100 Years of American Science

Untitled-3

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.

Untitled-1

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.

Untitled-2

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.

Advertisements

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.

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.

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.

History and Public Communication of Scholarship

Lately it seems that many articles have been coming through my news-feed about the failure of scholars to communicate their research to the public.  Some of these articles have even taken a historical viewpoint in order to propose solutions.  Still others propose communicating historical scholarship as a way to contextualize modern issues (like the 2016 election).  In all, this has led me to reflect a bit about my own work on the history of scholarly communication and why it is actually quite important in today’s world.  If one agrees with all of these articles, there is one common denominator:  the ways in which academics disseminate their research are ineffective, and need reform.  The question I ask myself is how might my work help to solve this problem?  Hopefully, by using history to investigate the scholarly communication system (such as it was) in the nineteenth century, it may be possible to think more about why it changed, and, more importantly, whether there may be ways for us to think about reforming it in the future.

So far I have been working on two, somewhat related, projects.  First, I have been looking at the ways in which the American Chemical Society (ACS) formed in the late nineteenth century.  For much of the work I have been doing on ACS, I have relied on Andrew Abbott’s work on professionalization. Additionally, I have been thinking about how scholars, particularly Theophilus Wylie, used information in the mid-late nineteenth century.  To some degree, these two topics seem to have little relation between each other.  On the other hand, I think that these two projects show different aspects of a system for communicating scholarship that was in transition.  Wylie represents an older system, before the modern scholarly communication system institutionalized and became dominated by journals, books, and other kinds of research outputs.  The American Chemical Society shows how that system began to change, even during Wylie’s lifetime.  Finally, Abbott’s work on professionalization shows the ways in which that system became institutionalized.  How do these three themes connect?  The story ends, obviously with the current scholarly communication system in which research (using Abbott and even early ACS presidents’ terms) becomes “pure” and untainted by the issues of applied science.

Such pure research is disseminated in journals that are reviewed and assessed by other specialist researchers.  Arguably, such research becomes less and less accessible by those without particular professional training.  Therefore, since it is difficult to assess scholarship across disparate fields,  if one wishes to assess the quality of such research by academic administrators, government accountability requirements, and other non-specialists with an interest in higher education, it becomes necessary to create metrics that can be applied across research (such as the impact factor, or alt-metrics).  Prior to this  contemporary system of research publication, however, there was a different way of communicating research, represented by professors like Theophilus Wylie.  Rather than disseminating his research through books and journals (though he did write one book, more on that later), Wylie spread knowledge through his teaching at Indiana University.  Even in his position as librarian, Wylie collected resources that would support his (and other faculty members at the university’s) teaching mission.

There is also another aspect to Wylie’s information use.  In his personal library (which was dominated by theology), Wylie focused on a kind of teaching mission.  I suspect that many of Wylie’s theological works helped to aid his other occupation as a Presbyterian minister.  Thus, in a way, his personal library was dedicated to another kind of teaching: preaching to his congregation (and to some degree even his students perhaps).  In his lifetime, Wylie did publish one book a history of Indiana University.  In my view, this work too was written not for an audience of other specialist historians (Wylie was not trained in history), but rather for alumni and others who might be interested in the history of Indiana University.  In any case, it seems that the majority of Wylie’s “scholarly communication” was not through journal articles, but in lectures either to his students or to his congregation.  In other words, Wylie focused on public communication to non-specialists, similar in some ways to what is being advocated in the articles I mentioned in the introduction to this post.

In some ways, it seems that we are going back to an earlier system in which scholarship needs to be communicated to non-specialists.  With current technologies, that goal can be achieved much more widely than Wylie or members of the ACS could ever have imagined.  The main problem it seems is to think about how a scholarly communication system focused more on public communication of scholarship can be measured and assessed.  Andrew Abbott’s theories discuss the idea of a hinge mechanism on which two social systems (like universities and scholarly societies, or universities and the government) rely. Currently the hinge mechanism which is predominant in academe is academic journals or books.  Perhaps that should change, and it should change in a way that privileges communication of scholarship to a different audience, one that is not comprised primarily of other academic specialists in a small and “pure” field.

Managing Big Data – Again

I was reading the recent Distillations magazine from the Chemical Heritage Foundation and saw an article on Information Overload.  It reminded me of the post I wrote a while ago on big data in the 19th century, along with multiple posts about the American Chemical Society and Libraries in the 19th century.  Sarah Everts, the author of the information overload article, rightly points out that having to manage vast amounts of data is not necessarily a new problem, as multiple other authors have pointed out.  She concludes by asking “how should we collect this metadata intelligently and in useful moderation when we don’t even know what research questions will be interesting to future generations of scientists?” and suggests that “modern data curators may wish to learn from the classical collectors: natural-history museums.”  She also discusses the importance of metadata in order to facilitate such management.

I wholeheartedly agree with all of Everts’ conclusions, but think that it is also important to look at two other organizations that are particularly relevant to scholarly communication: libraries and scholarly societies.  Both of these groups are also essential to managing information overload, and, I think, form a mutual dependency (similar in some ways to the mutual dependencies created by academic journals).  Additionally, I think that there is a social dimension to both libraries and scholarly societies (as well as to natural-history museums) that underlie much of what Everts is discussing.  Interestingly, in the case of libraries and scholars, there is a kind of divide between the two groups that provides an interesting twist on Everts’ argument.

So far in my own work I have been focusing largely on the history of “big data” in the nineteenth century, particularly as it relates to the American Chemical Society.  Other historians of science have looked more broadly at such issues, however.  For example, Alex Csiszar has argued that “The key point was not the increasing volume of papers coming into print” which is usually the argument one hears in modern discussions of information overload.  Rather, according to Csiszar, scientists in the nineteenth century attempted to replicate social organizations that were “safeguarding scientific value that had once been the putative territory of the societies and academies.”  I have found similar patterns in my work.  Certainly J. Lawrence Smith of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and later the American Chemical Society, argued that research should be “pure” and free from interference of the outside forces Csiszar discusses.

What does this have to do with libraries?  During the nineteenth century, libraries were also transitioning.  My somewhat ancillary study of Theophilus Wylie the first librarian at Indiana University demonstrates this fairly well.  Wylie argued for a library that reflected the educational curriculum of the university, and also represented a tradition in which academics, not professional librarians, managed collections.  Universities, however, were changing to meet the needs for professional education.  Libraries changed with universities, and increasingly focused on becoming complete collections of all published work.  Thus, there was a tension between the two organizations.  On the one hand scholarly societies were struggling to maintain a social order that differentiated “pure” research from the vast amount of unscientific periodical literature available.  Libraries on the other hand tried to collect everything and provide tools for their patrons to navigate this sea of information.

Therefore, at least in the late nineteenth century, there were two ways of creating order out of the chaos brought on by information overload.  First, there was the scholarly method of using social organization (and eventually peer review and the other mechanisms that came with it).  Second, there was a set of methods in libraries that relied on specialists and classification systems to help library users navigate the explosion of information available to them.  Cziszar hints at an important aspect dividing these two communities: authority.  Libraries and scholars derive their authority from different sources and from different philosophical viewpoints.  The question is, given the current explosion in “big data” and the correct assertion quoted by Everts that “Producing and saving a huge amount of data that nobody will reuse has doubtful value,” whether it is even possible to solve this crisis of authority for the problem of big data.

There may be an answer that is found within the discipline of information science.  Archival studies has a sub-discipline called diplomatics that endeavors to understand the authority of a particular document within a particular historical context.  Modern scholars in diplomatics have recognized a concept of what they call “organic information” which recognizes all information (print and electronic) as a kind of living organism where meaning and authority depend on social context.  Philosophers of science have also noticed the link between information and living organisms.  Natural history museums of the type that Everts discusses provide an interesting analogy to this concept of organic information since they, quite literally, collect examples of living organisms.  Therefore, in a way, Everts article has uncovered an interesting link that needs to be further explored.

The last sentence of Everts’ article on information overload says, “with its overabundance of information, managers and creators of big data may find their inspiration in the most analog of collections.”  I agree, but think there are some interesting twists on that line of argument.  In the case of nineteenth century academic information, a divide grew between libraries and scholarly societies that were attempting to manage the first explosion of “big data.”  This division between the groups arguably still exists today, and may contribute in part to the problems of scholarly communication. The way to resolve this division, however, goes beyond just the provision of good metadata in the ways Everts suggests.  Rather, it may have to rely on the creation of a new method for deriving authority over information that is continually in flux.  Diplomatics may provide one framework to help reconcile this division between libraries, scholars, and many other groups.  There is one clear lesson from history in this case, however.  Given the vast quantities of data that continue to be produced, an explosion that will only grow over time, this is a problem that we both as a society and as an enterprise for higher education cannot afford to get wrong the second time around.

 

Social Capital and Scholarly Communication

After reading an interesting article by Alex Cummings lately about information and its role in education, it made me think some more about several of the posts I’ve been writing lately, particularly my question of whether scholarly communication is itself a commodity.  My answer was that I did not think journal articles and other “scholarly outputs” should be treated as a commodity, but we should be looking at the social organization behind them.  Nonetheless, in some ways I ignored the question of what exactly is the commodity we should be thinking about for scholarly communication.  Despite my own misgivings about education being a commodity, clearly in this day and age we have to think about it in those terms.  We also need to think about the ways that our scholarly outputs (articles, books, and maybe even blog posts) fit into that larger system of commodification in higher education.

In some ways, this brings me back to some of my work on Theophilus Wylie and the American Chemical Society.  In those posts, I was thinking about how Wylie used information in the 19th century (as a tool for education), and what J. Lawarence Smith (President at the time of the American Association for the Advancement of Science) believed was the ideal scientific knowledge (theoretical and not applied research).  Cummings asks the question of what exactly is it that universities are selling.  Cummings notes a disconnect that “In frank moments, most faculty members at research universities would probably say their research is the most important aspect of their work. . . .In contrast, many students and parents probably assume that colleges are primarily institutions of learning, where people go to acquire knowledge and skills and (most crucially) credentials.”  I have been noticing some of the same disconnects in the nineteenth century.

Nor am I the only one to have seen this.  As I also discussed, Andrew Abbott has noticed some of the same trends.  Cummings in passing mentions that “social capital” is an important component.  Social capital is a complex term, but for now if we just define it as networks of contacts that a person is able to utilize in their work and daily lives, then maybe that is actually the commodity that is being bought and sold within universities.  For students this social capital comes in terms of powerful professors who can help get jobs within academe or with fellow students who will one day be in the professions in which they hope to work.

Regardless of the goal for students, what is of interest to me is how this works organizationally.  For scholarly communication in particular, we have been measuring the commodity as scholarly outputs, like journals.  If we think about social capital as the commodity, the question is how could it be measured or monetized.  I do not have the answer to that here, but I do think that it is important to understand the social organizations behind journals and universities more thoroughly before we can even begin to answer that question effectively.

Trust and Openness

Open dissemination of science is an important debate for scholars today.  Some open access advocates like Cory Doctorow have even made historical analogies claiming “The difference is between the alchemist and the scientist is that the alchemist never tells anyone else what she’s learned. . .  the scientist isn’t doing science until she tells everyone around her what she thinks she’s learned.”  In other words, scientists openly disclose their results in a public forum, like an academic journal.  Interestingly, the system of professionalization and institutionalization of scholarly journals happens in a very particular time period between about 1880 and 1940.  As debates continue about open access and what are the best ways to disseminate the results of science, it is increasingly important to understand why the current system formed in the ways that it did, and how it might continue to evolve in the future.

Steven Shapin has provided an interesting framework that might help to understand the ways in which this transition from an informal network of practitioners into a more professional system of academic scholars happened.  In a Social History of Truth, Shapin states “Seventeenth-century commentators felt secure in guaranteeing the truthfulness of narratives by pointing to the integrity of those who proffered them. . . . Trust is no longer bestowed on familiar individuals; it is accorded to institutions and abstract capacities thought to reside in certain institutions” (p. 411).   Christine Borgman in her work about the modern scholarly communication system seems to reaffirm Shapin’s argument, “As digital content becomes the primary form of scholarly discourse, the need for trust mechanisms will grow. . . .  Trust is an inherently social construct that varies widely by culture, context, and time” (p. 261).

I too hope to understand how trust develops within the context of one particular profession and set of journals between 1880 and 1940.  The American Chemical Society, one of the earliest professional academic societies, formed in 1876 and started the Journal of the American Chemical Society in 1879.  During this time period, the journal expanded rapidly and eventually created new journals.  How did trust form within these early communities, and, more importantly, how did scientists decide to publicly disclose some data and withhold other knowledge.  Pamela Long discusses the ways in which scientists in the ancient and early modern periods made decisions about what to disclose.  I hope to bring that story forward into a period where open disclosure became institutionalized through journals, and hopefully shed light on the future of how “publication” should continue on the open internet.

Chemistry vs. Physics

As I was doing some more research on the American Chemical Society (ACS) in its early years, I have been particularly interested in the ways that these early professional academics tried to differentiate themselves from other fields.  In some ways, this goes back to the ideas on purity of a profession that I discussed earlier.  In particular, these early chemists seem to be particularly interested in separating themselves from the physicists.  Interestingly this is also a topic that showed up in some of my earlier work on query sampling of the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS) corpus against the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  One of the most common articles similar to the was reductionism in biology, which discusses ways in which biology is reducible to chemistry and potentially reducible to physics.  Other common articles that came up in the query sampling were intertheory relations in physics which also discusses how chemistry may be reducible to physics.

Relations between chemistry and physics seem to date from at least the late nineteenth century. Benjamin Silliman (editor of the journal that eventually became Science) wrote a tribute to J. Lawrence Smith (president of ACS in 1877) in which he quotes a colleague of Smith’s at the University of Virginia who said that Smith “confined his lectures to chemistry proper, leaving physics to the professor in charge of that branch. This he did, I believe, of set purpose, with the result of his giving more chemistry in eight months than his predecessors had done, nominally, in nine” (p. 231).    Later, George F. Barker (president of ACS in 1891) dedicated his presidential address to defining boundaries between physics and chemistry where he said “If it be true that in both physics and chemistry, taken separately, precision of thought and consequent precision of language are dependent upon a precise use of terms, how much more true is it in that limiting region which lies between them.”

Clearly there is some more need for thinking through this complicated relationship between chemistry and physics.  In my earlier post, I had thought about doing some more work on query sampling between the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and a journal that would be equivalent to JACS for physics.  I think that this is an interesting intersection between the philosophy of science and the history of science.  In this case, computational methods like query sampling may be able to demonstrate how the journals are matching up with an established source on the philosophy of science, and historical approaches can help show how these debates are reflected in the historical record.

Should Academic Research be “Pure?”

In doing some reading about professionalization, and some research on the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, one of the forbears of the American Chemical Society), I came across the presidential address of J. Lawrence Smith, a chemist and president of AAAS in 1873.  The discussion covers several topics, but prior to reading Smith’s lecture, I was reading an article by Andrew Abbott, “Status and Strain in the Professions,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 86, No. 4 (Jan., 1981), pp. 819-835 where Abbott states, “Over time, professional knowledge develops a system of such relative judgments of purity and impurity. . . the accretion of such judgments produces a social structure in which these judgments are loosely associated with positions in a division of labor” (p. 13).  In other words, professionals within a field eventually determine what is “pure” professional practice and what falls outside of that.  Overall, this is not a particularly controversial statement, what I found in my reading in AAAS though, is that it reflects a moment when the exact process Abbot describes happened.

The first part of Smith’s address is about the division between application of research (specifically inventors) and “pure science” (Smith’s words), meaning research without specific practical application.  Smith goes on to argue that such pure science is the basis for the inventions that follow.  Again, nothing particularly surprising here since such arguments were not unique to Smith.  He goes on to say though in a discussion of why science in America is less respected than that of Europe that “What can a physicist, a chemist or a naturalist, do who has three or four classes to teach, usually in the most elementary part of their studies ? This very labor unfits him for that free exercise of the mind which leads to new ideas and discoveries. He becomes an educational drudge instead of an intellectual scientist.”  Toward the end of the address, in a reflection about science and religion, Smith states that “any chemist who would quit his method of investigation, of marking every foot of his advance by some indelible imprint, and go back to the speculations of Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, and other alchemists of former ages, would soon be dropped from the list of chemists and ranked with dreamers and speculators.”  Overall, Smith seems to be arguing for two characteristics of a scientist.  First they should be free to do research and not be burdened with teaching.  Second, they should stay within a narrowly defined area and not move into philosophical speculations of previous eras.

From a modern viewpoint there is nothing controversial here.  Smith is basically arguing for what is more or less the current definition of a tenure track professor.  I am more interested in what the contrary view might have been.  It would seem that people like J. Lawrence Smith were arguing against a different viewpoint which, hypothetically, would state that teaching in universities should be more important and that philosophical speculations are a part of the job of a professor.  Clearly Smith here is reflecting the kinds of trends that Abbott identifies in which “purity” becomes an important part of professional identity.  Additionally, Smith himself went on to help found a professional society in which chemistry arguably became more pure because it was not mixed in with other sessions about the other sciences.

Why is all of this important?  Today debates about interdisciplinarity have become more important as we seek to understand issues such as climate change, social phenomena occurring on the internet, or the interdependencies between economics, politics, and culture in a global context.  Harvey Graff in his book Undisciplining Knowledge, however, suggests that “Throughout this history, and still today, efforts to understand interdisciplinary are marked by a signal failure to scrutinize definitions, disciplinary and interdisciplinary relationships, and the locations, organization, and institutionalization of declared or developing interdisciplines” (p. 215)  Furthermore, Graff argues that “What is at stake is nothing less than the framing of efforts to make progress on major intellectual and social problems; issues of public policy; expectations and anticipations; the allocation of resources, including the time and efforts of people and institutions; the articulation of organizations and structures; and professional careers and human lives” (p. 214).  Perhaps in light of modern debates it would be helpful to think about this earlier debate in which one side (that of creating a “pure” professional discipline) won.  The question is whether the forces that allowed them to triumph are similar today, and whether it might be time for a different framework (that of a less pure and less professionalized discipline) might be valuable in modern universities.