Theories for Scholarly Communication

Christine Borgman has defined scholarly communication as, “the study of how scholars in any field (e.g. physical, biological, social, and behavioural sciences, humanities, technology) use and disseminate information through formal and informal channels (p. 413-414).”  Much of the current scholarly communication literature focuses on the structure of scholarship as measured by scientometric analysis.  Furthermore, much of the theory for such analyses rest on the ideas of Robert Merton.   Merton concentrated on the values of the modern scientific system and the ways in which individual scientists achieved status within their profession.  Scott Frickel and Neil Gross have, however, criticized Merton’s suppositions saying, “we find it difficult to believe that the quest for prestige and status is the sole motive shaping intellectual innovation” (p. 211).  Thus, in light of this criticism, it is important to ask whether there may be another theoretical framework to approach the process of scholarly communication.  James J. Gibson first developed the idea of “affordances” or ways in which humans interact with an environment.  Rom Harré further developed Gibson’s concept to identify three types of affordances:  cultural (society-wide assumptions), social (social structures utilize to implement those assumptions), and material (mechanisms resulting from cultural and material affordances).

Harré’s framework provides an excellent mechanism to investigate the ways in which scholarship has evolved in cultural, social, and material aspects.  For cultural affordances, Maurizio Ferraris argues that acts of inscription are a foundation that allows other social processes to happen.  Science is one example, “in the sciences at large, documentality sets the conditions for the transmission of knowledge, for the progress of the sciences, for appointments of universities chairs and for the awarding of Nobel prizes and Field medals” (p. 293-294).  Ferraris also alludes to social affordances that are discussed by Andrew Abbott who suggests that when two “ecologies” such as universities and professional societies come together, they form a “hinge mechanism” that provide them a way for effectively interacting.  The journal has become a hinge mechanism, and Fiorella Foscarini and Emily Marshall have argued that textual analysis and genre study prove authenticity of documents, “Genres provide social codes of behavior including not only the official ‘rules of the game,’ but also any other components of ‘ceremony’ . . .  surrounding the main ‘moves’ of the game – that all those involved in a dialogic exchange must learn in order to be able to ‘act together’” (Foscarini, p. 401).

In all, it seems that Gibson’s theories of affordance combined with the ideas of Ferraris, Abbott, Marshall and Foscarini, can help to explain Borgman’s assertion that that “essential elements such as the scholarly journal article are remarkably stable and print publication continues unabated, despite the proliferation of digital media” (p. 413).  The journal article has elements of all three essential affordances, and, until another medium also provides a way to satisfy the cultural, social, and material needs of science, the journal article will remain the cornerstone of the scholarly communication system.

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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.