Universalization of Knowledge

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Should knowledge be available to everyone? How do we create ways to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful?”  No, I am actually not talking about Google, but rather about the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when people like Paul Otlet actually had similar ambitions, and created the Mundaneum to achieve the goal of creating universally accessible knowledge.  Otlet also hoped that by doing this, he would advance the cause of world peace.  To me, it seems that we are fighting similar battles today.  Will open access to knowledge create a virtual utopia where all knowledge about every topic is available?  What institutions are needed to ensure the reliability of information?

A first step in answering these questions in a historical context happened at a conference I attended recently called the “The Science of Information: Universalization of Knowledge in a Utopian age.”  The Utopia being discussed was the period between roughly 1870 and 1940 when figures like Otlet, William Pepper, and others were working to make information available and accessible to the world.  Otlet created the Mundaneum; Pepper helped to found the Free Library of Philadelphia (among other institutions).  Participants at the conference noted, however, that during the later part this period (1930s and 40s) figures like Adolf Hitler also began their working at creating a “utopia” that was very different, and the American government also worked to create better surveillance (for good or ill depending on your point of view) of people within and outside of their borders.

In all, the conference really was about what I would term scholarly communication, and in order to talk about scholarly communication, it is necessary to talk about several related concepts including science, information, and the idea of universal knowledge.  The participants noted that these concepts actually had multiple (sometimes not completely compatible) definitions in fields like history, information science, literature, and architecture (the disciplines of just a few of the participants).  Also, many of the speakers would not have identified themselves as researching “scholarly communication,”though some of them would have.  In my view, the diversity of participants and their inability to agree on definitions of some of the basic concepts simply demonstrates how difficult it can be to research the history of a field like scholarly communication which itself is not particularly well defined.

More importantly, however, I think the fact that this conference had enough people coming from all of these fields shows a recognition that this area of research is important.  Interestingly, nearly all of the speakers also made allusions to current political events happening worldwide (the election of Trump, Brexit, and the rise of populism).  It seems to me that in the same way that the internet had its figures like Otlet who believed that the internet would create a Utopia.  Now, we are beginning to see the other (dystopian) side of that dream.

Perhaps by understanding the history of a previous time in which similar Utopianism started in the 1870s with a belief in unending progress and ended in 1940 with two world wars, we can try to better understand the role that communication (and particularly scholarly communication) played.  Alex Csisizar, one of the speakers at the conference, has argued that “We need richer, more nuanced ways of talking about the collective belief that take into account the complexity of scientific interactions and how those forms evolve along with regulatory frameworks used for evaluating scientific claims relevant to public policy.”  I could not agree more, and hopefully conferences like this provide the first steps in more interdisciplinary discussions that address the topics that scholars like Csiszar have identified.  Moreover, perhaps such conversations about scholarly communication can help to drive productive agendas for the future.  At a time when we are debating the very role that science plays in society, and scientists are marching for better recognition.  It seems to me that these historical conversations are extremely relevant in today’s world.

(Image described at https://beyondarchives.wordpress.com/2013/03/15/paul-otlet-world-city/)

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.

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)

Scholarly Communication, Universities, and Industry

I have been working on an upcoming presentation comparing Theophilus Wylie and J. Lawrence Smith, based on some of the work I’ve mentioned in previous posts.  I thought it might be interesting to think more about the ways in which these two men, though both chemists, both university professors, and both working during the same period of time, seem to have such markedly different practices for disseminating their scholarship.  By understanding those practices more fully, I think we may be able to ask some new questions about the role of the university, what, if any, relationship it should have to industry, and, moreover, how the answers to those questions relate to the ways we should think about disseminating “knowledge.”

J. Lawrence Smith seems in his writing to be highly critical of education.  In addition to saying that teaching makes men “an educational drudge,” Smith goes on to say in the same speech that, “Our universities (or rather our so-called universities) are too numerous. . . It would be far better to have fewer scientific schools.”  In essence Smith is criticizing the fact that science is becoming taught in too many places, and science is being taught badly in his view.  Smith thinks it would be better to have a smaller number of schools that teach “pure science” (or what we might call basic, theoretical science) well.  There is a bit of a contradiction though, because even though Smith advocates for better scientific research, at the same time, he also suggests that science should be more practical and serve the needs of industry.  Smith goes on to become a researcher at the Louisville Gas Works later in his life and in his presidential address from 1873 (referenced multiple times in this blog now), Smith says, “Let us ever bear in mind that it is abstract scientific ideas which underlie in these modern days, all discoveries conducive to man’s progress” (italics Smith’s not mine).  In a way Smith clarifies what he means by that remark in another article in the American Chemist in 1874 where he says, “In our days a useful discovery is scarcely made or a happy application of one found out, before it is published, described in the scientific journals, or other technical periodicals. . . . From these multiplied and diverse efforts. . . arises an industry which has no sooner sprung into existence than it becomes important and prosperous.”  Thus science should help to create productive and useful industries.

Wylie on the other hand seems to repudiate much of what Smith seems to be advocating.  First, Wylie in early in his diary (1836, before he came to Indiana) admits to his talent for teaching, “Teaching comes quite natural to me.  I fear that it will be the trade into which I will eventually sink.”  Furthermore, in an undated talk “On Education” he criticizes those who advocate teaching for what he calls “practical arts” (of which one might perhaps include industry) and denigrates people who “are unable to go beyond first rudiments of knowledge, it is often time lost in endeavoring to develop powers of the mind which nature has not given them.  For them something preeminently practical, which a machine might do – which can be done with the hands and without the brains is certainly best.  It is nearly the same too with respect to those whose sole object is to make money.”

Thus it seems that at least on the surface of things these too men vehemently disagree.  Yet, the story may also be more complicated than it first appears.  Wylie and Smith met when  J. Lawrence Smith gave an address at Indiana University on the opening of the new science building. According to Wylie’s diary for July 15 of 1874, Smith’s talk was “both good and appropriate.”  Though we do not know exactly what Smith talked about, Wylie seems to approve of it.  This is also especially interesting considering that one year earlier Smith had said that there were too many scientific schools, and then he later opens one of them at Indiana University.

In all, I think that this seeming contradiction, has to do with the two men’s views on the role of higher education in American society, and, hence, how scholarship should be disseminated.  I think that both men agree on the importance of “pure science” in the curriculum.  I think that they would also agree that students should be taught not simply in order to create products, but to be able to do higher level thinking.  There are two areas on which I think they might disagree more vehemently.  The first is the role of what Smith in his 1873 address calls “philosophizing” which he thinks is a role unsuited to scientists.  Wylie on the other hand devotes entire sermons to the intersections of science and religion.  The second is the role of teaching.  Wylie obviously sees his primary role as a teacher; Smith does not.  As a result of these differing philosophical views, Smith publishes many articles, and Wylie tries to pass his knowledge on to students through his lectures and speeches.  Even today, universities still deal with the relation (or lack of it) between teaching and research.  I think that another way to look at that question would be to say what is the purpose of scholarly communication?  Does it include teaching? Under current definitions the answer would definitely be no.  According to Smith that would be a correct answer.  According to Wylie it would be the incorrect answer.  It may be time to investigate which one of them was actually right.

Scholarly Communication as a Historical Process

Scholarly communication is a relatively recent field of study that Christine Borgman  has suggested goes back to the 1960s and 70s, but really only became prominent with the advent of new information technology in the 1990s and early 2000s.  Borgman defines 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. 414). and goes on to say 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). Furthermore, Borgman identifies two research areas within scholarly communication.  First, there is the study of the structures of scholarly communication that can be revealed by scientometric and bibliometric analyses.  Second is the process of scholarly communication which encompasses how and why scholars publish.  Much of the literature on scholarly communication has focused on what Borgman defines as structure.

Such scholarship has suggested that “individual imperatives for career self-interest, advancing the field, and receiving credit are often more powerful motivators in publishing decisions than the technological affordances of new media.”  These conclusions rest on a particular line of thinking advocated by researchers such as Eugene Garfield, the founder of the Institute for Scientific Information citation index who has stated that “Those of us who have worked in the field of scientometrics and its antecedent bibliometrics almost universally recognize the debt we owe to Robert K. Merton” (p. 54).  Merton focused on the importance of status as a motivator for scholarly communication.   Garfield measured such status with a very particular method: citations within journal literature.  Other scholars, namely Scott Frickel and Neil Gross, when discussing the approach of Merton and others to measurement of status argue that “we find it difficult to believe that the quest for prestige and status is the sole motive shaping intellectual innovation” (p. 211).  In other words, there may be another way of investigating the ways in which what Borgman defines as the “process” by which scholarly communication forms and sustains itself.

My work, I think, focuses on the “process” of scholarly communication, or, how it developed in the ways that it did and why it did so.  In my view, history is the best way to answer such a question.  In the United States, the earliest journals were founded in the mid to late nineteenth century. Therefore, there are many sources that can help to understand the ways in which scholars institutionalized the communication of their research.  By looking at the careers and debates of scholars from the the mid to late nineteenth century, it may possible to determine the contours of their discussion about scholarly publishing before it developed into the modern system described by Borgman and Harley.  Moreover, these nineteenth century debates may help to think about how modern discussions regarding scholarly communication.  In fact, I think that this debate still continues today.  Steve Miller has stated that “we are entering a new age for public understanding of science,  it is important that citizens get used to scientists arguing out controversial facts, theories, and issues” (p. 119).  The question is, how can these historical debates help us to answer these modern questions.  I hope that by understanding the historical process of scholarly communication, I may be able to answer that question.

Open Access Alchemy

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One of my first posts when I launched this blog asked the question,  why don’t alchemists share?  Another scholar I mentioned in that post, Pamela Long, has discussed the issue of authorship and secrecy.  She has also written about the separation and mixing of two kinds of practice, artisinal (or for lack of a better analogy “applied” work) and academic (work performed at universities.  She argues that there were “trading zones” in which people moved between these two spheres with relative fluidity.  She also notes that in the modern age, such trading zones are less fluid because of current requirements (university degrees, licensure, etc.) to be considered a professional.  For the most part, Long is discussing the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but her arguments could apply equally well, I think, to the mid to late nineteenth century. That period was one where the professional “modern” requirements Long mentions were just beginning to form. The question is, where were the trading zones in a pre-professionalized, scientific community?

The political cartoon at the top of this post provides a potential answer.  It dates from 1887 and satirizes the presidential aspirations of James G. Blaine who had just lost the 1884 election. It depicts three newspaper moguls (Charles Anderson Dana, Joseph Pulitzer, and Whitelaw Reid) trying to make gold for Blaine’s future ambitions (he was expected to run again in 1888).  What does this have to do with scholarly communication?  The cartoon tacitly shows that the presidential campaign was not entirely in the hands of the politicians, but, in the hands of the publishers (newspaper owners) who formed public opinion on these issues.  Scholarly communication too is about the media and the places where scholars choose to discuss their research.

My post about the publication careers of Theophilus Wylie and J. Lawrence Smith is just one example of the ways these two men shaped their careers by choosing different kinds of publishers. I noted that Wylie seemed to choose a public audience (including popular newspapers), whereas Smith chose only (or at least primarily) an audience of other scientific practitioners.  What do these respective choices tell us about how these two men saw their roles as a professor and researcher, and whom did they see as their colleagues?  I am merely speculating at this point, but I would suspect that Wylie would have seen himself primarily as a teacher and in the same company as other teachers within the state of Indiana.  His papers seem to consist of many addresses on education that were prepared for other teachers, and Wylie also published in a teacher’s journal.  Smith, on the other hand, seemed to dislike teaching and wanted to pursue only research.  In fact at the end of his life, he left academe in order to pursue research within industry.

In the modern world, scholarship is increasingly dictated by the impact scholarship has.  That can be measured by metrics like impact factor, eigenfactor, altmetrics, or others.  Nonetheless, all of these impact metrics are useless if one first does not ask questions that professors like Wylie and Smith (at least implicitly) asked themselves. Who is your audience?  How do you want to affect their perceptions?  At the time when scholarship was professionalizing, these two men had very different answers to those questions.  More importantly, in the same ways that publishers (broadly construed) shaped the fates of politicians like Blaine, publishers also shaped the careers of people like Wylie and Smith.  Wylie published with newspapers and other largely public venues.  Smith published primarily in Silliman’s journal, controlled by a fellow academic.  Such publishers help to reach audiences and shape public perception in various ways.  No doubt they will continue to do so in the future.

To go back to my original question of why alchemists don’t share.  One might answer it simply by saying that they had no need to.  Alchemists were trained as practitioners in an “art form” by masters within the same field; those masters no doubt did share with others in their field in some informal ways.  Scientists on the other hand, felt a need to have a different kind of impact.  If Theophilus Wylie were alive today, I suspect he might have supported movements like science communication or history communication, both emphasizing discussing scholarship to non-experts.  Smith, rightly, might have argued against Wylie, saying that science should be subject to rigorous peer review, ensuring its quality.  Neither of these approaches is wrong, but the answer to modern scholarly communication is in a balance between the two.  Alchemy was not shared because it was communicated only to fellow practitioners; on the other hand alchemy was more practically based and of more use to members of the public (after all who doesn’t want more gold).  Science was communicated more publicly through journals in order to have a larger impact.  At the same time, science publishing became more closed as scientists began to talk more to each other and less to the general public and their language became more impenetrable.

The key to these contrasting viewpoints that people like Wylie and Smith might still have, is the same as it was in the nineteenth century: publishers.  Publishers helped to find audiences.  Publishers helped to craft the messages of sciences.  Publishers helped to make material more widely known.  Today, publishers need to help create the kind of “trading zone” that Pamela Long discusses in which applied practitioners and scholarly experts can meet freely.  In other words, perhaps we should find a way to facilitate open access alchemy.

(image from the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Distillations magazine, https://www.chemheritage.org/distillations/magazine/political-potions)

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.