The scientific paper is in trouble. Once considered the gold standard for innovative research, the hefty journal is being forsaken by scientists for online publication. This change throws into question issues such as the future of peer review and whether access to knowledge is limited by the charges levied by publishers.
But it would be wrong to think that these are new problems, for, as Alex Csiszar demonstrates in this fascinating and carefully researched book, similar concerns were expressed about scientific periodicals throughout the 19th century. Consider refereeing, which was slowly introduced into the transactions of scientific societies in the first half of the century. Arguments abounded over the issue. Should papers be refereed, and by whom? Should referees be anonymous? There was also the familiar problem of personal bias; as one writer noted: “The referee may be a man of integrity in general matters; he may have no personal animosity…On the other hand…he may be full of envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness.”
Another significant issue was authorship. At the start of the century, some writers used pseudonyms as they considered it infra dig to be a named author of a scientific paper. Only much later did the identity of authors become an essential feature of a genuine research contribution – as opposed to the expression of an opinion – and authorship was itself seen to provide evidence of research achievement. To have published a clutch of papers became the mark of a proficient scientist.
Early in the century, the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions and the Mémoires of the Paris Académie des Sciences held sway. These were lavishly produced, expensive quarto volumes, but there was often a significant delay in the publication of papers. Soon these elite titles were joined by the transactions of specialist societies, led by the Transactions of the Geological Society of London, first published in 1811. A new breed of cheaper commercial monthly publications, such as the Philosophical Magazine (founded in 1798), also entered the marketplace. These carried – sometimes reprinted – more easily readable original contributions to research together with news and information about many aspects of science.
Another major issue was the difficulty of accessing the rapidly expanding literature on any topic of scientific research. In response, the Royal Society produced its magnificent Catalogue of Scientific Papers, in 19 volumes. This author index listed all the papers published in numerous journals and in many languages during the 19th century. Another solution was the creation in 1894 of the Institut de Bibliographie Scientifique, which provided its subscribers with abstracts of recently published papers.
Csiszar rightly insists that the history of scientific journals should be understood within the context of contemporary politics and in relation to wider innovations in publishing. For example, he shows that the rise of the radical press in Britain and the conflicts over political centralisation in France impacted significantly on scientific periodicals.
This timely book challenges our notion of the traditional scientific journal by showing that it was the result of a long and complex historical process and much controversy.
Geoffrey Cantor is professor emeritus of the history of science at the University of Leeds.
The Scientific Journal: Authorship and the Politics of Knowledge in the Nineteenth Century
By Alex Csiszar
University of Chicago Press
Published 9 July 2018