Political Economy and Diplomatics of Open Social Scholarship

Shawn Martin 

Shawn Martin is the Head of Scholarly Communication, Copyright, and Publishing at Dartmouth College. He has a PhD in information science and bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history. He worked previously at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan, and Indiana University. He has published research on a wide variety of topics such as research and knowledge management, online teaching, data analysis, and the history of science. Over the course of his career, Shawn has also served in multiple leadership positions and committees within the Association for Information Science & Technology, the American Association for History and Computing, the American Library Association, and the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading & Publishing, among others.

Dartmouth College


November 09, 2021 


What is the commodity that the scholarly communication system is attempting to produce? If we can agree that there is a single type of commodity, then one might also ask a more important question of how it should be regulated through a system of political economy. Open social scholarship presents a unique problem. On the one hand, the “commodity” could be data, articles, books, websites, or many other forms of scholarly discourse. Similarly, even if we could agree on a single definition of what constitutes a commodity within the scholarly communication system, it would still be necessary to understand how such a political economy could be regulated. What systems would we use, and who would govern them? Clearly, this is a very interdisciplinary question, and this essay will use three fields of study including history, sociology, and information science to investigate these questions.

First, if we assume for a moment that there is a commodity of scholarship that can be regulated, then what are some examples of how such a political economy has worked? Fortunately, there are historical precedents and the work of both Stephen Marks on the political economy of information and William Clarke on the history of higher education are helpful. There are also important insights that can be gleaned from historical sociology such as the work of Andrew Abbott. The final question then becomes how we can combine these historical and sociological theories coherently. Diplomatics, a subdiscipline within information science, views historical and sociological questions through the use of documentary theory. In other words, documents could include print or electronic materials of all kinds, but their worth (authenticity, commercial, or the like) is determined by the social systems that surround them. Therefore, a document that is incredibly important to one community might be considered worthless to another. By combining these three sets of theories, it may be possible to construct a more comprehensive way of understanding the political economy of the open scholarly ecosystem.

History and the Political Economy of Information

Historians have long researched the governance of regulating and valuing information outputs, and there are two historians in particular whose work may help to understand how the political economy of scholarship functions, including Steven Marks, an economic historian, and William Clark, a historian of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Germany with particular interest in research universities. In The Information Nexus, Marks argues that the free flow of information, particularly price lists and data about commodities, differentiate capitalist economies from similar systems that also have robust markets, private property, and other properties that are usually associated with capitalism. He defines this concept of freedom of information as “the information nexus.” Furthermore, Marks concludes that,

it is incumbent upon governments to adopt policies that ensure the vitality of the information nexus. The state in capitalist nations must function as it always has as the active patron and protector of the information nexus. . . . capitalism and the information nexus are one and the same. (Marks 2016, 238–239)

In the same section, Marks cites examples of free information flow helping to mitigate the impacts from the 2008 economic crisis and he stresses the importance of scientific research as one component of the information nexus that should be made freely available.

If we accept Marks’ argument that research is an important part of the “information nexus” that allows capitalism to function, and if we accept that it is the government’s role to protect the free flow of such information, the question still remains of how the flow of such scholarly information should be regulated within the scholarly communication ecosystem. William Clark in Academic Charisma helps to consider that question with his research on the history of universities in Germany. Clark argues that German universities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were primarily government bureaucracies established to create new ministers, diplomats, and other functionaries of the state. Furthermore, Clark argues that the most successful or “charismatic” academics in Germany were the ones who could attract the most students (Clark 2006). Thus, according to Clark’s arguments, universities and the research outputs they produce were originally designed to help replicate government bureaucrats. Moreover, the most successful academics were those that could create the most outputs (that is creation of new ministers or professionals).

Summing up these two arguments, one can then suppose that the political economy of scholarly information should have two primary characteristics. First, according to Marks, it should be free and open for everyone in society to utilize, and second, according to Clarke, academic outputs should be produced in such a way that it can produce further students and scholars of this information. According to historical study, therefore, we may have a model for the creation of academic information.

Sociology: Scholarly Communication and Academic Disciplines

There are, however, problems with the model put forward by Marks and Clarke. First, at least in the United States, academic information is not freely available, and second, scholars in the U.S. are not government bureaucrats, at least not in the same sense as they were in eighteenth-century Germany. Therefore, at least to understand the American context, the work Andrew Abbott, a sociologist grounded in historical practice, may supplement these purely historical studies. Abbott has studied more contemporary practices in American higher education and has created a framework for professional communication that could also be applied to scholarly communication. Professional communication according to Abbott has four characteristics including association, control of work, education, and knowledge. These characteristics require a bit of explanation. Association refers to the ability of groups within the profession to meet, discuss what does and does not count as “good” work, and who should be allowed to be a part of the group. For example, the American Medical Association is an important professional organization that controls its own membership as well as professional norms. Control of work means that the association, such as the American Medical Association, is in charge over what it does, not some outside group, such as the government, even though the government may play some role in the association. Education means that the profession controls how new members learn its techniques and values. Finally, and most importantly, the profession controls what knowledge is and is not acceptable among its members. For instance, the American Medical Association would likely not consider the use of healing crystals to be considered a valid professional technique (Abbott 1991). Therefore, according to the arguments of Abbott, one could also make a case that scholarly communication is a form of professional communication and should follow such norms of association, control of work, education, and knowledge as Abbott defines them.

Andrew Abbott also maintains that universities and professional societies came together in a unique way within the United States to form what he termed a “hinge mechanism” that provided the two organizations a way for effectively interacting. The “hinge mechanism” Abbott argued were research outputs such as books and articles (Abbott 2005). Abbott was not alone in noticing such trends; Rom Harré, a philosopher of science and social theorist, noticed similar trends in scientific research that he identified as “hinge-practices” within science more generally (Harré, 2014). Abbott and Harré can, therefore, help to understand how American scholarly communication put into practice some of the historical arguments put forward by Marks and Clarke. According to Abbott and Harré, creation of research outputs such as articles and books became a “hinge” (mechanism or practice) that allowed American professional organizations and in turn professionals in medicine, law, government, and many others to perform their work more efficiently within an overall capitalist system that relied on the free, but regulated, flow of information.

Diplomatics: Bridging History, Sociology, and Information Science

Abbott might, therefore, argue that the scholarly communication ecosystem is broader than just government bureaucrats and rather is part of a professional communication network, and, furthermore, that such a network relies on a hinge mechanism of research outputs. Diplomatics, a subfield of information science and more particularly the study of archives, is a discipline that specifically focuses on documentation, such as research outputs of various kinds, and is also grounded in historical practice. As such, it may prove a useful framework also for further exploring the historical ideas of scholars such as Marks and Clarke along with those of Abbott and Harré.

Diplomatics, at its core, is a discipline dedicated to understanding how documents (be they Roman manuscripts or electronic data) are evaluated and valued by the societies that produce them. Luiciana Duranti has defined diplomatics as a field of study that

gives importance to the broad context of creation by emphasizing the significance of the juridical system (that is, the social body plus the system of rules which constitute the context of the records), the persons creating the records, and the concepts of function, competence, and responsibility; but never distances itself from the reality of the records. (Duranti 1998, 177)

In other words, diplomatics looks at the political and social factors behind documents or records in the context that led to their creation. One of the consistent characteristics of articles, books, and other research outputs according to the field of diplomatics, is that they require a scholar to record a particular finding or argument. In other words, researchers need to document their findings. Maurizio Ferraris, a philosopher of documentation theory, has argued that societies in general use documentation practices that he terms acts of inscription as a foundation that allows other social processes to happen. Ferraris describes this concept as documentality. Scientific and scholarly research is just one example discussed by Ferraris, “in the sciences at large, documentality sets the conditions for the transmission of knowledge, for the progress of the sciences, for appointments of universities chairs and for the awarding of Nobel prizes and Field medals” (Ferraris 2013, 293–294). To state Ferraris’ argument another way, documentation practices help to establish authority in the transmission of knowledge.

More recently, scholars within diplomatics have focused more on organizational contexts and philosophical constructs of documents then the documents themselves. Ferraris is a good example of this. Though Ferrraris is not a scholar in the field of diplomatics, there are many scholars within the field who would seem to affirm many of Ferraris’ conclusions. Diplomatics was originally a method designed to establish authenticity in medieval legal documents and has now expanded to electronic and other media. 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” (Duchein 1983, 64). 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 tried to create a framework in which such developments could happen. Blouin identified two sub-fields within diplomatics. The first subfield 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 it is an original or a forgery. Tied to this first kind of study in diplomatics is a second, less well known but equally important area of diplomatics research, that Blouin described 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. Blouin stressed that these two approaches are complementary and cannot be separated from one another (Blouin 1996).

One of the most important insights of diplomatics recently has been the concept of “organic information” meaning that the value of individual documents may change over time as society itself changes. Bruno Delmas, built on the work of both Duchein and Blouin and defined the purpose of diplomatics as a discipline that establishes authority within a particular document. Most importantly Delmas recognized a quality of documents that he identified as “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. Delmas identified four characteristics one must recognize in order to assess organic information: memory, evidence, understanding, and communication (Delmas 1996). Fiorella Foscarini later argued that genre study can help to identify the kinds of characteristics that Delmas identified: “Genres provide social codes of behavior including not only the official ‘rules of the game,’ but also any other components of ‘ceremony’ . . . surrounding the main ‘moves’ of the game - that all those involved in a dialogic exchange must learn in order to be able to ‘act together’” (Foscarini 2012, 401). In other words, “organic information” according to Delmas and Foscarini is a shifting concept in which authority rests in ever-changing societal contexts. What may be considered an authoritative source at one time and place in history may not be considered as authoritative in a different time. Therefore, one could argue that the authority determined in organic information rests on the values of society at any given time.


Returning to the original questions of whether scholarship is a commodity and whether that commodity can be effectively regulated through a political economy of information, it is difficult to give a definitive answer in a short essay. Nonetheless, one can say that there is an effective set of theories with which to answer that question. These include approaches in history (as exemplified by scholars such as Steven Marks), sociology (as exemplified by Abbott), and perhaps more importantly diplomatics. Combined, these three disciplines tell us that there may be a common definition of different scholarship if we agree that they are documents, which, according to diplomatics can have shifting authority over time that is constructed within a set social system.

In this brief survey of only some of the relevant literature, I have only been able to scratch the surface of the possibilities these theories offer and the ways that they can be more fully applied to the practices of scholarly communication. I have no doubt that there is tremendous opportunity for information scientists, historians, sociologists, and other interested scholars to more fully investigate the implications of the theories and basic definitions that I have outlined here. Overall, I hope that this survey can be just the beginning of a much longer conversation about the application of these theoretical approaches to the practice of scholarly communication and open social scholarship.


Abbott, Andrew. 1991. “The Order of Professionalization, an Empirical Analysis.” Work and Occupations 18 (4): 355–384.

———. 2005. “Linked Ecologies: States and Universities as Environments for Professions.” Sociological Theory 23 (3): 245–274. www.jstor.org/stable/4148873.

Blouin, Francis. 1996. “A Framework for a Consideration of Diplomatics in the Electronic Environment.” American Archivist 59: 466–479.

Clark, William. 2006. Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Delmas, Bruno. 1996. “Manifesto for a Contemporary Diplomatics: From Institutional Documents to Organic Information.” American Archivist 59: 438–452.

Duchein, Michel. 1983. “Theoretical Principles and Practical Problems of Respect Des Fonds in Archival Science.” Archivaria 16: 64–82.

Duranti, Luciana. 1998. Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.

Ferraris, Maurizio. 2013. Documentality: Why it is Necessary to Leave Traces. New York: Fordham University Press.

Foscarini, Fiorella. 2012. “Diplomatics and Genre Theory as Complementary Approaches.” Archival Science 12: 389–409.

Harré, Rom. 2014. “New Tools for the Philosophy of Chemistry.” HYLE – International Journal for the Philosophy of Chemistry 20: 77–91.

Marks, Steven. 2016. The Information Nexus: Global Capitalism from the Renaissance to the Present. Cambidge: Cambridge University Press.