HSS meeting in Vancouver, open journals, Wikipedia evangelism

Last weekend was the History of Science Society meeting in Vancouver, BC. Despite growing up in Seattle, I had never been to Canada before.

I gave my first scholarly paper (which I had tried out a week before at the department’s Holmes Workshop): “Natural Philosophy Images: Pedagogy and Popular Science in America”. I was in a panel with two other very good talks on physics education-related texts–one on 20th century Canadian high school textbooks, which fit well with mine on 19th century American textbooks, and one on children’s biographies of Marie Curie and Albert Einstein. I’m really pleased with how it went; I got some good questions, and I had at least reasonable responses to all of them, as my Yale colleagues had prepared me well. Turnout was pretty good, really good for a panel of two early graduate students (myself and Michelle D. Hoffman of U. of Toronto), one guy not yet in graduate school (Trevor J. Owens, majored in history of science at Wisconsin), and one junior professor talking on a topic only marginally related to the rest (Steve Sturdy, a lecturer at University of Edinburgh who does history of medicine). I was really excited because David Kaiser was in the audience, but he left after the first two talks (i.e., right before mine).

One of the great things was talking with Adam Shapiro; his dissertation project, on the textbook industry and the Scopes Trial, is freaking awesome (and he has the kind of cultivated idiosyncrasy of dress and manner that I can appreciate).

As is typical at conferences, much of my best-spent time was with people from New Haven. I didn’t spend as much time meeting new people as I have at previous conferences, but no regrets. I did stay up drinking late into the night (along with Brendan) with the marvelous Gar Allen, which was great fun. And I met John Rudolph. And, in one of the great ego-inflating moments of my entire life, I was recognized by a stranger as… the writer of this blog. But beyond that, I mostly stuck with people I already knew.

John Rudolph invited me to work up my textbook research into something publishable, to submit for an upcoming special science studies issue of Science Education. Assuming I can find the time to do that (what with qualifiers hanging over my head) and that I could make it good enough to get accepted, it’s time to decide how seriously I want to take my free-knowledge ideals, since they conflict with my goal of actually being able to get a history job someday. I would like to only publish in open content journals… ideally, ones that support copyleft, but that’s not likely to happen any time soon. There aren’t really even any open content history of science journals (the closest things are History of Intellectual Culture and Science, Technology & Innovation Studies) or general American history journals (the closest thing is American Diplomacy). What needs to happen is for a broad flagship journal (like Isis or JAH) to totally retool for open content: increase the number of published articles drastically, invite contributions from a wider range, and start poaching from all the competitor journals. If it was done right, with a plan for expanding the editorial positions to keep pace with submissions and maintain quality, it could force the whole journal ecosystem to switch to open content. Before there was search, it made sense to have highly specialized journals. But at this point, it would make far more sense to get rid of the vast majority of paper publications and make open content online publication the standard.

Another variation on that theme… Despite the marked lack of enthusiasm for Wikipedia among professional science studiers in listservs (like the HOPOS and H-SCI-MED-TECH lists where I pump the History of Science Collaborations of the Month and get ignored), scholars express a fair amount of enthusiasm or at least convincibility when I talk to them in person about Wikipedia. The most effective line of argument (sadly) is not the “contribute to society” one, but the one about how creating high-quality free content expands the market for our work; what science studiers do has the potential to be popular, as far as scholarship goes, but not many people know how compelling our stories are. Even down to an individual level, it will probably pay off in career-prospect terms a few years down the road to have good Wikipedia articles about your area of expertise; it will whet people’s appetites for more, and give people (including the scholars who might hire you) an entry point into your particular esoteric specialty.