Open Access Alchemy


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,