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.

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.

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)

A Tale of Two Chemists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Chemistry vs. Physics

As I was doing some more research on the American Chemical Society (ACS) in its early years, I have been particularly interested in the ways that these early professional academics tried to differentiate themselves from other fields.  In some ways, this goes back to the ideas on purity of a profession that I discussed earlier.  In particular, these early chemists seem to be particularly interested in separating themselves from the physicists.  Interestingly this is also a topic that showed up in some of my earlier work on query sampling of the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS) corpus against the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  One of the most common articles similar to the was reductionism in biology, which discusses ways in which biology is reducible to chemistry and potentially reducible to physics.  Other common articles that came up in the query sampling were intertheory relations in physics which also discusses how chemistry may be reducible to physics.

Relations between chemistry and physics seem to date from at least the late nineteenth century. Benjamin Silliman (editor of the journal that eventually became Science) wrote a tribute to J. Lawrence Smith (president of ACS in 1877) in which he quotes a colleague of Smith’s at the University of Virginia who said that Smith “confined his lectures to chemistry proper, leaving physics to the professor in charge of that branch. This he did, I believe, of set purpose, with the result of his giving more chemistry in eight months than his predecessors had done, nominally, in nine” (p. 231).    Later, George F. Barker (president of ACS in 1891) dedicated his presidential address to defining boundaries between physics and chemistry where he said “If it be true that in both physics and chemistry, taken separately, precision of thought and consequent precision of language are dependent upon a precise use of terms, how much more true is it in that limiting region which lies between them.”

Clearly there is some more need for thinking through this complicated relationship between chemistry and physics.  In my earlier post, I had thought about doing some more work on query sampling between the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and a journal that would be equivalent to JACS for physics.  I think that this is an interesting intersection between the philosophy of science and the history of science.  In this case, computational methods like query sampling may be able to demonstrate how the journals are matching up with an established source on the philosophy of science, and historical approaches can help show how these debates are reflected in the historical record.

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.