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.

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.

Is Scholarly Communication a Commodity?

The answer of course in the modern world is yes.  Therefore, the only question remaining is how that commodity (usually defined as journal articles or other “scholarly outputs” like books or data) should be measured.  This does not seem to be true for the earlier periods I have been discussing so far, however in the case of the American Chemical Society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and scholars like Andrew Abbott seem even to go so far as to say at points that journals are a kind of ancillary byproduct of an organizational system.  So the question for me is how this idea of scholarly communication became a commodity, and, perhaps more importantly, should we think about it in a different way?

From my initial research, it seems like many of the scholars talking about modern scholarly communication are drawing on the work of Robert Merton or Thomas Kuhn.  Kuhn of course talks generally about how “scientific revolutions” happen over time in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and Merton’s work spans a variety of areas, but for the purposes of scholarly communication, his work on the sociology of science and in particular his discussions on how individual scientists achieve status and credit seem to be of particular importance.   Scholars like Abbott on the other hand seem to be less interested in individual scientists and how they attain credit for their ideas and more interested in how movements and organizations sustain themselves and replicate themselves over time.  It seems to me like this has created two strains of research on scholarly communication.  The first is based on the work of Merton and the second on scholars like Abbott.  It also seems, at least in current debates about scholarly communication, that Merton’s conceptions of credit and status tend to dominate.  Should the contours of this discussion change?  I think it should.

Scholarly communication, I think is not just about the commodity of scholarship, it is about how scholars determine the ways to advance research.  I am still working out for myself how they did that in the early twentieth century and when exactly journals came to become dominant.  My suspicion, however, is that there is another way of thinking how scholarship perpetuates and replicates itself organizationally in the ways that Abbott discusses. I also suspect that there may be alternative methods to move scholarship forward that might not require a commodity of a scholarly output like a journal article.

I hope that by working on this historical evolution of scholarly communication, it may become clearer that the current discussion of how we evaluate scholars was very complex.  I also hope that we can think about alternative paths.  Compared to other historical systems, modern scholarly communication is relatively young (only solidifying in the mid-twentieth century).  It may not be too late to change direction, perhaps in more useful ways.

Are Journals Necessary for Scholarly Communication?

In short no, at least not in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and, perhaps not even for the twenty-first.  Scholarly communication is a system that according to Marcel LaFollette formed between around 1880 and 1940 (in “Crafting a communications infrastructure:  Scientific and technical publishing in the United States.”  In Radway, J., & Kaestle, K. (Eds.), A History of the Book in America:  Print in Motion:  The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880 – 1940, 2009).  It was not inevitable that such a system be centered around journals, however.  At least based on my current (and admittedly preliminary) thinking, journals were a mechanism organically developed between universities and scholarly societies for the purpose of mutual accreditation.  If I’m correct, then perhaps it is simply time to create a new mechanism that facilitates such accreditation.

In Andrew Abbott’s “The Order of Professionalization” in Work and Occupations (1991), he states that “journals appear relatively early in the rise of professional interest in knowledge, whereas enduring organizations appear relatively later in the rise of professional interest in association” (p. 359).  Therefore it is not the journal itself that helps to perpetuate the rise of professional knowledge, rather it is the organization.  In another one of Abbott’s articles, “Linked Ecologies” (Sociological Theory, 2005) he discusses how professions and related organizations (such as governments and universities) develop “hinge” mechanisms whereby the two institutions (or ecologies to use his term) become associated.  Such hinge mechanisms provide mutual benefit for both organizations.  Furthermore in Abbott’s Chaos of Disciplines (2001) and System of Professions (1988), he discusses how scholarly associations and universities formed a kind of mutual dependency that might very well allow for such a hinge mechanism to develop.

Certainly in my work so far, the journal at least was relatively well developed by the late nineteenth century, though as Abbott states the journal in and of itself may not have been so important.  What rather seems to be important is when universities decided that journals and publication were a good way to determine that professors were eligible for things like tenure and promotion, and, conversely, for professional associations to perpetuate themselves by creating an accreditation system through university degrees and standards for professional posts within academic departments.  If I am correct in my initial thinking the journal publication system became the very kind of hinge mechanism that Abbott discusses.

What does this have to do with scholarly communication?  For years we seem to have been talking about ways of replicating the current journal system in some form.  Admittedly we are now talking about electronic versions of articles, and quantitative measures of assessing the content of such journals (through numbers like impact factors), but nonetheless we are still trying to re-create in electronic form a hinge mechanism that was developed over 50 years ago.  Given the current realities of universities and scholarly associations do we actually want to be replicating an accreditation structure from 1940?  Alternatively should we develop a new hinge mechanism that helps to solve current problems?  In Chaos of Disciplines even Abbott seems to suggest a change in career structures for academics would be beneficial (p. 149).  If history is any indication, such a change needs to be done in collaboration with professional scholarly societies.  Maybe universities and societies need to create a new hinge mechanism, one that does not include journals.

Teaching vs. Research in Scholarly Communication

As I was thinking about the idea of “purity” of research topic last week, I’ve begun to draw some rather tenuous connections to another project I’m working on over the summer about Theophilus Wylie and his role as scholar and librarian in the nineteenth century.  In my discussion of purity, I mentioned Andrew Abbott and in Chaos of Disciplines Abbott specifically discusses higher education in relation to the trend of “purity” in research.  Abbott states “Professions are organized around abstract knowledge” particularly “those who exercise the profession’s knowledge in its most pure form” (p. 145). He then goes on to state that “In general, professionals who are doing what the public imagines to be the most basic professional functions are of relatively low status in the eyes of professionals themselves” (p. 146).  In the very next paragraph Abbott talks about university professors and their aversion to teaching.  Furthermore he describes their preference for teaching graduate vs. undergraduate students as a preference for “pre-professionalized votaries rather than demanding dilettantes.”

Certainly, the J. Lawrence Smith presidential address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science fits this pattern.  Smith says that teaching “unfits him [the teacher/scientist] for that free exercise of the mind which leads to new ideas and discoveries. He becomes an educational drudge instead of an intellectual scientist.”  At the end of the post on the “purity” of research I mentioned that there must have been another tradition that opposed these viewpoints. I think some of my work on Theophilus Wylie who would have been ending his career about ten years after J. Lawrence Smith’s speech.  Coincidentally, Wylie was also a professor of chemistry so may have been aware (though I of course cannot prove it) of Smith’s views.

From what I know about Wylie, he was the very definition of what Abbott might term a “dilettante.”  He was a Presbyterian minister, professor of ancient languages, natural philosophy, chemistry, and other disciplines.  Additionally Wylie seemed to put a stress on teaching.  I have only so far been looking at his role as a librarian.  Even within that, however, he clearly feels that libraries should help to aid the teaching mission of the university.  When President Lemuel Moss tried to move the library into a more research oriented position, Wylie made a note in his diary about how much he objected to Moss’s actions.  Also, in his 1865 library committee report, Wylie spends roughly a third of it talking about how students in the sciences need to learn ancient languages both to better learn the scientific nomenclature and to broaden their minds.  In all, it seems that Wylie represents kind of view of a professor as a generalist interested in many subjects who dedicates himself primarily to teaching. This is the very conception of a professor that Smith is arguing against.  Smith is advocating for the kind of professional that Abbott suggests later dominated universities.

Abbott goes on to say that “the intellectual consequences of academic regression [focus on the pure science that Smith advocates] of this kind are considerable. . . . It is rather the general public and above all undergraduate students who now find that the social sciences give less compelling interpretations of social life than do the less technical humanists” (p. 146).  That Abbott quote is in the context of a chapter about a push toward interdisciplinarity and professional norms within the social sciences.  Though Chaos of Disciplines is about 15 years old at this point, it seems that his points are no less valid today.  Furthermore, I wonder about whether higher education needs to think about ways of re-professionalizing university professors.  Later in the chapter, Abbott discusses how academics are incentivized and suggests that “a change in academic hiring and/or in career structures could easily transform the system” (p. 149). I wonder what those norms might look like.  I also wonder if the kinds of activities that incentivized Wylie such as an emphasis on multi-disciplinarity and teaching would be beneficial for the university of the future.  Certainly the scholarly communication system as it is incentivized now is very similar to the kind of “pure science” that Smith envisioned.  I wonder if that structure is best suited to the needs of modern universities.  Should researchers become better teachers and communicators with the public?  Personally, I think that they should.

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.

Oklahoma! and Scholarly Communication

There has been a great deal of furor over the recent Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) article on the digital humanities.  This post is not a response to that article since there have been many responses, articles, and commentaries that are better than what I would be able to say anyway.  If anything, the article has sparked some interesting debates and has opened the opportunity to ask some important questions.  In some ways I feel that these are not particularly new debates; in fact when I saw the LARB article it reminded me of some of the very impassioned arguments that happened when the History Manifesto came out several years ago.  I would, however, like to use a few recent blog posts (including those of Scott Weingart, Ted Underwood, and Aaron Barlow) that touch on some of the issues in the LARB article, in order to raise some important points that I think relate to my work on scholarly communication.

Fundamentally, scholarly communication is about professional norms.  What is acceptable within a particular field and what is not?  Many people may be familiar with the work of Andrew Abbott who has discussed the issues of professionalization more broadly.  Very generally speaking, Abbott discusses how professions are ways to create territory for certain groups of people and to delegitimize those who practice outside of that territory.  Often such professionalization is good for society (we don’t want people who have never been to medical school to perform surgery on us for instance).  At other times professional fields can lead to kinds of group-think which arguably exclude new knowledge from being created.

Currently, I think that we are seeing a kind of turf war within the humanities.  Professionals on both sides (pro and anti digital humanities/computational methods).  The issue however, I believe, is much deeper than that.  This is a debate about what is acceptable practice in the humanities and its sub-fields (English, History, History and Philosophy of Science, and many others).  Weingart, Underwood, and Barlow all bring up the idea of professional norms.  Barlow specifically says “Every discipline falls into a pattern of standard practice; every few years each must reassess. The same is true for the institutions that house them.”

What the LARB article does is bring out the perceived divide that Barlow identifies between disciplines and the institutions that house them.  The authors of that article argue that institutions like the NEH and university administrators are favoring the digital humanities, and also points to some of the debates within the field itself.  As a historian, I want to point out that this is not the first time such a fragmentation has happened, nor will it likely be the last.  Just one small example within the research I have done in the past semester demonstrates this point.  Between 1892 and 1901, the American Chemical Society nearly split into multiple different societies (at the same time it was trying to merge with other societies) .  The issue that nearly caused the split, incidentally, was  specialization within the society and whether certain specializations counted as chemistry or not.  It is worth quoting H. W. Wiley, President of the American Chemical Society and his view on the issue:

“Our science has grown to such proportions as to demand specialization. He who
hopes to add anything to the sum of chemical knowledge must be content to seek
the gems of discovery in a very small part of the whole field …. The necessity
of this specialization is admitted by everyone. The benefits which it brings we all
enjoy; the dangers which it engenders we are too apt to forget. The one great
danger is to the worker who goes deepest into the well after truth. He loses sight
of the rest of the world. He is prone to think those who are in the other wells are only diggers, and those who take the rough gems he finds and polishes them for
use, mere sordid barterers. . . . Chemistry is a pure democracy, and all are equal therein. I have been more than once pained to see men of eminent achievements disclose the narrowness of their views by sneering at really good work not in their line. Gentlemen, this must not be!” (quoted in History of the American Chemical Society, p. 68-69)

Therefore, one might argue that the answer to this question is not the kinds of division that are being suggested, but rather productive dialogue between the two.  As Scott Weingart suggests, digital methods may not actually be providing any new questions to historical practice (as some DH practitioners suggest it does).  If true, then perhaps that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Computational methods do provide new ways of looking at historical data, and, as I have suggested, I think combinations of both are important.  What digital methodologies have exposed in particular is what Ted Underwood points out that the work of digital humanities (and I suspect digital science as well) is the work of not just professors in one field, but “social scientists, humanists, librarians, scholars in library and information science, and people working off the tenure track in humanities computing.”  In other words, there is no “one way” to do professional humanities in the same way that there is no one way to do professional chemistry, and, if H. W. Wiley’s remarks are true there has never been.  In the field of history at least multiple ways of looking at the past have always existed side by side (sometimes with difficulty), but currently history practitioners do not question the existence of social historians, cultural historians, political historians, and military historians.

At the risk of mixing metaphors, I think it is important that the humanities profession should take into account the lessons of the musical Oklahoma!   For those who remember the musical, there is a song called The Farmer and the Cowman in which Aunt Eller sings that “the farmer and the cowman should be friends.”  Her advice goes unheeded however as a fight breaks out, Aunt Eller shoots a gun off and says “I don’t say I’m no better than anybody else, but I’ll be danged if I ain’t just as good!”  Professional humanists need to think in the same terms.  Multiple methods are no better than others, but they are just as good and help to contribute to the debates which the humanities are such a great asset of humanistic inquiry.  Rather than critiquing a particular method of research, perhaps it is better to critique the overall argument (and how particular methods may or may not be appropriate for the question that is being asked).

Furthermore, the refrain of The Farmer and the Cowman song says that “Territory folk should stick together.”  If we agree, as the authors of the LARB article suggest, that there is danger from “neoliberal” forces within the university (most of which are beyond our control anyway), then the answer is not to fight among ourselves, but rather to broaden our conversations and see how humanistic methods and arguments can help to contribute to broader societal debates.  H. W. Wiley tried to keep his profession divided between technical and theoretical chemists together and was arguably successful.  In the same way, humanists should try to keep technical and theoretical practitioners together and hopefully provide a united front in advancing humanistic inquiry.  Though I disagree with many of Barlow’s conclusions, he does suggest that “we also need to start developing alternatives, both in our disciplines and institutionally.”  Perhaps now is a good time to think about what those alternatives might be.