A Tale of Two Chemists: Academic Journals and the Technology of Science Communication

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I’m excited to participate in the next Society for the History of Authorship Reading and Publishing (SHARP) 2017 conference June 9 – 12 in Victoria, Canada.

The abstract for the talk is in the next paragraph, and the above picture shows the two chemists discussed:  Theophilus A. Wylie (left) and J. Lawrence Smith (right). I’ve included more information about the image sources at the end of this post.

Abstract Proposal:

Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media suggested that “the medium is the message” meaning that scholars should focus on the way in which a message is communicated rather than the content of the message itself. Today, scientists have a variety of media in which they can spread their work through television, blogs or newspapers, but, the primary medium for communication amongst themselves and for professional advancement and reputation is the scholarly journal.  In the United States, that medium was being developed in the late nineteenth century.  Yet, even as it was being created, scientists at the time used it very differently, if at all.  The question is why did scientists choose (or not choose) particular technologies of print?

A case study of two scientists both in the same field, but with incredibly different views, may help to understand that question. J. Lawrence Smith (1818-1883) a chemist, professor at the University of Louisville, and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science published nearly one hundred and fifty articles in the scholarly journals of his day.   On the other hand, Theophilus A. Wylie (1810-1895), also a chemist, professor of natural philosophy, and three-time interim president of Indiana University, had very different views about how to communicate science and published only one book, around six scientific articles, and a few newspaper stories in his lifetime.

J. Lawrence Smith chose to publish in the scientific journals of his time because he believed that the chemical research was needed to advance industrial manufacturing and that publication of results in scientific periodicals would lead to patents and marketable products. Wylie on the other hand believed that the purpose of communicating scholarship was not to advance industry but rather to teach the general public about the connections between scientific methods along with philosophical and religious principles. Smith used the medium of publishing in scientific periodicals frequently, likely with the hope that his work could be utilized by a growing chemical industry.  Wylie, however, spent much of his time teaching his students, and publishing in more generalized media (like newspapers) probably with the hope of educating the general public about science and philosophy.

Thus, for these two men, the medium (specialized scientific journals and generalized periodicals) was indeed the message.  Their use of these media is equally as relevant in today’s changing scholarly publishing environment.  Modern scholars are often required to create a greater impact.  Should impact be measured in terms of patentable products (in ways that Smith emphasized), or should it be measured by popular interest (in ways that Wylie might support)?  Depending on the answer to that question, scholars will be required to use very different media to circulate their message.  Understanding the debates and philosophical views of these scientists who were also attempting to navigate a new publishing landscape in the 19th century may help to focus current debates on how scholars should communicate their research in the 21st century context.

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

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