Philosophical Transactions

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Lately I’ve been working on a kind of pre-history of scholarly communication in the United States by looking at what is often referred to as one of the first scholarly journals in the world, the Philosophical Transactions of the the Royal Society of London (the Journal des Sçavans being the other).  Though the story is often repeated that the Philosophical Transactions became the first mode of scientific communication.  The story is actually a great deal more complicated.  Noah Moxham has suggested that the articles that later appeared within the Philosophical Transactions were actually a combination of two kinds of content, correspondence that provided news from around Europe and registration of discoveries noted within the public register of the Royal Society. It also seems that there other factors that also contributed to the Philosophical Transactions becoming such a major broker for research communication.  The evolution of the Philosophical Transactions from a newsletter of correspondents around Europe and facilitated by a single editor (Henry Oldenburg) to a register of knowledge claims from around Europe was also result of the confluence of both construction of authority and a particular social context within England.  All of these factors allowed for the creation of a new genre of material that appeared in Philosophical Transactions, which eventually became the genesis of what we might now recognize as the research article.

Authority in the case of the Royal Society was a combination of governmental power, driven by a social need for gentlemen to achieve patronage within England and also a governmental infrastructure that imposed a kind of self-censorship and avoidance of controversy through a system of licensing presses.  Such a system encouraged a particular authority, that of the editor, to serve as a kind of middle-man who channeled the authority of the prince and the society toward individual authors from whom, in a way, the editor himself derived authority because the more scientific practitioners the editor knew, the more valuable his expertise as a source of information.

In the case of the Royal Society, the editor, Henry Oldenburg, was well-positioned with other scientists throughout Europe, but at the same time he existed in a social context that was different from Europe.  He lived among people who valued modesty and had to seek a wide array of potential patrons in order to sustain themselves.  Such social norms led to particular institutional realities within the Royal Society such as mutual witnessing of experiments (which was not particularly unique to England), and, more importantly, a distributor of credibility within England and over time, even outside of it.

The Royal Society’s position as a purveyor of credibility allowed Oldenburg to distribute that authority to his network of correspondents.  It also allowed experimenters within the society to distribute it more locally to those who registered their work in the meetings of the society.  As Noah Moxham has suggested, these two forces of publishing materials from a network of correspondents and registering  the credibility of experiments eventually combined with the already existing journal to create a system whereby individual authors would register their work by publishing it in the Philosophical Transactions.  This combination of various authorities, social contexts, and practical realities created an interesting combination of characteristics for articles within the Philosophical Transactions, and these characteristics would now be considered fundamental attributes of any research article in an academic publication.

Thus perhaps one can view the Philosophical Transactions not so much as a modern scholarly journal as much as a framework that helps to lead to certain defining characteristics of scientific writing within England.  This framework was created by a variety of social factors including the nature of authority and social norms among the writers of the Royal Society.  All of those social realities affected the creation of the genres within the Philosophical Transactions like the research article, and these social realities along with their links to the genres within the journal need to be better understood not only for modern scholarly communication, but for its origins in the seventeenth century as well.  Moreover, it is important to understand which of these norms came to America when journals like the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society and the American Journal of Science began to appear.

(Image from Wikimedia Commons https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/42/Philosophical_Transactions_Volume_1_frontispiece.jpg)

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American Journal of Science

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(Second Edition of the first volume of the journal, available at from Carnegie Mellon’s digital collection)

Prior to the professional scholarly journal system of today, there was only one major journal for American science,  the American Journal of Science which still exists today and is focused on geology.  In the nineteenth century, however, the journal focused on every scientific topic.  The table of contents for the issues of the first volume (pictured) includes:

  1. Mineralogy, Geology & Topography
  2. Botany
  3. Zoology
  4. Fossil Zoology
  5. Mathematics
  6. Miscellaneous
  7. Physics, Mechanics, & Chemistry
  8. Fine Arts
  9. Useful Arts
  10. Agriculture & Economics
  11. Intelligence

Each article is roughly two to three pages and each contains an “intelligence” section which seems to be general news.  This section continues into the twentieth century, when the journal was more focused on geology, but the intelligence section will talk about important findings of Physics & Chemistry, and other scientific areas.

The journal was founded by Benjamin Silliman and later edited by his son. There is a good overview of the foundation of the journal, and of course multiple references to it, but so far I have not been able to find any articles using a computational approach to analyzing its contents.  In particular, I think it would be a great candidate for the topic modelling and query sampling techniques I have used earlier.  I haven’t done much of this in the past (I intended to do so for the Journal of the American Chemical Society), but this journal may even be a good candidate for a network analysis since it would contain a large number of scientists in the United States and potentially would show the network as it was beginning to split into different disciplines.  Fortunately, there is also over 100 years of textual data available for this journal in the public domain, making it a potentially very rich source.  I am going to see if some initial tests may get some interesting results, and I’m looking forward to seeing whether this journal helps understand the professionalization of science and the origins of the scholarly communication system in even more interesting ways than the Journal of the American Chemical Society has done so far.

Scholarly Communication, Universities, and Industry

I have been working on an upcoming presentation comparing Theophilus Wylie and J. Lawrence Smith, based on some of the work I’ve mentioned in previous posts.  I thought it might be interesting to think more about the ways in which these two men, though both chemists, both university professors, and both working during the same period of time, seem to have such markedly different practices for disseminating their scholarship.  By understanding those practices more fully, I think we may be able to ask some new questions about the role of the university, what, if any, relationship it should have to industry, and, moreover, how the answers to those questions relate to the ways we should think about disseminating “knowledge.”

J. Lawrence Smith seems in his writing to be highly critical of education.  In addition to saying that teaching makes men “an educational drudge,” Smith goes on to say in the same speech that, “Our universities (or rather our so-called universities) are too numerous. . . It would be far better to have fewer scientific schools.”  In essence Smith is criticizing the fact that science is becoming taught in too many places, and science is being taught badly in his view.  Smith thinks it would be better to have a smaller number of schools that teach “pure science” (or what we might call basic, theoretical science) well.  There is a bit of a contradiction though, because even though Smith advocates for better scientific research, at the same time, he also suggests that science should be more practical and serve the needs of industry.  Smith goes on to become a researcher at the Louisville Gas Works later in his life and in his presidential address from 1873 (referenced multiple times in this blog now), Smith says, “Let us ever bear in mind that it is abstract scientific ideas which underlie in these modern days, all discoveries conducive to man’s progress” (italics Smith’s not mine).  In a way Smith clarifies what he means by that remark in another article in the American Chemist in 1874 where he says, “In our days a useful discovery is scarcely made or a happy application of one found out, before it is published, described in the scientific journals, or other technical periodicals. . . . From these multiplied and diverse efforts. . . arises an industry which has no sooner sprung into existence than it becomes important and prosperous.”  Thus science should help to create productive and useful industries.

Wylie on the other hand seems to repudiate much of what Smith seems to be advocating.  First, Wylie in early in his diary (1836, before he came to Indiana) admits to his talent for teaching, “Teaching comes quite natural to me.  I fear that it will be the trade into which I will eventually sink.”  Furthermore, in an undated talk “On Education” he criticizes those who advocate teaching for what he calls “practical arts” (of which one might perhaps include industry) and denigrates people who “are unable to go beyond first rudiments of knowledge, it is often time lost in endeavoring to develop powers of the mind which nature has not given them.  For them something preeminently practical, which a machine might do – which can be done with the hands and without the brains is certainly best.  It is nearly the same too with respect to those whose sole object is to make money.”

Thus it seems that at least on the surface of things these too men vehemently disagree.  Yet, the story may also be more complicated than it first appears.  Wylie and Smith met when  J. Lawrence Smith gave an address at Indiana University on the opening of the new science building. According to Wylie’s diary for July 15 of 1874, Smith’s talk was “both good and appropriate.”  Though we do not know exactly what Smith talked about, Wylie seems to approve of it.  This is also especially interesting considering that one year earlier Smith had said that there were too many scientific schools, and then he later opens one of them at Indiana University.

In all, I think that this seeming contradiction, has to do with the two men’s views on the role of higher education in American society, and, hence, how scholarship should be disseminated.  I think that both men agree on the importance of “pure science” in the curriculum.  I think that they would also agree that students should be taught not simply in order to create products, but to be able to do higher level thinking.  There are two areas on which I think they might disagree more vehemently.  The first is the role of what Smith in his 1873 address calls “philosophizing” which he thinks is a role unsuited to scientists.  Wylie on the other hand devotes entire sermons to the intersections of science and religion.  The second is the role of teaching.  Wylie obviously sees his primary role as a teacher; Smith does not.  As a result of these differing philosophical views, Smith publishes many articles, and Wylie tries to pass his knowledge on to students through his lectures and speeches.  Even today, universities still deal with the relation (or lack of it) between teaching and research.  I think that another way to look at that question would be to say what is the purpose of scholarly communication?  Does it include teaching? Under current definitions the answer would definitely be no.  According to Smith that would be a correct answer.  According to Wylie it would be the incorrect answer.  It may be time to investigate which one of them was actually right.

Scholarly Communication as a Historical Process

Scholarly communication is a relatively recent field of study that Christine Borgman  has suggested goes back to the 1960s and 70s, but really only became prominent with the advent of new information technology in the 1990s and early 2000s.  Borgman defines scholarly communication as “the study of how scholars in any field (e.g. physical, biological, social, and behavioural sciences, humanities, technology) use and disseminate information through formal and informal channels” (p. 414). and goes on to say that “essential elements such as the scholarly journal article are remarkably stable and print publication continues unabated, despite the proliferation of digital media” (p. 413). Furthermore, Borgman identifies two research areas within scholarly communication.  First, there is the study of the structures of scholarly communication that can be revealed by scientometric and bibliometric analyses.  Second is the process of scholarly communication which encompasses how and why scholars publish.  Much of the literature on scholarly communication has focused on what Borgman defines as structure.

Such scholarship has suggested that “individual imperatives for career self-interest, advancing the field, and receiving credit are often more powerful motivators in publishing decisions than the technological affordances of new media.”  These conclusions rest on a particular line of thinking advocated by researchers such as Eugene Garfield, the founder of the Institute for Scientific Information citation index who has stated that “Those of us who have worked in the field of scientometrics and its antecedent bibliometrics almost universally recognize the debt we owe to Robert K. Merton” (p. 54).  Merton focused on the importance of status as a motivator for scholarly communication.   Garfield measured such status with a very particular method: citations within journal literature.  Other scholars, namely Scott Frickel and Neil Gross, when discussing the approach of Merton and others to measurement of status argue that “we find it difficult to believe that the quest for prestige and status is the sole motive shaping intellectual innovation” (p. 211).  In other words, there may be another way of investigating the ways in which what Borgman defines as the “process” by which scholarly communication forms and sustains itself.

My work, I think, focuses on the “process” of scholarly communication, or, how it developed in the ways that it did and why it did so.  In my view, history is the best way to answer such a question.  In the United States, the earliest journals were founded in the mid to late nineteenth century. Therefore, there are many sources that can help to understand the ways in which scholars institutionalized the communication of their research.  By looking at the careers and debates of scholars from the the mid to late nineteenth century, it may possible to determine the contours of their discussion about scholarly publishing before it developed into the modern system described by Borgman and Harley.  Moreover, these nineteenth century debates may help to think about how modern discussions regarding scholarly communication.  In fact, I think that this debate still continues today.  Steve Miller has stated that “we are entering a new age for public understanding of science,  it is important that citizens get used to scientists arguing out controversial facts, theories, and issues” (p. 119).  The question is, how can these historical debates help us to answer these modern questions.  I hope that by understanding the historical process of scholarly communication, I may be able to answer that question.

Open Access Alchemy

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One of my first posts when I launched this blog asked the question,  why don’t alchemists share?  Another scholar I mentioned in that post, Pamela Long, has discussed the issue of authorship and secrecy.  She has also written about the separation and mixing of two kinds of practice, artisinal (or for lack of a better analogy “applied” work) and academic (work performed at universities.  She argues that there were “trading zones” in which people moved between these two spheres with relative fluidity.  She also notes that in the modern age, such trading zones are less fluid because of current requirements (university degrees, licensure, etc.) to be considered a professional.  For the most part, Long is discussing the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but her arguments could apply equally well, I think, to the mid to late nineteenth century. That period was one where the professional “modern” requirements Long mentions were just beginning to form. The question is, where were the trading zones in a pre-professionalized, scientific community?

The political cartoon at the top of this post provides a potential answer.  It dates from 1887 and satirizes the presidential aspirations of James G. Blaine who had just lost the 1884 election. It depicts three newspaper moguls (Charles Anderson Dana, Joseph Pulitzer, and Whitelaw Reid) trying to make gold for Blaine’s future ambitions (he was expected to run again in 1888).  What does this have to do with scholarly communication?  The cartoon tacitly shows that the presidential campaign was not entirely in the hands of the politicians, but, in the hands of the publishers (newspaper owners) who formed public opinion on these issues.  Scholarly communication too is about the media and the places where scholars choose to discuss their research.

My post about the publication careers of Theophilus Wylie and J. Lawrence Smith is just one example of the ways these two men shaped their careers by choosing different kinds of publishers. I noted that Wylie seemed to choose a public audience (including popular newspapers), whereas Smith chose only (or at least primarily) an audience of other scientific practitioners.  What do these respective choices tell us about how these two men saw their roles as a professor and researcher, and whom did they see as their colleagues?  I am merely speculating at this point, but I would suspect that Wylie would have seen himself primarily as a teacher and in the same company as other teachers within the state of Indiana.  His papers seem to consist of many addresses on education that were prepared for other teachers, and Wylie also published in a teacher’s journal.  Smith, on the other hand, seemed to dislike teaching and wanted to pursue only research.  In fact at the end of his life, he left academe in order to pursue research within industry.

In the modern world, scholarship is increasingly dictated by the impact scholarship has.  That can be measured by metrics like impact factor, eigenfactor, altmetrics, or others.  Nonetheless, all of these impact metrics are useless if one first does not ask questions that professors like Wylie and Smith (at least implicitly) asked themselves. Who is your audience?  How do you want to affect their perceptions?  At the time when scholarship was professionalizing, these two men had very different answers to those questions.  More importantly, in the same ways that publishers (broadly construed) shaped the fates of politicians like Blaine, publishers also shaped the careers of people like Wylie and Smith.  Wylie published with newspapers and other largely public venues.  Smith published primarily in Silliman’s journal, controlled by a fellow academic.  Such publishers help to reach audiences and shape public perception in various ways.  No doubt they will continue to do so in the future.

To go back to my original question of why alchemists don’t share.  One might answer it simply by saying that they had no need to.  Alchemists were trained as practitioners in an “art form” by masters within the same field; those masters no doubt did share with others in their field in some informal ways.  Scientists on the other hand, felt a need to have a different kind of impact.  If Theophilus Wylie were alive today, I suspect he might have supported movements like science communication or history communication, both emphasizing discussing scholarship to non-experts.  Smith, rightly, might have argued against Wylie, saying that science should be subject to rigorous peer review, ensuring its quality.  Neither of these approaches is wrong, but the answer to modern scholarly communication is in a balance between the two.  Alchemy was not shared because it was communicated only to fellow practitioners; on the other hand alchemy was more practically based and of more use to members of the public (after all who doesn’t want more gold).  Science was communicated more publicly through journals in order to have a larger impact.  At the same time, science publishing became more closed as scientists began to talk more to each other and less to the general public and their language became more impenetrable.

The key to these contrasting viewpoints that people like Wylie and Smith might still have, is the same as it was in the nineteenth century: publishers.  Publishers helped to find audiences.  Publishers helped to craft the messages of sciences.  Publishers helped to make material more widely known.  Today, publishers need to help create the kind of “trading zone” that Pamela Long discusses in which applied practitioners and scholarly experts can meet freely.  In other words, perhaps we should find a way to facilitate open access alchemy.

(image from the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Distillations magazine, https://www.chemheritage.org/distillations/magazine/political-potions)

A Tale of Two Chemists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.