About writing (and publishing)

Last week I learned that I had been awarded one of the 2020 Emerald Literati Awards for “How Patents Became Documents, or Dreaming of Technoscientific Order, 1895-1937,” published in Journal of Documentation 75(3), 2019. This came as a complete surprise. But a welcome one, obviously.

So much about scholarly publishing fascinates me. First there’s the enormity of it, the fact that you’re recognized (even read!) for one article in this ever-increasing avalanche or tsunami of publications out there seems like a minor miracle. I remember when I as a Comp Lit Ph.D. candidate at Uppsala University decided to write my thesis in English rather than Swedish: I admit that I had naive idea that because I was writing in English I would automatically have a huge (well, maybe not huge, but certainly bigger than 10 million Swedish-speaking) readership as well. This equation turned out to be slightly more complex and complicated than I thought some 20+ years ago.

But I think one of reasons why this award was so nice to receive was because I have always identified myself as a writer of books rather than articles. I still do. But in PASSIM I produce articles, and this means both writing and thinking differently than with a book. It’s a challenge. For many reasons. Not so much the stylistic side of things, but in terms of the way in which journal publishing has become so “formalistic.” Not sure if it’s the right word, but there is something quite problematic with the way that we decide which journal to write for first, before we decide (or even know) what the contribution of the article actually is. Of course, the entire scholarly ecosystem is now geared towards articles rather than monographs, and there are similar considerations to be made also when it comes to books, but there is something in this structure I find problematic and important to discuss.

But maybe not right now. For the moment, and in this Covid-19 moment, I’m just very pleased and grateful to Journal of Documentation.



Interview with David Pretel

David presenting his paper “On Historicizing Institutional Diversity: Why and How Study Colonial Patent Cultures?” on September 12, 2019.

This week, we were supposed to welcome the participants joining us for our second PASSIM workshop, “Patents as Capital,”. But we’re not.

Awaiting September 7-10, 2021, when we look forward to doing so IRL, I reached out to David Pretel, who gave a presentation at our first workshop in 2019: “Intellectual Property for the Un-disciplined,” and asked him a few questions about the workshop and about his work.

Eva: David, we first met because you sent in a proposal to our inaugural PASSIM workshop, “Intellectual Property for the Un-disciplined,” (September 10-12, 2019). This workshop was deliberately designed to act as a kick-off for the project by exploring both theoretical and methodological questions around intellectual property as a research field, bringing together a group of people interested in the interdisciplinary study of patents in particular. Can you tell us a bit about why PASSIM caught your eye in the first place and what your hopes were for the workshop? And of course, what did you think of the event?

David:  Your call for proposals immediately caught my attention. I had recently finished a book on the history of the Spanish patent system during the 19th century, and by then, I was convinced about the benefits of an interdisciplinary study of patents.  My research lies at the intersection of the history of technology and economic history, but I also build upon the work of legal and STS scholars. I have a particular interest in exploring the international dimension of patent institutions as transnational patenting frequently involves not just the international transfer of rights, and eventually technologies, but also the transmission of ideas, perceptions and information. The examination of institutional diversity and administrative agency are other central issues of my work, particularly the role of intermediaries and lawyers in shaping and mobilizing patent rights, information and knowledge at the national, international and imperial levels.

The workshop was extremely well organized and intellectually challenging, yet friendly and supportive. In the workshop, I talked about the relationships between empires and patent rights. I challenged the standard view of colonial patent regimes as imposed by imperial metropolis in a context of the making of an international patent system. Rather than advancing the idea that the global spread of patent regimes was the result of imperialism, in my presentation, I showed that the processes of empire-building resulted in multicentric and fragmented colonial patent cultures adapted to local conditions in which metropolitan states were distant authorities.  I am very grateful for the incisive comments and suggestions of the PASSIM team and the distinguished invited discussants.

Eva: As the PASSIM-team went through the submissions to the first workshop, we decided that it would be a great idea if we could invite one of the participants to stay on for a bit longer in conjunction with the workshop – and that we would do the same for the two subsequent workshops we were committed to hosting. We felt that this initiative would enable us to benefit from extending the discussions and networking of the workshop. We immediately saw that your particular disciplinary experience from economic history and your competence and interest in patents and colonial history, was a profile complementary what we already had in place. We were spot on, of course! Could you say something about your stay as a PASSIM “special guest” and what you took with you from your time with us in Norrköping and Uppsala – where you gave a talk at the Law Department and, I think, also reconnected with old acquaintances?

David: I was honoured of being the first PASSIM “special guest”, and I see now that the forthcoming guests are prominent scholars who have produced groundbreaking research on patents and technology studies. It was my first time in Sweden, but I felt at home all the time and everything was perfect (except a flight delay, for that, of course, I cannot blame PASSIM!). You and Mattis thought about all details and arranged a very intense tour of events, visits and restaurants!

I gave four talks in two weeks to very different audiences, so I had to adapt my presentations accordingly – difficult but rewarding. In Uppsala UniversityI gave a lecture to Marianne Dahlén’s students in law and a research seminar at the law department which was quite challenging for me as someone initially trained in economic history. I would also like to thank Marianne for her warm reception and for showing me around Uppsala. I especially enjoyed our fun visit to the Museum Gustavianum and its anatomical theatre (thanks for the photos!) All in all, my time as PASSIM guest was very productive as it allowed me to discuss our common research interests – such as the history of the organization of patent information and the backstage bureaucracy – not only at the workshop but in more informal situations.

Eva: This “mini-interview” takes place almost a year after your visit, and things could not be more different. As the Covid-19 pandemic struck during the spring of 2020, the world changed. As far as PASSIM is concerned, we decided to postpone our scheduled workshop, “Patents as Capital,” from September 2020 to September 2021. Of course, at the time of writing we don’t know anything about what Fall 2021 will look like. Fingers crossed that we’re able to pull off our workshop on “Patents as Capital,” in September 2021. This time, we’ll have two special guests: Mario Biagioli (UCLA) and Sarah de Rijcke from Leiden University. Covid-19 has of course caused postponements and cancellations of various academic activities such as conferences and workshops, but also made it difficult to undertake fieldwork as well as archival work. How has it affected you, David? Especially given that you work in Barcelona, a city hard hit by the pandemic?

David: The Covid-19 pandemic has changed everything. The situation in Spain is dramatic as the country is not prepared to face this supervening situation. We are lucky to have excellent health professionals but the budget cuts of the last decade and the previous crisis have left the health system with fewer resources to deal at the same time with the pandemic and other serious illnesses. My impression is that the political response in Spain has been satisfactory, but another prolonged economic crisis will have devastating effects and deep inequalities in Spanish society.

The changes in the way we do our work as academics are much less dramatic – we are somehow privileged as we could keep working from home and teach online. Many events and research exchanges have indeed been disrupted. For instance, I was going to visit Harvard this autumn, but I’ve had to postpone it. The same for academic activities; I was going to present at several conferences this year, such as the AHA annual meeting, but they have been cancelled or postponed. I am sure there will be more opportunities in the future, though, we cannot stop doing plans.

However, for historians, the hardest is to continue writing and publishing without the possibility of carrying archival work at the moment.  I had planned archival research in Mexico and the United States during 2020 and early 2021, and I’ve postponed it, which means that some of my projects and publications are in standby.  The bright side is that we are slowly learning to teach and exchange ideas online. Of course, it is not the same as meeting in person, but non-stop travelling was unsustainable for the environment and for our personal lives.  I hope that when the pandemic is resolved – fingers crossed- we won’t come back to our old harmful habits and try instead to combine the online with the presential, when possible.

Eva: Looking two years into the future might seem a bit premature under today’s circumstances. Yet, PASSIM will come to an end in 2023 and for our final conference (which I think is likely to be something smaller, like a workshop or symposium) we will invite our “special guests” to join us for a discussion on the work that we’ve done in the PASSIM project. David, we hope to see you here in Norrköping for this concluding event, which will open for all sorts of questions on the future and the past of patents, as law, as information system, as documents. If you look ahead to 2023 and reconnecting with the PASSIM team; what are your thoughts on the theme “Patent Futures: A History”?

David: The theme of the final conference is very intriguing. As most historians, I feel more comfortable debating about the distant past and, therefore, I assiduously avoid talking about the future or give policy recommendations. That said, I find PASSIM final conference as an opportunity to learn about innovative approaches and discuss future research. In this regard, I’m interested in presenting my work on the early history of Latin America’s contested integration into the international patent framework between two ubiquitous historical landmarks: the 1883 Paris Convention and the 1994 TRIPS agreement. Another topic that I could discuss at your conference is the case of some early patents on techniques of primary processing of rainforest products and their itineraries from Latin American commodity frontiers to US and European research laboratories and patent offices.

But above all, I am looking forward to coming back to Norrköping and reconnect with the fantastic PASSIM team and its associated scholars and guests.

Eva: Thank you, David, for taking the time to answer my questions. The entire PASSIM team looks forward to meeting you again at the final conference!

Fall 2020 thoughts


So, summer is almost over. Fall term has arrived, but in a different shape that what we’re used to. The Covid-19 pandemic completely dominated our lives—private and professional—during the Spring, and will continue to dominate our lives in the forseeable future as well. There is no doubt that our work in PASSIM has been affected. We’ve postponed our second workshop, originally planned for next month – “Patents as Capital” is now rescheduled for September 2021. Five of the PASSIM researchers submitted a panel entitled “Patents as Scientific Information – Four Translations” to the 2020 Annual Meeting of SHOT (Society for the History of Technology). Although we were delighted to be accepted, the conference has been postponed until Fall 2021, when we (José Bellido, Johanna Dahlin, Mattis Karlsson, Isabelle Strömstedt and myself) hope to be able to travel to New Orleans and meet old and new PASSIM acquaintances. Not being able to travel to conferences or hosting them ourselves is one thing, but far more problematic is the fact that fieldwork as well as archival research is now on hold. It really shows how much those desired “outputs” depend on “input” that we’re now unable to access and process in ways that we’ve become completely used to. I’m not sure it’s an altogether bad thing: at least not in terms of realizing how much we can do online in terms of meetings and mining digitized material from our home offices. However, the personal interaction and the stimulus of working in a group such as PASSIM cannot be replicated in any other format than IRL. Having said that, we hope to keep the PASSIM-momentum going during the Fall of 2020. We hope that you’ll follow us trying. And we hope that you’ll stay in touch.

PASSIM Special Guest 2019: Dr David Pretel

Join us for a pre-workshop seminar with Dr David Pretel on September 9, 2019 @ 15.15-17.00 @ Tvärsnittet, Kopparhammaren, Norrköping.

For each of the three workshops PASSIM hosts during 2017-2022, we invite one of the workshop participants for an extended stay as a PASSIM Special Guest, seeking further discussions and networking with a scholar whose work represents important insights and complementary perspectives to PASSIM’s. In his talk on September 9, David Pretel—PASSIM Special Guest for 2019—will present a comparative study of French, British, Dutch and Spanish colonial patent systems in the Caribbean and their transition to postcolonial systems during the 20th century. His study of the rise of colonial patent institutions poses interesting questions about the diversity of institutional agency, imperial governance, legal transfers, knowledge structures and technological cultures throughout modern history.

Flyer David Pretel