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,

A Tale of Two Chemists


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 and right, J. Lawrence Smith, image from

Purpose of (19th Century) Academic Publishing

I was looking a bit more on some of my work on Theophilus Wylie, and thought about a question related to scholarly communication.  Wylie lived in a time when (more or less) the only scholarly journal in the United States was the American Journal of Science better known at the time as “Silliman’s Journal” (Benjamin Silliman, Jr. being the editor at the time).  In the modern scholarly communication system, publishing in such a journal would be essential for continuing an appointment as a professor.  In Wylie’s day, however, that was not true.  What were Wylie’s practices for disseminating his scholarship?  They were obviously very different from today.  Also, in my view, knowing about previous methods of sharing scholarship may help modern scholars think in new ways about how scholarship should be shared.  Should modern scholars return to the earlier system used by Wylie?  Probably not, but in some ways Wylie represents a tradition where sharing of scholarship happened primarily through teaching to non-specialist audiences.  Such a practice might also benefit modern scholarship.

The first way of addressing the question of how Wylie disseminated his scholarship would be to look at his publications.  That is how a professor now would be judged, and by modern standards no doubt Wylie would never advance in his career.  He published just one book (a history of Indiana University) which was not until after his retirement from the university in 1891.  In 1860 he wrote a biography of his cousin Andrew Wylie, first president of Indiana University in the Indiana School Journal. In terms of scientific research in his field, Theophilus Wylie published one article in Silliman’s journal, on mastadon bones (which is really more of a report of what he saw rather than a scholarly article, even by 19th century standards).  If one wishes to count it as a publication, Wylie is mentioned by Prof. John Frazer in the Journal of the Franklin Institute, about the discovery of gold in Indiana (similar to his article in Silliman’s journal, this too  is more of a report than a scientific article).  In 1859, Theophilus Wylie published two items.  He wrote an article for a local newspaper, the Indianapolis Journal that, like his articles in Silliman’s Journal and the Journal of the Franklin Institute, was more of a report (this time on mining conditions in Indiana) and his baccalaureate addresses.  That brings Wylie a grand total of 6 publications, only one of which appeared in an academic journal, over a career of 49 years (1836-1885).

Such a list gives to simplistic a picture of Wylie’s activities at Indiana University, however.  Over the same period of time, Wylie gave a large number of public addresses and sermons (many of which survive in note form at the Indiana University Archives).  I have not counted them all, but needless to say they far outnumber Wylie’s print publications.  What conclusions might one draw from this disparity between public addresses and printed publications?  First, I think it is fair to say that Wylie put more emphasis on his preaching and teaching than on his publishing.  I think there is one key aspect to Wylie’s practices, though which goes beyond mere numbers of his printed publications and lectures.

If one looks at all of Wylie’s outputs (lectures and publications alike), I think there is one common denominator:  the audience for which they were intended.  Only two articles (Journal of the Franklin Institute and Silliman’s Journal) were intended for fellow scientists.  The rest were intended for various members of the general public.  Therefore, it seems to me at least that Wylie saw his purpose in sharing knowledge as a public duty, a not one that was meant to be shared only among fellow academics.  In this time where there is increasing debate about whether academic professionals should be engaged in the public sphere, perhaps it is worth thinking about the ways in which professors communicated their scholarship to the public prior to the creation of academic journals.  Might the career of people like Theophilus Wylie be an interesting window into that debate?  I think it certainly could.

Authority in Scholarly Communication

There are three words that are rarely used in the same sentence, but I think may need to be brought more closely together in future discussions about scholarly discourse: Diplomatics, scholarly communication, and digital curation.  Diplomatics was originally a method within archival science designed to establish authenticity in medieval legal documents (now of course expanded to electronic and other media).  Scholarly communication is of course about the ways in which academics disseminate their scholarship.  Digital curation as a field seeks to preserve and add value to content, particularly electronic resources, for future generations.  All of these fields share one characteristic – an interest in authority – that I think needs to be thought about in more depth.

Though authority is not always something discussed that overtly in much scholarly communication literature, is is an issue underlying many of those debates.  Who determines what articles are “valid” through the peer review system?  Who determines the peer reviewers?  How are those peer reviewers selected?  Are certain citations more valuable than others?  Why are certain journals more authoritative than others?  There is of course much scholarship devoted to some of these questions, but I think it is important to see how those questions are similar in many ways to similar questions posited within the field of digital curation.

Digital curation also seeks to understand better how to create “trustworthy” or to put that another way, authoritative digital repositories.  A digital curator might ask questions similar to those above about scholarly communication.  How can we determine what materials are more trustworthy than others?  Who determines and selects such materials for such a repository?  How is the authority of such selectors determined? Are certain repositories more authoritative than others?  Are certain methods of collecting more authoritative than others?

I discussed the concept of “organic information” previously, a concept that comes from the field of diplomatics.  I think this may be a useful framework to think about the concept of authority, particularly in the intersections of both scholarly communication and digital curation.  The theory of “organic information” that recognizes documents as an ever-changing material object that is dependent both on a physical (or in the case of electronic documents a virtual) form, but also is part of a dynamic social system that places different values on that object at different periods in history.  Additionally, the field of diplomatics has several criteria for evaluating authenticity within these contexts that can help to frame discussions of trust for any type of information that might be found within a digital repository.

Some scholars  define the fundamentals of diplomatics as a method of knowledge organization.  In the nineteenth century diplomatics established the principle of respect de fonds defined by Michel Duchein as “to group, without mixing them [documents] with others, the archives (documents of every kind) created by or coming from an administration, establishment, person, or corporate body.”  From this principle, other scholars have identified a differentiation between organic and non-organic information.  The former is defined as information gathered by an individual in the course of some practical activity; the latter refers to something that is contained in a bibliographic reference.  Respect de fonds, therefore, is about honoring the groups and individuals who have gathered certain documents together.  To put this another way, this principle is a method for studying how individuals create authority for certain documents and place those texts together in a kind of archive with other materials that might explain the collection of records as a whole.  In order to systematize this study, there are several methods diplomatistes (practitioners of diplomatics) utilize.

With the arrival of new kinds of documents and the recent explosion of information, scholars have been calling for an expansion of the field into these new areas. Francis Blouin tries to create a framework in which such developments could happen.  He identifies two sub-fields within diplomatics.  The first of these focuses on documents themselves.  This is the field practitioners most commonly associate with the word diplomatics, the study of an individual document (often a historical one like a medieval manuscript), and whether or not it is an original or a forgery.  Tied to that kind of study is a second, less well known, but equally important sub-field however that Blouin describes as “organizational context” or the connections between a particular document and the institution in which it was created and the people who created a document for a particular purpose.  He stresses that these two approaches are complementary and cannot be separated from one another.

Bruno Delmas identifies the purpose of diplomatics as a discipline that establishes authority within a particular document.  To do this, he identifies four characteristics: memory, evidence, understanding, and communication as essential elements of any document whether physical or electronic.  Delmas also distinguishes the methods of practice in which all diplomatists must engage.  These include the study of form (or what a document looks like and what its original purpose was), genesis (or the original context of a document), edition (whether a document was added to at a later time), and selection (how a document was chosen to represent a certain type of characteristic such as memory or evidence).  Olivier Guyotjeannin identifies the same basic methods as Delmas, though he describes them slightly differently.  He identifies form, tradition (similar to edition but including a concept of an author’s heritage and whether an author fits within a particular literary tradition), genesis, critique of false (the historical method of determining authenticity from previous scholarship and opinions), and chronology (study of dating of materials and how earlier dates translate into modern ones).  Guyotejeannin further argues (in ways similar to Blouin) that these methods ought to be applied to modern print and electronic materials.

How might diplomatics shape further discussions about authority in scholarly communication?  Fundamentally, all electronic documents, whether they are published through a scholarly journal or deposited in an online repository (and many documents go through both processes), are subject to these questions about authority.  Diplomatics, particularly the concept of “organic information,” I think provides an interesting framework to investigate these questions further.  Documents are a product of various social processes that shape them.  Using a historical and social analysis to determine authority might help reframe some of the ways we talk about establishing authority within the scholarly communication system.



History and Public Communication of Scholarship

Lately it seems that many articles have been coming through my news-feed about the failure of scholars to communicate their research to the public.  Some of these articles have even taken a historical viewpoint in order to propose solutions.  Still others propose communicating historical scholarship as a way to contextualize modern issues (like the 2016 election).  In all, this has led me to reflect a bit about my own work on the history of scholarly communication and why it is actually quite important in today’s world.  If one agrees with all of these articles, there is one common denominator:  the ways in which academics disseminate their research are ineffective, and need reform.  The question I ask myself is how might my work help to solve this problem?  Hopefully, by using history to investigate the scholarly communication system (such as it was) in the nineteenth century, it may be possible to think more about why it changed, and, more importantly, whether there may be ways for us to think about reforming it in the future.

So far I have been working on two, somewhat related, projects.  First, I have been looking at the ways in which the American Chemical Society (ACS) formed in the late nineteenth century.  For much of the work I have been doing on ACS, I have relied on Andrew Abbott’s work on professionalization. Additionally, I have been thinking about how scholars, particularly Theophilus Wylie, used information in the mid-late nineteenth century.  To some degree, these two topics seem to have little relation between each other.  On the other hand, I think that these two projects show different aspects of a system for communicating scholarship that was in transition.  Wylie represents an older system, before the modern scholarly communication system institutionalized and became dominated by journals, books, and other kinds of research outputs.  The American Chemical Society shows how that system began to change, even during Wylie’s lifetime.  Finally, Abbott’s work on professionalization shows the ways in which that system became institutionalized.  How do these three themes connect?  The story ends, obviously with the current scholarly communication system in which research (using Abbott and even early ACS presidents’ terms) becomes “pure” and untainted by the issues of applied science.

Such pure research is disseminated in journals that are reviewed and assessed by other specialist researchers.  Arguably, such research becomes less and less accessible by those without particular professional training.  Therefore, since it is difficult to assess scholarship across disparate fields,  if one wishes to assess the quality of such research by academic administrators, government accountability requirements, and other non-specialists with an interest in higher education, it becomes necessary to create metrics that can be applied across research (such as the impact factor, or alt-metrics).  Prior to this  contemporary system of research publication, however, there was a different way of communicating research, represented by professors like Theophilus Wylie.  Rather than disseminating his research through books and journals (though he did write one book, more on that later), Wylie spread knowledge through his teaching at Indiana University.  Even in his position as librarian, Wylie collected resources that would support his (and other faculty members at the university’s) teaching mission.

There is also another aspect to Wylie’s information use.  In his personal library (which was dominated by theology), Wylie focused on a kind of teaching mission.  I suspect that many of Wylie’s theological works helped to aid his other occupation as a Presbyterian minister.  Thus, in a way, his personal library was dedicated to another kind of teaching: preaching to his congregation (and to some degree even his students perhaps).  In his lifetime, Wylie did publish one book a history of Indiana University.  In my view, this work too was written not for an audience of other specialist historians (Wylie was not trained in history), but rather for alumni and others who might be interested in the history of Indiana University.  In any case, it seems that the majority of Wylie’s “scholarly communication” was not through journal articles, but in lectures either to his students or to his congregation.  In other words, Wylie focused on public communication to non-specialists, similar in some ways to what is being advocated in the articles I mentioned in the introduction to this post.

In some ways, it seems that we are going back to an earlier system in which scholarship needs to be communicated to non-specialists.  With current technologies, that goal can be achieved much more widely than Wylie or members of the ACS could ever have imagined.  The main problem it seems is to think about how a scholarly communication system focused more on public communication of scholarship can be measured and assessed.  Andrew Abbott’s theories discuss the idea of a hinge mechanism on which two social systems (like universities and scholarly societies, or universities and the government) rely. Currently the hinge mechanism which is predominant in academe is academic journals or books.  Perhaps that should change, and it should change in a way that privileges communication of scholarship to a different audience, one that is not comprised primarily of other academic specialists in a small and “pure” field.

Managing Big Data – Again

I was reading the recent Distillations magazine from the Chemical Heritage Foundation and saw an article on Information Overload.  It reminded me of the post I wrote a while ago on big data in the 19th century, along with multiple posts about the American Chemical Society and Libraries in the 19th century.  Sarah Everts, the author of the information overload article, rightly points out that having to manage vast amounts of data is not necessarily a new problem, as multiple other authors have pointed out.  She concludes by asking “how should we collect this metadata intelligently and in useful moderation when we don’t even know what research questions will be interesting to future generations of scientists?” and suggests that “modern data curators may wish to learn from the classical collectors: natural-history museums.”  She also discusses the importance of metadata in order to facilitate such management.

I wholeheartedly agree with all of Everts’ conclusions, but think that it is also important to look at two other organizations that are particularly relevant to scholarly communication: libraries and scholarly societies.  Both of these groups are also essential to managing information overload, and, I think, form a mutual dependency (similar in some ways to the mutual dependencies created by academic journals).  Additionally, I think that there is a social dimension to both libraries and scholarly societies (as well as to natural-history museums) that underlie much of what Everts is discussing.  Interestingly, in the case of libraries and scholars, there is a kind of divide between the two groups that provides an interesting twist on Everts’ argument.

So far in my own work I have been focusing largely on the history of “big data” in the nineteenth century, particularly as it relates to the American Chemical Society.  Other historians of science have looked more broadly at such issues, however.  For example, Alex Csiszar has argued that “The key point was not the increasing volume of papers coming into print” which is usually the argument one hears in modern discussions of information overload.  Rather, according to Csiszar, scientists in the nineteenth century attempted to replicate social organizations that were “safeguarding scientific value that had once been the putative territory of the societies and academies.”  I have found similar patterns in my work.  Certainly J. Lawrence Smith of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and later the American Chemical Society, argued that research should be “pure” and free from interference of the outside forces Csiszar discusses.

What does this have to do with libraries?  During the nineteenth century, libraries were also transitioning.  My somewhat ancillary study of Theophilus Wylie the first librarian at Indiana University demonstrates this fairly well.  Wylie argued for a library that reflected the educational curriculum of the university, and also represented a tradition in which academics, not professional librarians, managed collections.  Universities, however, were changing to meet the needs for professional education.  Libraries changed with universities, and increasingly focused on becoming complete collections of all published work.  Thus, there was a tension between the two organizations.  On the one hand scholarly societies were struggling to maintain a social order that differentiated “pure” research from the vast amount of unscientific periodical literature available.  Libraries on the other hand tried to collect everything and provide tools for their patrons to navigate this sea of information.

Therefore, at least in the late nineteenth century, there were two ways of creating order out of the chaos brought on by information overload.  First, there was the scholarly method of using social organization (and eventually peer review and the other mechanisms that came with it).  Second, there was a set of methods in libraries that relied on specialists and classification systems to help library users navigate the explosion of information available to them.  Cziszar hints at an important aspect dividing these two communities: authority.  Libraries and scholars derive their authority from different sources and from different philosophical viewpoints.  The question is, given the current explosion in “big data” and the correct assertion quoted by Everts that “Producing and saving a huge amount of data that nobody will reuse has doubtful value,” whether it is even possible to solve this crisis of authority for the problem of big data.

There may be an answer that is found within the discipline of information science.  Archival studies has a sub-discipline called diplomatics that endeavors to understand the authority of a particular document within a particular historical context.  Modern scholars in diplomatics have recognized a concept of what they call “organic information” which recognizes all information (print and electronic) as a kind of living organism where meaning and authority depend on social context.  Philosophers of science have also noticed the link between information and living organisms.  Natural history museums of the type that Everts discusses provide an interesting analogy to this concept of organic information since they, quite literally, collect examples of living organisms.  Therefore, in a way, Everts article has uncovered an interesting link that needs to be further explored.

The last sentence of Everts’ article on information overload says, “with its overabundance of information, managers and creators of big data may find their inspiration in the most analog of collections.”  I agree, but think there are some interesting twists on that line of argument.  In the case of nineteenth century academic information, a divide grew between libraries and scholarly societies that were attempting to manage the first explosion of “big data.”  This division between the groups arguably still exists today, and may contribute in part to the problems of scholarly communication. The way to resolve this division, however, goes beyond just the provision of good metadata in the ways Everts suggests.  Rather, it may have to rely on the creation of a new method for deriving authority over information that is continually in flux.  Diplomatics may provide one framework to help reconcile this division between libraries, scholars, and many other groups.  There is one clear lesson from history in this case, however.  Given the vast quantities of data that continue to be produced, an explosion that will only grow over time, this is a problem that we both as a society and as an enterprise for higher education cannot afford to get wrong the second time around.


Social Capital and Scholarly Communication

After reading an interesting article by Alex Cummings lately about information and its role in education, it made me think some more about several of the posts I’ve been writing lately, particularly my question of whether scholarly communication is itself a commodity.  My answer was that I did not think journal articles and other “scholarly outputs” should be treated as a commodity, but we should be looking at the social organization behind them.  Nonetheless, in some ways I ignored the question of what exactly is the commodity we should be thinking about for scholarly communication.  Despite my own misgivings about education being a commodity, clearly in this day and age we have to think about it in those terms.  We also need to think about the ways that our scholarly outputs (articles, books, and maybe even blog posts) fit into that larger system of commodification in higher education.

In some ways, this brings me back to some of my work on Theophilus Wylie and the American Chemical Society.  In those posts, I was thinking about how Wylie used information in the 19th century (as a tool for education), and what J. Lawarence Smith (President at the time of the American Association for the Advancement of Science) believed was the ideal scientific knowledge (theoretical and not applied research).  Cummings asks the question of what exactly is it that universities are selling.  Cummings notes a disconnect that “In frank moments, most faculty members at research universities would probably say their research is the most important aspect of their work. . . .In contrast, many students and parents probably assume that colleges are primarily institutions of learning, where people go to acquire knowledge and skills and (most crucially) credentials.”  I have been noticing some of the same disconnects in the nineteenth century.

Nor am I the only one to have seen this.  As I also discussed, Andrew Abbott has noticed some of the same trends.  Cummings in passing mentions that “social capital” is an important component.  Social capital is a complex term, but for now if we just define it as networks of contacts that a person is able to utilize in their work and daily lives, then maybe that is actually the commodity that is being bought and sold within universities.  For students this social capital comes in terms of powerful professors who can help get jobs within academe or with fellow students who will one day be in the professions in which they hope to work.

Regardless of the goal for students, what is of interest to me is how this works organizationally.  For scholarly communication in particular, we have been measuring the commodity as scholarly outputs, like journals.  If we think about social capital as the commodity, the question is how could it be measured or monetized.  I do not have the answer to that here, but I do think that it is important to understand the social organizations behind journals and universities more thoroughly before we can even begin to answer that question effectively.

Trust and Openness

Open dissemination of science is an important debate for scholars today.  Some open access advocates like Cory Doctorow have even made historical analogies claiming “The difference is between the alchemist and the scientist is that the alchemist never tells anyone else what she’s learned. . .  the scientist isn’t doing science until she tells everyone around her what she thinks she’s learned.”  In other words, scientists openly disclose their results in a public forum, like an academic journal.  Interestingly, the system of professionalization and institutionalization of scholarly journals happens in a very particular time period between about 1880 and 1940.  As debates continue about open access and what are the best ways to disseminate the results of science, it is increasingly important to understand why the current system formed in the ways that it did, and how it might continue to evolve in the future.

Steven Shapin has provided an interesting framework that might help to understand the ways in which this transition from an informal network of practitioners into a more professional system of academic scholars happened.  In a Social History of Truth, Shapin states “Seventeenth-century commentators felt secure in guaranteeing the truthfulness of narratives by pointing to the integrity of those who proffered them. . . . Trust is no longer bestowed on familiar individuals; it is accorded to institutions and abstract capacities thought to reside in certain institutions” (p. 411).   Christine Borgman in her work about the modern scholarly communication system seems to reaffirm Shapin’s argument, “As digital content becomes the primary form of scholarly discourse, the need for trust mechanisms will grow. . . .  Trust is an inherently social construct that varies widely by culture, context, and time” (p. 261).

I too hope to understand how trust develops within the context of one particular profession and set of journals between 1880 and 1940.  The American Chemical Society, one of the earliest professional academic societies, formed in 1876 and started the Journal of the American Chemical Society in 1879.  During this time period, the journal expanded rapidly and eventually created new journals.  How did trust form within these early communities, and, more importantly, how did scientists decide to publicly disclose some data and withhold other knowledge.  Pamela Long discusses the ways in which scientists in the ancient and early modern periods made decisions about what to disclose.  I hope to bring that story forward into a period where open disclosure became institutionalized through journals, and hopefully shed light on the future of how “publication” should continue on the open internet.

Political Economy of Scholarly Communication

The current political economy of scholarly communication is a complex ecosystem consisting of individual faculty members, learned societies, commercial publishers, non-profit publishers, academic administrators, funders, government agencies, and many others.   The current market of payments, incentives, and rewards is one that has developed over a period of at least 100 years.  One could argue that before thinking about new methods for creating a political economy of scholarly communication, it is essential that one understand why and how the current one formed.

There is already a long tradition studying the history of scholarly communication.  Fields such as Library and Information Science, Sociology of Science, and History of Science have been interested in the topic for many years.  Dennis Carrigan argues that the current system developed along with the idea of a research university (such as Johns Hopkins) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and as a result has demanded an ever increasing production of new knowledge (mostly in the forms of materials purchased by libraries).  John Budd in a study of more current problems in the scholarly communication system, further suggests that “a great amount of empirical work is required to examine the details of the systemic elements” and that the “the initial stage of addressing this matter should be raising the consciousness of academic administrators. . . . Little can be done without teleological change that embraces the entirety of the scholarly endeavor.” Fortunately, much of the empirical work (at least from a historical perspective) is already being done.  Scholars in the history of science such as Melinda Baldwin and Alex Cziszar have begun to research histories of journals and peer review, and scholars in the UK have been doing the same with new research on the history of the Royal Society.  Furthermore, sociologists like Joanne Gaudet have tried to bring together the sociological literature on scholarly communication with these historical perspectives.

It is important, however, as Budd points out, to use the findings of this research in “raising the consciousness of academic administrators.” Overall, it seems to me that a historical perspective is rarely brought into discussions of political economy, but with the momentum currently behind the study of the history of academic discourse, now is a perfect time to bring a historical perspective to bear on important current issues of scholarly communication.  A question remains, however.  What are the best ways of bringing this historical discourse to the administrators?  Is there a way of bridging the gap and breaking down the silos between the research on scholarly communication in sociology, information science, and the history of science and the library literature?  I think there must be  a way of accomplishing this.  More importantly the gap between these silos must be bridged if we are going to help achieve the kind of the “teleological change” Budd discusses.  Scholarly communication is a complex topic, there are many disciplines dealing with it in their own ways, and in order to achieve real, lasting, and sustainable change, it is essential that all of the scholarship on the evolution of scholarly communication be synthesized and communicated more effectively.

Is Scholarly Communication a Commodity?

The answer of course in the modern world is yes.  Therefore, the only question remaining is how that commodity (usually defined as journal articles or other “scholarly outputs” like books or data) should be measured.  This does not seem to be true for the earlier periods I have been discussing so far, however in the case of the American Chemical Society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and scholars like Andrew Abbott seem even to go so far as to say at points that journals are a kind of ancillary byproduct of an organizational system.  So the question for me is how this idea of scholarly communication became a commodity, and, perhaps more importantly, should we think about it in a different way?

From my initial research, it seems like many of the scholars talking about modern scholarly communication are drawing on the work of Robert Merton or Thomas Kuhn.  Kuhn of course talks generally about how “scientific revolutions” happen over time in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and Merton’s work spans a variety of areas, but for the purposes of scholarly communication, his work on the sociology of science and in particular his discussions on how individual scientists achieve status and credit seem to be of particular importance.   Scholars like Abbott on the other hand seem to be less interested in individual scientists and how they attain credit for their ideas and more interested in how movements and organizations sustain themselves and replicate themselves over time.  It seems to me like this has created two strains of research on scholarly communication.  The first is based on the work of Merton and the second on scholars like Abbott.  It also seems, at least in current debates about scholarly communication, that Merton’s conceptions of credit and status tend to dominate.  Should the contours of this discussion change?  I think it should.

Scholarly communication, I think is not just about the commodity of scholarship, it is about how scholars determine the ways to advance research.  I am still working out for myself how they did that in the early twentieth century and when exactly journals came to become dominant.  My suspicion, however, is that there is another way of thinking how scholarship perpetuates and replicates itself organizationally in the ways that Abbott discusses. I also suspect that there may be alternative methods to move scholarship forward that might not require a commodity of a scholarly output like a journal article.

I hope that by working on this historical evolution of scholarly communication, it may become clearer that the current discussion of how we evaluate scholars was very complex.  I also hope that we can think about alternative paths.  Compared to other historical systems, modern scholarly communication is relatively young (only solidifying in the mid-twentieth century).  It may not be too late to change direction, perhaps in more useful ways.