The Politics and History of the Scientific Journal

In late 2014, a new open access policy was put in place for all of the UC campuses, including UC Davis, that would allow faculty to make their publications freely accessible to the public by depositing them in university-owned open access databases.

This change in policy was greeted with a fair amount of excitement across the UCs, as it seemed to mark another step in a national conversation about broadening accessibility to academic scholarship.

However, the UC Davis Innovating Communications in Scholarship Project brought Alex Csiszar, an Assistant Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University to explain how oscillations between openness and exclusion have been an inherent part of academic scholarship, particularly in the sciences, since its inception.

Mario Biagoli summarized that Csiszar’s work takes “the long duree approach to the history of the scientific journals,” and combines elements from the fields of history of science, history of the book, and literary studies.

“The journal has never been this obvious, natural format,” Csiszar, explained at the beginning of his talk, “The Scientific Journal: A Political History.”

In order to show the growth of this format and the birth of the idea that “to be seen as a scientist is to be seen as an author of a particular kind,” he focused on nineteenth-century Britain and France.

Post-revolutionary, post-Napoleonic France saw a cultural push toward openness in governance. “In order to be a legitimate body,” Csiszar explained, “it needed to let the public in.” Therefore, even groups such as the Académie des Sciences (the Academy of Science) began allowing visitors to attend their meetings and publish reports in political journals summarizing those meetings.

Tensions between Francois Arago and Francois-Vincent Raspail, two prominent scientists in positions of political power, and rising political tensions in the country as a whole finally led the Académie des Sciences to publish its own reports in a journal called Compte Rendu. Some saw this move as one that opened up the Academy, since it then published its own reports and findings consistently. Others saw this as a move that closed off scientific communication by preventing competing voices from reporting on the Academy’s proceedings.

Csiszar then discussed developments in English political and intellectual history that led to the referee system – what we now call “peer review” in the United States.

The 1830s in England was a period of reform and great social change, including a desire for the state to fund more scientific endeavors and take the field more seriously. The Royal Society consequently launched its journal, Proceedings, as well as a system of readers’ reports on the work that is read at the meetings.

However, Csiszar described that there were quickly disagreements about how the new system of readers’ reports should work. One group felt that the reports should bolster the reputation of early career scientists and thus help further the status of the sciences in general. Another group imagined the reports as the site of rigorous critique, to show the scientist the flaws with his argument or project.

Csiszar’s work helps to provide context for the current move toward openness and transparency in academic publishing. His talk raised the question of whether the current trends in open access are being accompanied by, as they were in the nineteenth century, moves to close off academic conversations in other ways.

– Katja Jylkka, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in English