Towers and networks: on the differences between the sciences and the humanities

Having worked for several years in interdisciplinary environments, a thing often heard both from humanists and scholars in STEM disciplines is a kind of amiable incomprehension about the way the other works. It crops up in relation to publishing, in the so-called ‘reproducibility crisis’, and in many other contexts. Here, I propose a pair of metaphors which may go a little way, towards least, at bridging the gap.

One of the questions that was ever-present in the background of my recent little book about edited collections was this: why is it that the edited collection is so prevalent in the humanities and (to a lesser degree) in the social sciences, while it is very rare indeed in the hard sciences? I didn’t address the question directly, as I wanted to explore how the format worked in the places where it was to be found, rather than to account for its absence elsewhere. But it has come to mind once again, prompted by a 2014 post by Patrick Dunleavy of the LSE (which had eluded me until now) on the varying cultures of citation in STEM subjects, when compared the humanities and social sciences. (In short, the critique is that, in general, articles in the latter tend to cite many fewer publications by others; that this is a bad thing – even a failure of ethics – and should be changed.)

The two issues may seem unrelated, but I should like to suggest that the answer to both lies in understanding the structurally different way in which knowledge accumulates in the ‘hard’ sciences as opposed to the more humanistic disciplines. I suggest that the difference may usefully thought about by means of two metaphors for bodies of scholarly literature: the tower, and the network. The two metaphors doubtless oversimplify the matter, but contain nonetheless a real and durable distinction.

Consider for a moment a particular topic in medical research: the making of a vaccine for a virus. All the several teams currently racing to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 will – I strongly suspect – all be fully familiar with the same literature: that published on COVID-19 specifically since the crisis started; on vaccines already developed for other coronaviruses; on the development of vaccines in general. And although these literatures are doubtless very large, they may be visualised as a tower, in which each individual study forms a brick in the wall. The dependence of the scholar on each study is relatively direct – all the bricks are, as it were, load-bearing in the structure. The papers high up in the walls could not have been written without those below them.

Contrast this for a moment with an essay I have just this week completed on the conservative poet and critic C.H. Sisson, and specifically his understanding of the relationship of church and state in 1970s England. To be sure, there is a tower here, but only a small one – a group of half a dozen studies over the past forty years that have touched on the specific question of Sisson’s religious politics. My work builds on, refines, critiques and contradicts these as it proceeds.

But the tower metaphor only takes one so far, and so I propose a new, or at least additional, one, of the network. The essay is also a new node in a vast network of studies on the very broad fields of British religion, politics and the arts in the twentieth century. I’ve been reading in these fields for nearly twenty years, and am sure that my mind has been shaped in ways that I couldn’t possibly remember, by studies that I don’t even recall reading. Sisson was an example of many things: a certain kind of political conservative, a maker of trouble in his parish church, a resident of Kent and then Somerset – he has a local history – a fierce anti-Catholic, a working-class boy made good, a member of a profession (the civil service), a former soldier who had served in colonial India, a philosopher of religious language (of a sort), a poet with a certain set of ideas about how verse should work. Each of these aspects of his life and thought is touched upon in my account. Each of those aspects – English anticatholicism and the ecumenical movement, the local history of Kent, the Anglican parish system, the political history of English conservatism, the effects of the Empire on English thought, the evolution of religious language, the development of English poetry – has its own scholarly literature, some of them vast; much of it I have read, but I can hardly claim to know it all. All I can hope to do is to refer the reader to studies that most closely touch my work, or that exemplify current ways of understanding the period, and that provide ways into those literatures; to create new edges in the network that the reader can follow. To systematically cite them all is simply impractical, and arguably pointless. It is surely this structural difference between different kinds of knowledge that in part accounts for differing citation cultures. I have added a brick to a small tower, and a node to a vast network.

And the connection with the edited collection? Perhaps the reason that the edited collection is so rare in the hard sciences is that it is very difficult for it to contain bricks from the same tower. If bricks are to be laid on top of each other – to cite and develop each other – they can’t very easily be published simultaneously.

However, the edited collection format is ideal for the publication of a group of new nodes in a network, since they are not so dependent on each other. My study on Sisson is (I hope) to form part of a collection on his work, alongside essays on his verse, and on his translations of the Latin classics. I cite one of the other chapters as providing a complementary point of view; I could have written my own chapter without it, but they are now in relation with each other. With some modification, however, my essay might have equally well have found a home in a recent edited collection on the Church of England and politics, or in another on the developing relationship between the Church of England and the arts. The three volumes (two real, the last still just an idea in my mind) are each a snapshot of different sets of nodes in the greater network.

Like all metaphors, my tower and my network are a simplification; all fields will manifest elements of both patterns. And there are also structural and economic reasons why the literatures in different fields tend more toward either tower or network, which I don’t propose to go into here. But I would assert that literatures in the hard sciences in general are structured more like the tower, and those in the humanities as a network. If having such metaphors to hand does anything to lessen some of the mutual incomprehension between disciplines, then I shall have achieved my aim.

The edited collection: pasts, present and future

I’m delighted to be able to announce that I now have a book bearing this title under contract with Cambridge University Press. It is part of a new series called Gatherings: short monographs on aspects of contemporary scholarly publishing. It should be published in 2019.

Image from Flickr (GoToVan), CC-BY

In recent years, the edited collection of essays has undergone a crisis as a form of scholarly publishing. Without fanfare or particular crisis event, the perception spread that publishing in such collections was less prestigious than in journals; that such chapters were less visible to readers, and less acceptable to those assessing a scholar’s work; and that publishers were in retreat from such volumes.

This volume sets out to explore the forms that the edited collection has taken in recent decades, the roots and shape of the present crisis (if it is indeed rightly so called), and the possible futures for the form.

It focusses on the humanities, and history in particular, while drawing also on publishing trends in theology and in musicology. It is also focussed particularly on the UK, but in comparitive context with other nations, particularly the United States.

Visualising the edited collection

A little while ago I wrote a post about the future of the edited collection of essays. In that post, I suggested that there was still a future for the edited collection of essays in the humanities, but that in order to survive, those collections would need to become more coherent.

But how might we understand and recognise coherence in a volume of this type ? That post was inspired by one particular volume in which I had a clear (if subjective) sense that the various contributors were in a continued dialogue with each other, of which the volume was a progress report.

The traditional way in which scholars acknowledge intellectual contact with another is of course the footnote. And so I thought it would be interesting to take this same particular volume, and see whether my subjective sense of this internal dialogue was borne out. It took just a few minutes to go through the volume and record as a dataset each instance where an article cited another piece of work by one of the other contributors to the volume. After some tentative first steps with Gephi I had some rough-and-ready network diagrams to illustrate the relationships.

Untitled
Citations (whole volume)

A pointed arrow indicates a citation from one author to another; a thicker line represents more works being cited; and an arrow at both ends indicates that the two authors cite each other.

This first diagram shows the whole network, and immediately it is clear that all the authors here cite at least one work by one of the others, and in some cases several different works by several authors. In a later post, I shall be showing some diagrams of other collections which I think do not have the same internal dialogue.

We can also begin to see some variations between the authors in terms of the attention they are being paid by the others; and this is shown clearly if we isolate the citations of works by A (top right) and B (bottom left).

A and B
Citations of and by A and B

Authors A and B are clearly the most cited nodes in this particular network. This is explicable if we know that A is one of the two editors responsible for assembling the team of authors; and that A has also published a large number of individual articles in the field, which explains the thickness of some of the arrows, as authors cite more than one of A’s works.

In contrast, B is cited by a similar number of the other authors, but not so many of B’s works each time. This chimes with the fact that B is the eminence grise of the field, but it is their definitive monograph on the topic that is being cited.

A rather different dynamic is at work when we isolate the parts of the network that involve G. While G is a very well-established scholar, the piece in this volume is their first contribution to this particular literature. So, we can see below that while G cites several of the authors in the volume, this is not reciprocated (because, in terms of this particular field, there is nothing to cite.)

Citations of and by G