A (Brief) History of Scholarly Communication

The historical issues that universities faced and continue to face with regards to scholarly communication, specialized disciplines, journal publishing, and higher education bureaucracy, are a part of a long narrative going back perhaps as far back as the 17th century when the scientific revolution first began to create organizations such as the Royal Society of London.   Most certainly these issues date to the late nineteenth century in the United States.  At a time when research universities were still in their infancy, when scientific journals served as a source of news in addition to research, and at a time when professional disciplinary societies were just beginning to define themselves, the scholarly communication system first began to take shape, and continues to evolve even now.  Scholarly communication is a product of three distinct histories:  a history of professionalization, a history of journals, and a history of U.S. higher education.  Though there has already been extensive research on all of these areas, if one is to really understand the complete history of scholarly communication, it is necessary to understand how all three of these areas of scholarship interrelate.

The Royal Society of London is often credited as the first scientific society in the English speaking world.  Though certainly it played a significant role in the history of science, the true history of professionalization begins much later in the nineteenth century, at least in the United States.  There have been many strands of scholarship that have endeavored to better understand the ways that professional societies have impacted society, particularly in science.  Sociologists of Science like Robert Merton have used methods to better understand the structure of scientific research, many of which are still used today.  Additionally, other historical sociologists like Andrew Abbott have looked at ways in which professions, more broadly than just science, have developed.  Historians of science have also long been interested in the ways organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or the American Chemical Society were created, and how these organizations formed because of larger social trends in early America.

In the same way that the Royal Society is often recognized as the first scholarly society, its journal the Philosophical Transactions often takes a prominent place as the first scientific journal.  There is some credibility to this claim, yet historians of science have long studied the ways in which important factors shaped the Philosophical Transactions and the scientific journals that followed it.  In particular historians seem to agree that two issues are paramount:  authority and sociability.  Authority is created by a variety of means.  In the seventeenth century, journals achieved authority through patronage or state institutions.  Journals also achieved authority through a second means of sociability.  Sociability refers both to the ways in which individual scientists interact but also to the ways in which scientists write.  Over the course of hundreds of years, scientists created a certain genre of writing that today is known as the research article, and that type of writing became the foundation of authority on which much of the system of scholarly communication rests.

At the same time that professions were developing and journals were growing out of new professional associations in the United States, so too were universities changing.  Just one of the many ways in which the higher education system changed was through the importation of aspects of the German system, where many American academics studied and obtained Ph.D. degrees.  More fundamentally, however, universities too were concerned with the issues of authority and sociability as well.  Unlike Germany, American universities obtained some authority from government sources, but, additionally, universities made themselves a part of an educational system that served some of the needs of a rapidly industrializing economy.  When universities made these changes, there came an inherent conflict between the need to teach new students skills in an environment that required ever more specialized skills, and, at the same time, a need for an increasing need of sub-disciplines to claim dominance and power within a fractured and increasingly bureaucratized university structure.

Why do all of these overlapping histories matter?  First, people form the foundation of all of these activities, and, the people who are most responsible are the scientists who both publish journal articles and govern the scientific enterprise.  Second, these people are acting within a system that has evolved over a long period of time and has a tradition of practicing in certain ways.  The question is how it might be possible to integrate all of these activities. One of the ways to accomplish the task of integrating these behaviors is to measure current human activities within the scholarly communication system, and it is very apparent that sociologists of science and knowledge have understood the ways in which scientists currently operate.  Eugene Garfield, founder of the Institute for Scientific Information citation index is but one example of the many sociologically trained scientists who has investigated scholarly communication, and has recognized the importance of the work of Robert K. Merton.  Though the work of both Merton and Garfield is valuable, it has also focused on a very particular method of measuring impact of scholarly work: citations within journal literature.

There is, however, another potential approach.  Merton and Garfield’s approach stresses the importance of prestige in academic publishing.  Yet, there are other motives including authority, sociability, and the many other factors that historians have investigated.  Historians already have a good understanding of the smaller pieces of a larger scholarly communication system (professions, journals, and universities).  Nevertheless, there needs to be a more holistic integration of these histories.  Human beings, like scientists, never operate in a vacuum, but rather act in accordance with a long tradition of behavior.  Only by understanding why such behaviors developed, and how they evolved, might it be possible to change the system to best meet current needs.  The history of journal publishing is only a piece of a much larger historical narrative, at least in the United States. Furthermore, the history of the journal has been driven by the decisions of many individuals and institutions over a period of over one hundred years.

 

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Untangling (American) Academic Publishing

I have recently been reading  Untangling Academic Publishing: A history of the relationship between commercial interests, academic prestige and the circulation of research, an excellent report which I highly recommend to anyone interested scholarly communication, and particularly those interested in looking at historical perspectives on the issues of scholarly publishing.  The report has also been covered by the press in the Guardian and Times Higher Education.  In a very eloquent way, Aileen Fyfe and her team have been able to distill four hundred years worth of academic publishing history in Britain into a clear call for new ways of thinking about scholarly communication.  I can only hope to achieve a fraction of what they have been able to do with my own work on the history of the American academic publishing system.

Largely, I agree with everything stated in this report.  I do, however, wonder how the situation in the US might differ from that in the UK, particularly in the pre-1940 period that I’ve studied more extensively.  In the 19th century, there are at least three key differences between the situation in the UK and the US.  First, the US had a much larger number of institutions of higher education than the UK, and in the late nineteenth century these colleges and universities ranged from small religious seminaries sponsored by a single denomination to large agricultural and mechanical universities sponsored by state governments.  Second, and perhaps more important, there was always a strong emphasis on “practical” knowledge of use to industry rather than the kind of gentlemanly prestige discussed in Untangling Academic Publishing report.  This is not to suggest that there was not some element of prestige capital in US academic publishing during the 19th century, far from it.  It does seem though that the culture of US scholarly publishing, even from the beginning emphasized industrial use, perhaps more than its European counterparts.  Third, and this may be similar to the context in the UK, there was a strong emphasis on “professional” academics as the main market for scholarship from the very beginnings of the academic publishing system.

In the Preface to the first issue of the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society (the rough equivalent of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society within the American colonies)published in 1769, it states that, “Knowledge is of little use when confined to mere speculation:  But when speculative truths are reduced to practice. . . are applied to the common purposes of life; and when by these agriculture is improved, trade enlarged, the arts of living made more easy and comfortable. . . .knowledge then becomes really useful.”  One could also find statements similar to this within the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.  Nonetheless, the emphasis on practicality seems to become more pronounced over time.  In 1818, the preface of the first issue  of Benjamin Silliman’s American Journal of Science (the major scientific journal in the U.S. during much of the 19th century) said that it would focus on certain scientific areas because, “the applications of these sciences are obviously as numerous as physical arts and physical wants; for one of these arts or wants can be named which is not connected with them.”

Moreover, some of the earliest professional associations were strongly tied to industry.  The American Chemical Society, though unique in some respects, was one of the first professional scientific societies to form in the United States in 1876, and many of the early leaders of science within the US were part of the chemical industry.  I have mentioned the work of Andrew Abbott before and his emphasis on the ties between industry and academe, particularly in his book The Chaos of Disciplines.  This linkage between practical knowledge within scientific journals and the industrial emphasis of many of the early professional associations seems to make the situation different from that of the UK where the previous history of “gentlemanly” pursuits was not as strong (though still present in some ways), but professional identifications were arguably very strong.

Why is this focus on industry important? Marcel LaFollette in “Crafting a communications infrastructure:  Scientific and technical publishing in the United States.” in A History of the Book in America:  Print in Motion:  The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880 – 1940 traces the business of scholarly publishing in the US during the late 19th and early twentieth centuries.  LaFollette suggests that the market for academic publishing in the US was unique  because the consumers and the producers were the same people. This phenomenon created an insularity that encouraged research communities to believe that they owned their content when in fact they did not.  For scholars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century U.S., universal access to knowledge meant only that professional scientists who served as both producers and consumers of content were able to read the scholarship within their fields.

Thus in the United States context these three characteristics (different configuration of universities, focus on “practical” and industrial knowledge, and focus on academic publishing as part of a profession also tied to industry), somewhat differentiate the US from the UK.  In particular, I am interested in whether the emphasis on “practical”/industrial knowledge does or does not separate the two academic cultures.  Does “open access” , at least in the US historical context, not really mean universal access to knowledge by all citizens, but rather access by professionals who are meeting industrial needs?  If so, then this characteristic has, I think, profound implications for scholarly communication.  It would mean that the ideal of university research was always (at least practically) secondary to the needs of industry.  Thus, the present situation of scholarship being itself a commodity seems a logical continuation of previous trends.  Does this differentiate U.S. science from the U.K.?  More importantly, how should the current U.S. scholarly communication system evolve to meet future needs?

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)