Philosophical Transactions

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Lately I’ve been working on a kind of pre-history of scholarly communication in the United States by looking at what is often referred to as one of the first scholarly journals in the world, the Philosophical Transactions of the the Royal Society of London (the Journal des Sçavans being the other).  Though the story is often repeated that the Philosophical Transactions became the first mode of scientific communication.  The story is actually a great deal more complicated.  Noah Moxham has suggested that the articles that later appeared within the Philosophical Transactions were actually a combination of two kinds of content, correspondence that provided news from around Europe and registration of discoveries noted within the public register of the Royal Society. It also seems that there other factors that also contributed to the Philosophical Transactions becoming such a major broker for research communication.  The evolution of the Philosophical Transactions from a newsletter of correspondents around Europe and facilitated by a single editor (Henry Oldenburg) to a register of knowledge claims from around Europe was also result of the confluence of both construction of authority and a particular social context within England.  All of these factors allowed for the creation of a new genre of material that appeared in Philosophical Transactions, which eventually became the genesis of what we might now recognize as the research article.

Authority in the case of the Royal Society was a combination of governmental power, driven by a social need for gentlemen to achieve patronage within England and also a governmental infrastructure that imposed a kind of self-censorship and avoidance of controversy through a system of licensing presses.  Such a system encouraged a particular authority, that of the editor, to serve as a kind of middle-man who channeled the authority of the prince and the society toward individual authors from whom, in a way, the editor himself derived authority because the more scientific practitioners the editor knew, the more valuable his expertise as a source of information.

In the case of the Royal Society, the editor, Henry Oldenburg, was well-positioned with other scientists throughout Europe, but at the same time he existed in a social context that was different from Europe.  He lived among people who valued modesty and had to seek a wide array of potential patrons in order to sustain themselves.  Such social norms led to particular institutional realities within the Royal Society such as mutual witnessing of experiments (which was not particularly unique to England), and, more importantly, a distributor of credibility within England and over time, even outside of it.

The Royal Society’s position as a purveyor of credibility allowed Oldenburg to distribute that authority to his network of correspondents.  It also allowed experimenters within the society to distribute it more locally to those who registered their work in the meetings of the society.  As Noah Moxham has suggested, these two forces of publishing materials from a network of correspondents and registering  the credibility of experiments eventually combined with the already existing journal to create a system whereby individual authors would register their work by publishing it in the Philosophical Transactions.  This combination of various authorities, social contexts, and practical realities created an interesting combination of characteristics for articles within the Philosophical Transactions, and these characteristics would now be considered fundamental attributes of any research article in an academic publication.

Thus perhaps one can view the Philosophical Transactions not so much as a modern scholarly journal as much as a framework that helps to lead to certain defining characteristics of scientific writing within England.  This framework was created by a variety of social factors including the nature of authority and social norms among the writers of the Royal Society.  All of those social realities affected the creation of the genres within the Philosophical Transactions like the research article, and these social realities along with their links to the genres within the journal need to be better understood not only for modern scholarly communication, but for its origins in the seventeenth century as well.  Moreover, it is important to understand which of these norms came to America when journals like the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society and the American Journal of Science began to appear.

(Image from Wikimedia Commons https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/42/Philosophical_Transactions_Volume_1_frontispiece.jpg)

American Journal of Science

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(Second Edition of the first volume of the journal, available at from Carnegie Mellon’s digital collection)

Prior to the professional scholarly journal system of today, there was only one major journal for American science,  the American Journal of Science which still exists today and is focused on geology.  In the nineteenth century, however, the journal focused on every scientific topic.  The table of contents for the issues of the first volume (pictured) includes:

  1. Mineralogy, Geology & Topography
  2. Botany
  3. Zoology
  4. Fossil Zoology
  5. Mathematics
  6. Miscellaneous
  7. Physics, Mechanics, & Chemistry
  8. Fine Arts
  9. Useful Arts
  10. Agriculture & Economics
  11. Intelligence

Each article is roughly two to three pages and each contains an “intelligence” section which seems to be general news.  This section continues into the twentieth century, when the journal was more focused on geology, but the intelligence section will talk about important findings of Physics & Chemistry, and other scientific areas.

The journal was founded by Benjamin Silliman and later edited by his son. There is a good overview of the foundation of the journal, and of course multiple references to it, but so far I have not been able to find any articles using a computational approach to analyzing its contents.  In particular, I think it would be a great candidate for the topic modelling and query sampling techniques I have used earlier.  I haven’t done much of this in the past (I intended to do so for the Journal of the American Chemical Society), but this journal may even be a good candidate for a network analysis since it would contain a large number of scientists in the United States and potentially would show the network as it was beginning to split into different disciplines.  Fortunately, there is also over 100 years of textual data available for this journal in the public domain, making it a potentially very rich source.  I am going to see if some initial tests may get some interesting results, and I’m looking forward to seeing whether this journal helps understand the professionalization of science and the origins of the scholarly communication system in even more interesting ways than the Journal of the American Chemical Society has done so far.

A Tale of Two Chemists

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I was thinking more about my post last week that discusse the publication record of Theophilus Wylie, and was wondering how his record might compare to other scientists of his time.  One of the scientists I have also written about in relation to the American Chemical Society, is J. Lawrence Smith, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a founder of the American Chemical Society, professor, and writer of an address on how science should be practiced.  I thought it might be interesting to compare their respective scholarly publication records.  Needless to say, they are very different.  I think there is something important about what these two records of publication tell us about scholarly communication (such as it was in the nineteenth century).  These two scholars address very different audiences, and clearly have divergent views on the role of an academic in society.

Smith published about 145 articles in his lifetime.  A full listing of them can be found in a tribute to Smith published by Benjamin Silliman (editor of Silliman’s Journal/the American Journal of Science).  In reviewing these publications, they seem to be the kind of publications one would expect from a scholar (even today). They are research articles, and they are published in journals intended to be read by other scholars.  Most of the publications appear to be in Silliman’s journal (which would make sense because it was the only major American scientific journal at the time).  Smith also published in some other chemistry journals and some international journals as well.  Thus, in many ways, J. Lawrence Smith seems to be publishing in ways that might be similar to a modern chemist.  Importantly, the audience for which Smith seems to be writing is primarily other chemists, most likely those employed at other universities.

Theophilus Wylie was also a chemist; yet, his publication is very different.  Altogether, Wylie published just 7 items (at least that I could track down) including:

  1. Catalogue of the Library of Indiana State University (1842)
  2. Letter on gold found in Indiana read by Prof. John Frazer, Journal of the Franklin Institute (1850)
  3. Teeth and Bones of Elphas Primogenius, Lately Found Near the Western Fork of the White River in Monroe County, Indiana” in American Journal of Science (Silliman’s Journal) (1859).
  4. Baccalaureate Discourse to the Graduating Class of Indiana State University” Indianapolis Journal Company, Printers (1859)
  5. Andrew Wylie, D. D., First President of Indiana University” in the Indiana School Journal (1860)
  6. Interesting Report of Prof. Wylie of the State University.” Indianapolis Journal (1869)
  7. Indiana University: Its History from 1820, when Founded to 1890 (1891)

The catalogue is not attributed to Wylie, but is likely his work.  Only two of the articles were distributed in scientific journals, but seem more similar to his article in the Indianapolis Journal than they do to any kind of research article (like what Smith was publishing).  All of Wylie’s  articles in both the academic journals and the Indianapolis Journal are really geological reports (keep in mind that mining and geology were linked to chemistry in the nineteenth century, many of Smith’s articles are also on geology) that could be of interest to a fairly broad audience.

Is it possible to draw any conclusions from this very different publication record between Wylie and Smith?  I think it is, Wylie seems to be writing for a very different audience, the public.  In this case, Wylie seems to be writing for an audience that would include those interested in using the library (library catalog), all people interested in geology (academic and newspaper articles), students at Indiana University (Bacalaureate address), and all people interested in the history of Indiana University (book on the history of Indiana University, and biography of Andrew Wylie).  On the other hand, it would seem that  Smith sees the role of a scientific author as one which reports only to fellow scientists (which would be in line with what Smith advocates for in his address to the AAAS), Wylie seems to see his role of scientist as a person dedicated to the public.

Therefore, one might question whether these two chemists have competing views about what “scholarly communication” (in this case meaning dissemination of their ideas) should be.  Perhaps as we think about reform of the scholarly communication system currently, it might be worth thinking about the seeming division of roles exemplified by both Smith and Wylie.  What is the role of the scholar to the public?  As I said in my post last week, I am not advocating for a return to Wylie’s point of view, but I do think that scholarship should play a more public role.  The publication of Theophilus Wylie shows that prior to the formation of the current scholarly communication system, others thought that way as well, and can perhaps serve as a way for modern academics to think about the role of publicly disseminating their ideas.

Image Credit: (Left, Theophilus Wylie, image from https://wyliehouse.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/t-a-wylie-4.jpg and right, J. Lawrence Smith, image from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fd/John_Lawrence_Smith_by_Tony_Rogue%2C_1854.jpg)