Scholarly Communications in the Sciences
Ask many editors and scientists and science librarians about how scientific publication has changed in the last decade, and you will likely hear a cacophony of voices:
In short, you will hear a wide variety of responses to the fact that many well established textual practices and policies have been re-opened for negotiation (see Cronin, 2005, for an overview).
If you then ask about the major events and figures in these renegotiations, you will likely be pointed to the early establishment of the physics archive, or ArXive, at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (and later moved to Cornell) as an exemplary preprint database. You may hear about various universities' actions against journal publishers such as Elsevier over their pricing policies, as well as the 34,000-scientist strong boycott that the Public Library of Science (PLOS) sponsored against (particularly) the Nature family of journals in 2000-2001. You will surely hear of Stevan Harnad's Scholarly Skywriting, as he challenges notions of intellectual property, and of John Willinsky's Public Knowledge Project and Access Principle, as he develops models for open peer review and increased availability of article archives. You will be directed to the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) and to PubMed Central. You may be directed to the Nature online forums, which assist and perhaps (depending on your informant's point of view) co-opt the debates over scientific publication policies. In short, you will learn much about the radical remediation (Bolter & Grusin, 1999) of traditional print in the sciences, especially the remediation of the traditional scientific article.
What will initially be less obvious, although definitely present and on the rise, are conversations about the place and status of scientific materials that may or may not have precursors. For example, consider the following:
Harkening back to the sponsored expeditions that encouraged ships' captains and explorers to fill a nation's natural museums, herbariums, and laboratories with artifacts, artistically preserved specimens, and mineral samples, these new electronic resources likewise serve as collective repositories for scientific disciplines. Because these repositories are typically web-based rather than limited to a single locale that researchers must visit or request samples from, they blend characteristics of scientific collections with those of scientific publications. They represent information in rich ways; they can be peer-reviewed; they can be available openly or by subscription; and, importantly, they can be accessed by the same audiences that are also accessing the electronic versions of scientific articles.
Users of these new electronic resources, then, have begun to raise questions about how they might be equivalent to or even surpass journal articles. Might a sophisticated entry within a modeling database—for example, of the ocean's currents—equal a journal article for promotion and tenure purposes? Alternatively, rather than competing with journal articles, how might these new resources best complement them? At the same time print journals are being remediated, then, new digital repositories and tools are evolving that represent a clear shift in scientific memory practices (to use Bowker's term, 2006). However, the status of these new resources is uncertain.
Shifting to Distributed Publication Systems
This uncertainty about the status of new resources has opened a Pandora's box in many disciplines, as a once relatively stable and dominant medium for making and proving scientific claims—the traditional print journal article—no longer is privileged as the medium for scientific argument. By "medium," it is helpful to keep in mind Bolter & Grusin's (1999) definition: "The formal, social, and material network of practices that generates a logic by which additional instances are repeated or remediated, such as photography, film, or television" (p. 273). In such a "formal, social, and material network of practices," if one of the three aspects changes, so must the other two. Moreover, the relationship between an older medium and a newer one is a fluid, two-way exchange, as practices associated with one medium are taken up by the other.
The material means of scientific publication have shifted, and this shift has challenged the formal and social practices that Latour (1999) points to as maintaining the credibility of scientific information. One immediate reaction has been the move to preserve traditional values despite the shift in materials, as in the various proposed schemes to re-establish respected, traditional peer review systems for online repositories.
Yet, at the same time, many scientific disciplines have also begun to develop new ways of publishing (Bowker, 2006), including what I call distributed publication systems. In a distributed system, the information necessary to support a specific claim may be scattered among different resources. For example, a distributed system might include an official print journal, plus an online version, plus a preprint archive, plus a blog, plus a centralized modeling or image database. Writers and readers may be expected to open and move among these various tools as they work with "a" text. A chemical engineer, for instance, may have a journal article open in one browser window and a 3-dimensional model open in another. The text you are currently reading illustrates a simple, explicit version of a distributed system: the use of hyperlinks throughout. Yet the use of a distributed publication system may be much more implicit, simply an expected literate practice within a field: "of course" one would work with the various resources simultaneously. However, how do members within that field normalize such practices?
To make these distributed publication systems feasible, scientists have been heavily engaged in socializing new and established members of their fields into the forms and practices of these new systems. You can see some of this work in, for example, the Nature online forums and the journal Science, where members of various scientific fields regularly and explicitly debate formal writing practices, such as the citation formats for individual database entries. Less obvious, but crucial, are the social encounters that construct what will count as an acceptable scientific argument.
To begin to understand how material, formal, and social practices are co-constructed, let us turn now to an interview conducted while one of the many publishing boycotts was underway, and the policies for the flagship journal of a field in molecular science were in question.
Remediating a Journal: View One
Barry (pseudonym) was a senior member of the flagship journal's editorial board and was heavily invested in helping his colleagues shift from the print version to a digitized version of the journal. To a large extent, he and his fellow editors first imagined the remediation as a simple task of posting PDF files of the print copy's articles online. No problem, they thought. The PDF files were exact replicas of the print journal, only more convenient. Yet they soon discovered that the changes were more profound. In this first excerpt, Barry is holding a traditional print copy of his journal in his hands and is looking at the table of contents as he talks about how the journal now presents methods papers:
Barry: [Our journal] used to publish short methods papers. We have now made those electronic only. And, often, as an executive editor, I find I have to convince people that that's going to be a legitimate publication, but now it is. [...] They [the methods papers] get listed in the table of contents [in the traditional print journal] but they're only available online. [pause 4 secs] So all these articles, and there are, what? 15 to 25, there are 11 of them there, I guess. 10 or 11. Are-, Can only be found by going to the website. But all of these primary articles— So, these we call— We had a long semantic discussion of what we should call them. First they were called 'regular papers,' then, well, what's the implication? Then the methods papers are 'irregular papers.' So, these came to be called, um, 'standard,' or— Is it 'standard' or 'full'? I can't remember what we settled on.
The remediation here is seen in the way the new medium, the digital version of the journal, takes up the methods papers that were once published by the print journal, as well as in the way the older medium offers what might be seen as pseudo-hyperlinks by listing the papers in the (print) table of contents. More important are the implications and practices that Barry articulates. The digital and print journals are being used to define what is valued in his discipline. The digital version of the journal is capable of presenting more (albeit less important) methods papers because of its more expansive, and less expensive, space. In other words, digital media may preserve some of the discipline's narratives that might otherwise be lost. However, the digital journal does not quite provide the same stamp of approval that the traditional print journal has established. In fact, the digital journal also publishes all of the articles that Barry calls "primary," "regular," "standard," or "full," but all of these digital articles are (now) still backed by the authority and legitimacy of traditional print. To fully situate an argument in Barry's context, then, one must know how these two disciplinary artifacts interact, and how knowledge is being dispersed and constructed between them.
Remediating a Journal: View Two
Again, paying attention to the redistribution of information is crucial because the remediation of disciplinary artifacts occurs not only with texts, but also with other scientific instruments and tools. In the conversation just before this next excerpt, Barry and I had been talking about the use of images in articles, and I asked Barry whether a database of images of protein molecules would be a useful resource for his journal. Barry's response shows that my question inadvertently limited the potential of digital media and his expectations for them:
Barry: Well, you don't, you don't really need [static photographs or images stored in a database] because a database exists that has the coordinates for all of these molecules, the, uh, geometric position of each of the atoms at the protein database, so you can— Any investigator can go pull up these coordinates, which are deposited, and they can manipulate them in any way they want, they can make any kind of figure they want. And so, if we want to do comparisons to other proteins, evolutionarily related to this, we can go to the database, pull up the ones that exist, and we can do the comparisons ourselves.
In other words, specialized software allows each scientist to create a three-dimensional representation of the protein on his or her own computer screen, a representation that can be viewed from different angles or highlighted in different colors. Barry would later assert that all readers of his journal would own and would be able to run this software on their personal computers. Again, an article does not stand alone but has another disciplinary artifact aligned with it—a database of deposited coordinates that provides crucial information about the protein. That interactive, collectively constructed, and thus approved database immediately allows each scientist to work with the article's evidence and to fit it into what he or she already knows or intends to find out. Once again, note that information is being distributed across different artifacts and that these artifacts variously align with and authorize each other.
Remediating a Journal: View Three
A distributed publication system may be common, but it is complicated, for it requires both people and numerous artifacts to align with, reflect, and actively co-construct perceived disciplinary values. As demonstrated by the third excerpt from Barry's interview, this system requires a substantial effort to maintain. Responding to a question about whether he could predict what his peers would conduct research on next, Barry began to reminisce about what he perceived as his disciplinary community, and he volunteered an anecdote about peer pressure. His comments highlight the co-construction of professional identities and disciplinary artifacts:
Barry: One of the leaders in this [community building] is [...] a Nobel Laureate, [...] We recently had an instance where an investigator was following the established rules of the journal by not releasing the coordinates of his enzyme.
Karen: That was what I was wondering.
Barry: But that was not the norm of our behavior. So, I expressed my disappointment to this person. I'm, I'm a lowly professor, but when a Nobel Laureate like [person's name] writes a letter, and says, "Say, X, what the hell's going on here? This is not the way we behave." And a letter came back, and said, "Well, this is what the journal says, and this is what [several unintelligible words] " The letter went back again, another email, that said, "Well, you're not—, You're a member of a special group. And we don't behave that way. When are you going to release these coordinates?" And they were released within a week, put on the web, and that took 3 or 4 emails, back and forth. I don't think there was any hard feelings about it, and it changed the behavior of this person through peer pressure.
Karen: Did it change the journal's?
Barry: [not hearing me] The journal?
Barry: Yes. Because we went through the journal as well. And the journal announced that, three weeks later, that their policy was now that, "In order to be called a publication, you have to have deposited your coordinates and make them available." The databases have a policy that they will accept the coordinates, but, if you say it, they won't release them for a year. And, uh, that's, many people are arguing that it's not a publication until all the data's available to everyone.
This excerpt illustrates several areas for negotiation that the remediation of the journal and tools has motivated. First, Barry reports on the negotiated co-construction of communal values, as he names the representatives and social interactions that for him define his discipline and its primary characteristic: We all share. To enforce this value when challenged, he aligned himself with a friend, the Nobel Laureate, and the cachet that position could bring. And, of course, despite the modesty topos of "I'm a lowly professor," Barry is actually a full professor and a well known researcher in his field. In his role as a senior editorial board member, he shapes key disciplinary artifacts, the digital and traditional print versions of the flagship journal.
Second, Barry reports that he realized that the journal's stated policies did not reflect either his disciplinary norm of sharing or the importance of the associated disciplinary artifact, the molecular coordinate database. Partly at his instigation, the journal's editorial board revised the policy to emphasize that a journal article contains only partial information and is incomplete without an accompanying database entry.
Finally, Barry demonstrates how peer pressure can mold personal identity to conform to disciplinary norms. To be 'one of us,' the contributor could not horde even part of the information. In this case, Barry implies, the information may have been considered proprietary knowledge. In other words, a company or agency may have funded the research and wanted to exploit the information for profit. The contributor was then faced with the choice of being a company man or of being seen as a fellow scientist by this powerful group. Most emphatically, the article eventually published in the journal did not simply present his research, but signaled and was authorized by his overt alignment with the values that Barry articulates.
Barry's account contains far more than can be categorized within the classical map of invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery, and far more than can be captured in the classical dyadic scenario of a well-versed rhetor addressing a known audience. In particular, it highlights three elements of the rhetorical scene that our proposed remapping of rhetorical activity makes visible.
First, instead of focusing on the experience of the author/rhetor of the scientific article, this reading focuses on an editorial board member. Barry actively shapes the artifacts of his disciplinary community, and even though he has only partial control over the publication apparatus of his discipline, his ideologies and activities must be understood if we are to understand which scientific arguments will be allowed by and within this community.
Second, as an extension of the first point, this reading focuses on how audiences are created. Instead of foregrounding the role of the rhetor as someone trained in audience analysis and skilled at eliciting desired responses from audiences, this reading resituates the author/rhetor of the scientific article within a much larger, dynamic network in which he is represented as making an error. His "error" serves as a catalyst for a diverse cast of agents in the network, Barry and his fellow editorial board members, to repair what they have identified as a misreading the author/rhetor had of the written policies. The interactions that ensue become an occasion for them to resocialize all members in this community and to codify their reaffirmed values through a revision of written policies. Likewise, the authors that the board members advise are also the readers of the publications, and the board members (not the article's author/rhetor) are shaping those readers by reassuring the community that electronic publications are viable, articulating how various artifacts should be valued, and expressing the connections among these artifacts.
Finally, this reading calls attention to the sheer amount of work required to co-construct and maintain the contexts in which a textual artifact may be successful, as the established scientists in this community engage their professional networks to keep all of these new disciplinary artifacts and new members in a coherent alignment. The shift to electronic media, by disrupting typified practices, has made this work highly visible because values and practices must be articulated to be re-negotiated. Making a scientific argument means simultaneously making people, media, institutions, practices, and artifacts—and requires a rhetorical theory capable of tuning our attention to the many minute interactions that create the rhetorical scene.