Authority in Scholarly Communication

There are three words that are rarely used in the same sentence, but I think may need to be brought more closely together in future discussions about scholarly discourse: Diplomatics, scholarly communication, and digital curation.  Diplomatics was originally a method within archival science designed to establish authenticity in medieval legal documents (now of course expanded to electronic and other media).  Scholarly communication is of course about the ways in which academics disseminate their scholarship.  Digital curation as a field seeks to preserve and add value to content, particularly electronic resources, for future generations.  All of these fields share one characteristic – an interest in authority – that I think needs to be thought about in more depth.

Though authority is not always something discussed that overtly in much scholarly communication literature, is is an issue underlying many of those debates.  Who determines what articles are “valid” through the peer review system?  Who determines the peer reviewers?  How are those peer reviewers selected?  Are certain citations more valuable than others?  Why are certain journals more authoritative than others?  There is of course much scholarship devoted to some of these questions, but I think it is important to see how those questions are similar in many ways to similar questions posited within the field of digital curation.

Digital curation also seeks to understand better how to create “trustworthy” or to put that another way, authoritative digital repositories.  A digital curator might ask questions similar to those above about scholarly communication.  How can we determine what materials are more trustworthy than others?  Who determines and selects such materials for such a repository?  How is the authority of such selectors determined? Are certain repositories more authoritative than others?  Are certain methods of collecting more authoritative than others?

I discussed the concept of “organic information” previously, a concept that comes from the field of diplomatics.  I think this may be a useful framework to think about the concept of authority, particularly in the intersections of both scholarly communication and digital curation.  The theory of “organic information” that recognizes documents as an ever-changing material object that is dependent both on a physical (or in the case of electronic documents a virtual) form, but also is part of a dynamic social system that places different values on that object at different periods in history.  Additionally, the field of diplomatics has several criteria for evaluating authenticity within these contexts that can help to frame discussions of trust for any type of information that might be found within a digital repository.

Some scholars  define the fundamentals of diplomatics as a method of knowledge organization.  In the nineteenth century diplomatics established the principle of respect de fonds defined by Michel Duchein as “to group, without mixing them [documents] with others, the archives (documents of every kind) created by or coming from an administration, establishment, person, or corporate body.”  From this principle, other scholars have identified a differentiation between organic and non-organic information.  The former is defined as information gathered by an individual in the course of some practical activity; the latter refers to something that is contained in a bibliographic reference.  Respect de fonds, therefore, is about honoring the groups and individuals who have gathered certain documents together.  To put this another way, this principle is a method for studying how individuals create authority for certain documents and place those texts together in a kind of archive with other materials that might explain the collection of records as a whole.  In order to systematize this study, there are several methods diplomatistes (practitioners of diplomatics) utilize.

With the arrival of new kinds of documents and the recent explosion of information, scholars have been calling for an expansion of the field into these new areas. Francis Blouin tries to create a framework in which such developments could happen.  He identifies two sub-fields within diplomatics.  The first of these focuses on documents themselves.  This is the field practitioners most commonly associate with the word diplomatics, the study of an individual document (often a historical one like a medieval manuscript), and whether or not it is an original or a forgery.  Tied to that kind of study is a second, less well known, but equally important sub-field however that Blouin describes as “organizational context” or the connections between a particular document and the institution in which it was created and the people who created a document for a particular purpose.  He stresses that these two approaches are complementary and cannot be separated from one another.

Bruno Delmas identifies the purpose of diplomatics as a discipline that establishes authority within a particular document.  To do this, he identifies four characteristics: memory, evidence, understanding, and communication as essential elements of any document whether physical or electronic.  Delmas also distinguishes the methods of practice in which all diplomatists must engage.  These include the study of form (or what a document looks like and what its original purpose was), genesis (or the original context of a document), edition (whether a document was added to at a later time), and selection (how a document was chosen to represent a certain type of characteristic such as memory or evidence).  Olivier Guyotjeannin identifies the same basic methods as Delmas, though he describes them slightly differently.  He identifies form, tradition (similar to edition but including a concept of an author’s heritage and whether an author fits within a particular literary tradition), genesis, critique of false (the historical method of determining authenticity from previous scholarship and opinions), and chronology (study of dating of materials and how earlier dates translate into modern ones).  Guyotejeannin further argues (in ways similar to Blouin) that these methods ought to be applied to modern print and electronic materials.

How might diplomatics shape further discussions about authority in scholarly communication?  Fundamentally, all electronic documents, whether they are published through a scholarly journal or deposited in an online repository (and many documents go through both processes), are subject to these questions about authority.  Diplomatics, particularly the concept of “organic information,” I think provides an interesting framework to investigate these questions further.  Documents are a product of various social processes that shape them.  Using a historical and social analysis to determine authority might help reframe some of the ways we talk about establishing authority within the scholarly communication system.

 

 

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.