journals when they are created.  The decline of “other sciences” does seem to happen at exactly the right period of time.

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Finally, I have one more graph that shows much the same data, however it represents the topics as a percentage of the whole, rather than as raw numbers of topics as shown in the line graph.  This graph of percentages presents some nuance to the picture presented in the line graph.  Geology topics represent fewer than 30% of the entire number of topics in 1819, and that number gradually increases to nearly 40% in 1922.  Conversely, other sciences represent a high of nearly 60% in 1845, but decrease to a low of about 35% in 1922.  Thus, one can see that other sciences are still an important number of topics even as late as 1922.  This could complicate the story about scientists departing to other journals.  It is possible that many scientists, despite the appearance of alternative journals, are still choosing to publish in the American Journal of Science.  Additionally this relatively high percentage of “other science” topics could simply demonstrate that geology is a discipline that requires knowledge of other disciplines such as physics or biology in order to perform geological work.  Again, more research and closer reading of the individual articles represented by these rather broad topics is needed to better understand how individual scientists are responding to a changing scholarly communication landscape.

The gradual decline of other sciences in these graphs may demonstrate that the nature of the authority within the American Journal of Science changed over time.  As other societies created their own authority in competing journals like the Journal of the American Chemical Society, scientists within fields such as physics and chemistry decided to publish their work in those other venues. At the same time, many scientists, particularly geologists, continued to publish in the journal long after the death of Benjamin Silliman, the journal’s founder, in 1864.  Therefore, one has to assume that the journal created a kind of authority that outlasted its founder.  The nature of that authority, most likely, is through the same kinds of trust-building that other journals established, such as affiliation with a professional scientific society, peer-review, and reliance on authors’ credentialing within university hiring systems.  Perhaps the method of topic modelling and text analysis by itself cannot answer the question of how authority is constructed.  Topic modelling can, however, provide a useful source of evidence that identifies trends for further investigation and can be used to further strengthen traditional historical analyses of the history of scholarly communication.

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?

Research, Documentality, and Industry

Maurizio Ferraris in his book Documentality: Why It Is Necessary to Leave Traces has argued that it is essential for all social systems (science, law, and the like) to create inscriptions or written traces in order to survive.  One of the largest such social systems, of course is state bureaucracy “the state’s first succumbing to bureaucratic documentality and then to informatics documentality” (p. 287).  According to Ferraris, informatics documentality is a way in which sovereign power is extended over a larger number of people.

The documents that I have been studying are largely nineteenth century scientific journals such as the Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Journal of Science and the Journal of the American Chemical Society. In those journals, one might argue that professional scientists institutionalized larger cultural ideas.  In several previous posts, I have suggested that within the system of scholarly communication created in the late nineteenth century, industry dominated.  For nineteenth century American scientists more generally and for chemists in particular, their world was heavily influenced by the needs of a rapidly industrializing nation. These professionals tied their own futures to the needs of these industries, and often wrote in ways within their journals that would serve the needs of industry.

Why are such historical developments important in thinking even about the modern scholarly communication system?  Over time, throughout the twentieth century, the government became more involved with the work of scientists, and currently, federal funding through the National Science Foundation or other federal agencies continues to dominate the higher education landscape.   If indeed there has been such a heavy industrial influence for over 100 years, what does that say about the purpose of the scholarly communication system?  More importantly, if indeed the system needs significant reform, should the tie to industry be one of the things that is reformed?  Though history cannot perhaps answer these questions, it can, I think, help to identify these questions that certainly need to be addressed.

The Complex Professionalization of Science

When I was doing research in Philadelphia recently, I was looking into the origins of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  More specifically, I was looking at its relationship with the American Philosophical Society.  The standard history states that the association started in 1848 and formed from the Association of American Geologists and Naturalists (founded around 1840).  Though I have seen some references in secondary literature to the American Philosophical Society as well, I decided to check there to see if there was any discussion of AAAS in the early records of the American Philosophical Society.  Interestingly, there was mention of it, and it seems that this little piece of evidence alone complicates the story of early professionalization of science in nineteenth century America.

The “rough minutes” of the American Philosophical Society meeting on Oct. 5, 1838 record that, “Dr. Horner [William E. Horner] read before the Society a letter addressed to him by Dr. John C. Warren of Boston dated 23 Sept. 1838 expressing his wish and that of a number of gentlemen of Boston for the formation of an American Association for the promotion of Science, and inviting the cooperation of the members of this society.”  I still need to look to find some other references to later discussions about the formation of such an association.  It is interesting, however, that these discussions seem to date from ten years before the official formation of the AAAS and two years before the formation of the Association of American Geologists  and Naturalists.  Moreover, these two men (Warren and Horner) are not geologists, but medical faculty.  Warren went on to found the New England Journal of Medicine and become the president of the American Medical Association (founded in 1847).  Horner was Dean of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School.

Thus, one small piece of evidence seems to suggest that “science” in 1838 at least was wider than just geologists, but include medicine.  Sometime between 1838 and 1847 these two strains of science split and form their own professional associations.  Additionally, for whatever reason, the American Philosophical Society seems not to involve itself in the actions of either of these groups.  I am interested in determining how this happened, and I think the answer may help to understand more fully the how science professionalized in the mid-nineteenth century.

Professionalization and Combining Methods

In an earlier post I discussed some topic modeling I did on the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS).  That research showed that post 1892 (about 11 years after the journal begins publishing in 1879), there appeared to be a significant increase in discussion of methodology, society business, and other topics not directly associated with chemistry experiments.  Though I thought this was an interesting finding, at the same time I thought that it was best not to make too much out of this result.

Why should I not treat the results of this topic model as significant?  Topic modeling is, after all, an abstraction of the data.  I had the full text of all material from  JACS, and I then asked a computer to find which words had a statistically significant probability of appearing next to each other.  After doing that, I then categorized the data into “unexpected” topics (or topics on methods, society business, etc.) and “expected” topics (chemistry experiments of various kinds).  So, in essence I was dealing with an abstraction of an abstraction.  Thus, it seemed best not to say that this was a significant result when in reality it could have just been an artifact of my categorization of topic models.

I am beginning to change my mind on my earlier instinct, however.  Why? Just recently, I completed some additional statistical tests.  Recently, I created an additional data set comprising a sample of words from these topic models.  It contained 74 words which I thought might best signify discussion of “unexpected”/non chemistry topics.  I included words such as president, committee, election which would likely only show up in discussions of society business.  I also a few words like method which admittedly could appear both in chemistry articles and in articles about methodology of chemistry.  I then created a word frequency list for all of these words and subdivided them into two groups.  One group contained the 11 years prior to 1892 (from the journal’s beginning in 1879).  The other group contained the 11 years from 1892 to 1903.  My hope was to see if there was any kind of significant difference in these word frequencies right around the year (1892) my earlier graph showed that “unexpected topics were increasing.

Using SPSS, I compared these two groups using a dependent t-test.  My t-critical value (the number that determines whether the test was statistically significant) was 1.6.  My t-calculated (the number that measures whether the means of the two groups are statistically different from each other) was 7.6 with an effect size (measure of magnitude between two means) of 0.89.  Therefore I can say that there is actually quite a significant difference between the word frequencies of these two groups.  Word frequencies for words about society business and methods increase significantly post 1892.

What does all of this statistical work really do for me?  First, I think that these statistical tests show that the topic models (and my categorizations) actually did show that something important was happening in the journal.  Indeed it seems that the journal is publishing more about methods and society business after 1892.  Furthermore, I think that combining methods like topic modeling and statistical methods can prove quite useful.  Nonetheless, I think that traditional humanistic methods can also be important.  My next step will be to go back to the articles where these words appear and see what they are talking about.  So, these other computational and quantitative methods helped me to discover a pattern in the journals that otherwise I would likely never have noticed.  I look forward to seeing where this research goes.

Universalization of Knowledge

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Should knowledge be available to everyone? How do we create ways to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful?”  No, I am actually not talking about Google, but rather about the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when people like Paul Otlet actually had similar ambitions, and created the Mundaneum to achieve the goal of creating universally accessible knowledge.  Otlet also hoped that by doing this, he would advance the cause of world peace.  To me, it seems that we are fighting similar battles today.  Will open access to knowledge create a virtual utopia where all knowledge about every topic is available?  What institutions are needed to ensure the reliability of information?

A first step in answering these questions in a historical context happened at a conference I attended recently called the “The Science of Information: Universalization of Knowledge in a Utopian age.”  The Utopia being discussed was the period between roughly 1870 and 1940 when figures like Otlet, William Pepper, and others were working to make information available and accessible to the world.  Otlet created the Mundaneum; Pepper helped to found the Free Library of Philadelphia (among other institutions).  Participants at the conference noted, however, that during the later part this period (1930s and 40s) figures like Adolf Hitler also began their working at creating a “utopia” that was very different, and the American government also worked to create better surveillance (for good or ill depending on your point of view) of people within and outside of their borders.

In all, the conference really was about what I would term scholarly communication, and in order to talk about scholarly communication, it is necessary to talk about several related concepts including science, information, and the idea of universal knowledge.  The participants noted that these concepts actually had multiple (sometimes not completely compatible) definitions in fields like history, information science, literature, and architecture (the disciplines of just a few of the participants).  Also, many of the speakers would not have identified themselves as researching “scholarly communication,”though some of them would have.  In my view, the diversity of participants and their inability to agree on definitions of some of the basic concepts simply demonstrates how difficult it can be to research the history of a field like scholarly communication which itself is not particularly well defined.

More importantly, however, I think the fact that this conference had enough people coming from all of these fields shows a recognition that this area of research is important.  Interestingly, nearly all of the speakers also made allusions to current political events happening worldwide (the election of Trump, Brexit, and the rise of populism).  It seems to me that in the same way that the internet had its figures like Otlet who believed that the internet would create a Utopia.  Now, we are beginning to see the other (dystopian) side of that dream.

Perhaps by understanding the history of a previous time in which similar Utopianism started in the 1870s with a belief in unending progress and ended in 1940 with two world wars, we can try to better understand the role that communication (and particularly scholarly communication) played.  Alex Csisizar, one of the speakers at the conference, has argued that “We need richer, more nuanced ways of talking about the collective belief that take into account the complexity of scientific interactions and how those forms evolve along with regulatory frameworks used for evaluating scientific claims relevant to public policy.”  I could not agree more, and hopefully conferences like this provide the first steps in more interdisciplinary discussions that address the topics that scholars like Csiszar have identified.  Moreover, perhaps such conversations about scholarly communication can help to drive productive agendas for the future.  At a time when we are debating the very role that science plays in society, and scientists are marching for better recognition.  It seems to me that these historical conversations are extremely relevant in today’s world.

(Image described at https://beyondarchives.wordpress.com/2013/03/15/paul-otlet-world-city/)

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.

Boundaries of Natural Philosophy

One of the issues important in scholarly communication is the concept of boundaries within particular disciplines.  In the nineteenth century, as the concept of modern disciplines is first being developed, understanding these boundaries becomes even more difficult.  Theophilus Wylie is actually an interesting case study for understanding how the disciplines of natural philosophy and physics was first developing.  Between 1884 and 1886, Wylie became a professor of Physics in addition to being a professor of natural philosophy.

Wylie it seems was more of a natural philosopher than a physicist (at least in the modern sense of the term).  For him the ultimate task of a scholar was to find the ultimate origins of the forces acting upon the universe.  Physical forces were ultimately controlled by God who was the ultimate cause.  Yet Wylie also recognized the importance of the kinds of observed phenomena that science could provide in helping to explain those ultimate causes.  Additionally, in order to truly determine ultimate causes it was essential, for Wylie at least, to be a “wise” and moral person who could understand and utilize the tools of both science and religion in order to understand the ever increasing mysteries of nature.  Though the discipline of physics changed significantly in how it discussed these issues during the late nineteenth century, Wylie did not. In his diary on May 11, 1890, only a few years before he died, Wylie wrote “there is a great (first) cause — intelligent — Nature, the developer by which quoting Isaiah — the way will be prepared. Prepare ye Way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God, &c. This is what science is doing.”  Thus Wylie still sought to utilize both scientific and religious techniques even toward the end of his life.  For him these were the boundaries of natural philosophy, a discipline altogether different from, though perhaps closely related to, modern Physics.

Interestingly, Wylie’s own students criticized him because of his lack of changing with the times.  In the 1880 issue of The Dagger, a student publication rating professors and commenting on Indiana University news, one rather scathing critique of Wylie commented that he “knows almost nothing outside of physics and astronomy, and in these even is forty years behind the time. . . .  It is unnecessary to add that this incubus should be removed from the chair of Physics.” While one hesitates to put too much credence in the writings of a single student, Wylie’s own definitions show how defining disciplines is still a tricky concept and was even more so in the late nineteenth century when the modern idea of disciplines was still in formation.