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?

The Complex Professionalization of Science

When I was doing research in Philadelphia recently, I was looking into the origins of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  More specifically, I was looking at its relationship with the American Philosophical Society.  The standard history states that the association started in 1848 and formed from the Association of American Geologists and Naturalists (founded around 1840).  Though I have seen some references in secondary literature to the American Philosophical Society as well, I decided to check there to see if there was any discussion of AAAS in the early records of the American Philosophical Society.  Interestingly, there was mention of it, and it seems that this little piece of evidence alone complicates the story of early professionalization of science in nineteenth century America.

The “rough minutes” of the American Philosophical Society meeting on Oct. 5, 1838 record that, “Dr. Horner [William E. Horner] read before the Society a letter addressed to him by Dr. John C. Warren of Boston dated 23 Sept. 1838 expressing his wish and that of a number of gentlemen of Boston for the formation of an American Association for the promotion of Science, and inviting the cooperation of the members of this society.”  I still need to look to find some other references to later discussions about the formation of such an association.  It is interesting, however, that these discussions seem to date from ten years before the official formation of the AAAS and two years before the formation of the Association of American Geologists  and Naturalists.  Moreover, these two men (Warren and Horner) are not geologists, but medical faculty.  Warren went on to found the New England Journal of Medicine and become the president of the American Medical Association (founded in 1847).  Horner was Dean of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School.

Thus, one small piece of evidence seems to suggest that “science” in 1838 at least was wider than just geologists, but include medicine.  Sometime between 1838 and 1847 these two strains of science split and form their own professional associations.  Additionally, for whatever reason, the American Philosophical Society seems not to involve itself in the actions of either of these groups.  I am interested in determining how this happened, and I think the answer may help to understand more fully the how science professionalized in the mid-nineteenth century.

Professionalization and Combining Methods

In an earlier post I discussed some topic modeling I did on the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS).  That research showed that post 1892 (about 11 years after the journal begins publishing in 1879), there appeared to be a significant increase in discussion of methodology, society business, and other topics not directly associated with chemistry experiments.  Though I thought this was an interesting finding, at the same time I thought that it was best not to make too much out of this result.

Why should I not treat the results of this topic model as significant?  Topic modeling is, after all, an abstraction of the data.  I had the full text of all material from  JACS, and I then asked a computer to find which words had a statistically significant probability of appearing next to each other.  After doing that, I then categorized the data into “unexpected” topics (or topics on methods, society business, etc.) and “expected” topics (chemistry experiments of various kinds).  So, in essence I was dealing with an abstraction of an abstraction.  Thus, it seemed best not to say that this was a significant result when in reality it could have just been an artifact of my categorization of topic models.

I am beginning to change my mind on my earlier instinct, however.  Why? Just recently, I completed some additional statistical tests.  Recently, I created an additional data set comprising a sample of words from these topic models.  It contained 74 words which I thought might best signify discussion of “unexpected”/non chemistry topics.  I included words such as president, committee, election which would likely only show up in discussions of society business.  I also a few words like method which admittedly could appear both in chemistry articles and in articles about methodology of chemistry.  I then created a word frequency list for all of these words and subdivided them into two groups.  One group contained the 11 years prior to 1892 (from the journal’s beginning in 1879).  The other group contained the 11 years from 1892 to 1903.  My hope was to see if there was any kind of significant difference in these word frequencies right around the year (1892) my earlier graph showed that “unexpected topics were increasing.

Using SPSS, I compared these two groups using a dependent t-test.  My t-critical value (the number that determines whether the test was statistically significant) was 1.6.  My t-calculated (the number that measures whether the means of the two groups are statistically different from each other) was 7.6 with an effect size (measure of magnitude between two means) of 0.89.  Therefore I can say that there is actually quite a significant difference between the word frequencies of these two groups.  Word frequencies for words about society business and methods increase significantly post 1892.

What does all of this statistical work really do for me?  First, I think that these statistical tests show that the topic models (and my categorizations) actually did show that something important was happening in the journal.  Indeed it seems that the journal is publishing more about methods and society business after 1892.  Furthermore, I think that combining methods like topic modeling and statistical methods can prove quite useful.  Nonetheless, I think that traditional humanistic methods can also be important.  My next step will be to go back to the articles where these words appear and see what they are talking about.  So, these other computational and quantitative methods helped me to discover a pattern in the journals that otherwise I would likely never have noticed.  I look forward to seeing where this research goes.

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.

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.

Are Journals Necessary for Scholarly Communication?

In short no, at least not in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and, perhaps not even for the twenty-first.  Scholarly communication is a system that according to Marcel LaFollette formed between around 1880 and 1940 (in “Crafting a communications infrastructure:  Scientific and technical publishing in the United States.”  In Radway, J., & Kaestle, K. (Eds.), A History of the Book in America:  Print in Motion:  The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880 – 1940, 2009).  It was not inevitable that such a system be centered around journals, however.  At least based on my current (and admittedly preliminary) thinking, journals were a mechanism organically developed between universities and scholarly societies for the purpose of mutual accreditation.  If I’m correct, then perhaps it is simply time to create a new mechanism that facilitates such accreditation.

In Andrew Abbott’s “The Order of Professionalization” in Work and Occupations (1991), he states that “journals appear relatively early in the rise of professional interest in knowledge, whereas enduring organizations appear relatively later in the rise of professional interest in association” (p. 359).  Therefore it is not the journal itself that helps to perpetuate the rise of professional knowledge, rather it is the organization.  In another one of Abbott’s articles, “Linked Ecologies” (Sociological Theory, 2005) he discusses how professions and related organizations (such as governments and universities) develop “hinge” mechanisms whereby the two institutions (or ecologies to use his term) become associated.  Such hinge mechanisms provide mutual benefit for both organizations.  Furthermore in Abbott’s Chaos of Disciplines (2001) and System of Professions (1988), he discusses how scholarly associations and universities formed a kind of mutual dependency that might very well allow for such a hinge mechanism to develop.

Certainly in my work so far, the journal at least was relatively well developed by the late nineteenth century, though as Abbott states the journal in and of itself may not have been so important.  What rather seems to be important is when universities decided that journals and publication were a good way to determine that professors were eligible for things like tenure and promotion, and, conversely, for professional associations to perpetuate themselves by creating an accreditation system through university degrees and standards for professional posts within academic departments.  If I am correct in my initial thinking the journal publication system became the very kind of hinge mechanism that Abbott discusses.

What does this have to do with scholarly communication?  For years we seem to have been talking about ways of replicating the current journal system in some form.  Admittedly we are now talking about electronic versions of articles, and quantitative measures of assessing the content of such journals (through numbers like impact factors), but nonetheless we are still trying to re-create in electronic form a hinge mechanism that was developed over 50 years ago.  Given the current realities of universities and scholarly associations do we actually want to be replicating an accreditation structure from 1940?  Alternatively should we develop a new hinge mechanism that helps to solve current problems?  In Chaos of Disciplines even Abbott seems to suggest a change in career structures for academics would be beneficial (p. 149).  If history is any indication, such a change needs to be done in collaboration with professional scholarly societies.  Maybe universities and societies need to create a new hinge mechanism, one that does not include journals.

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.