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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Devant le Deluge and Other Essays on Early Modern Scientific Communication by David A. Kronick (Scarecrow Press) Fifteen readable essays examine topics such as editorial policy in the early journals, the economic side of scientific publishing in the 17th and 18th centuries, aspects of journal indexing, early modern scientific networks, and the issues of authorship and authority. The whole constitutes a body of work that reveals both the richness and scope for further inquiry that has motivated Kronick for decades.

As science is a cumulative form of knowledge, the need to access sci­entific records becomes less αnd less important as they grow older. There are a number of reasons, however, for studying these sometimes quaint and archaic-looking periodicals. They are important, not only as a re-source for learning about the diffusion of scientific and technical infor­mation in this early period, but also for studying the characteristics of the scientific information dissemination and storage systems as they evolved. We can witness many of the same concerns and activities that exist in contemporary scientific and technical journalism, such as the problems of au­thority, documentation, priority, and quality control. All these factors can be studied in embryo in this period.

Science and technology were difficult to separate in this early period, when utilitarian objectives were clearly embodied in the charter of most scientific societies, such as the Académie des Sciences in Paris, and the Royal Society of London. Many of the other scientific and learned societies that sprang up all over Europe also engaged in the improvement of agriculture and industry. Above all, they were formed to generate and communicate information, not only for their own members, but also for wider audiences. In many instances, the preparation and reading of papers were requirements of membership. The societies kept close control over their publications through mechanisms that foreshadow the peer review that is characteristic of our best scientific periodicals today. The specialized journals in chemistry, mining, agriculture and other subjects dealt primarily with practical problems, although theoretical and scien­tific papers were included when they were regarded as relevant.

The seventeenth- and eighteenth-century scientific community differed greatly in many aspects from the scientific community at the end of the twentieth century. The differences are not only those of size, complexity, structure, and social significance. They were bigger in the sense that a larger part of the literate population could read and understand much of the literature being produced, but smaller in the number of disciplines that had established their identity. However, there is ample evidence that many of the behavioral and psychological aspects of publishing in science have not changed very much over the centuries. Editors, particularly those of publications issued by scientific societies, were concerning them-selves with the problems of peer review. Authors showed as much interest in establishing priorities and were as jealous of their property rights in ideas as they are today. Editors in their prefaces to new journals then showed as much need to justify starting a new journal.

Many of the independent journals (those not associated with the learned societies of the period) were largely derivative in that they often used material borrowed from other journals or included abstracts or reviews of work published elsewhere. In scanning some of these early peri­odicals, one is sometimes reminded of the legendary village in which all the inhabitants made their living by taking in each other's laundry. In that sense, these periodicals resembled the newspaper that had been estab­lished as a format almost a century before 1665 when Philosophical Transactions, the first scientific journal, appeared. The newspaper also provided the scientific journal with a format and mode of distribution. As in the newspaper, which may carry the same news no matter where it is published, dissemination of news was the object, and redundancy was not considered a factor.

To understand the development of the standard format of the scientific paper, we need to look at the early scientific journals, such as Philosophi­cal Transactions. It owed its format largely to the form of the erudite letter, a primary form of communication for scientists preceding the introduc­tion of the journal. The origins of the scientific paper are also likely to be found in the memoirs presented at scientific societies and selected for insertion into their proceedings. Another likely source for these formats may be found in the "prize essays" that were composed in competition for awards offered by many of the societies of the eighteenth century for answers to questions that the society posed. They gave issue to essays that were published, sometimes separately, and sometimes in series. These efforts, with some stretch of the imagination, may be regarded as a form of sponsored research. In this case, however, the, granting agency chose the topic for investigation rather than the grantee. They thus provided the benefit of having many investigators working on a problem at the same time, without having to fund more than one.

There are large gaps to be filled in the history of the scientific journal. In 1960, estimates of the number of scientific and technical journals ranged anywhere from 20,000 to 60,000. Some of the reasons for the growth are found in the nineteenth century with the transformation of science in Germany between 1825 and 1900, when de­partments and institutes in new disciplines were created in German univer­sities and there was intense competition for leadership of these new organizations. The importance of publication as a basis for advancement in academic life also was greatly enhanced. It seemed as if every department chairman or institute director wanted to have his own journal. As the number of disciplines, subdisciplines, and clinical and technical specialties grew, their identities had to be bolstered by new journals. The growth of mission-oriented research in the twentieth century (Adams 1981:224) added another factor, so that all kinds of combinations and permutations of disciplines and clinical and technical specialties were identified, each with its need for a special journal. As each specialized journal is created with an ever-decreasing audience size and a greater scatter of the literature, the distribution system becomes less and less viable. Nevertheless, the scientific journal basically has not changed in format and management from those that appeared in the eighteenth century, although the condιtions in which they appear and the technologies that are available to us have changed considerably.

One of the conclusions I reached in my earlier study of the scientific periodical was that it served two primary and important functions: first as a vehicle and then as a depository. This conclusion was not received with any great acclaim because it was, of course, obvious. I felt a little like the Moliére character who, on hearing the definitions of poetry and prose, was surprised to find out he had been speaking prose all his life. The distinction, nevertheless, is an important one. The journal serves first as a ve­hicle for the dissemination of a collection of individual papers or memoirs that are related in some way or other, although the relationships may not be those that are significant to any individual subscriber. The problem is an old one: classifications are linear while the world is multilinear. As the number of disciplinary and mission-oriented societies grew, the number of periodicals where an individual paper could be published increased, resulting in an ever wider dispersion of the literature.

The other purpose that the scientific journal served, I concluded, was as a haven for individual papers that could be retrieved on demand. The pe­riodical title then serves as a mnemonic to locate a particular paper. The journal also serves other purposes, of course, such as providing a criterion for validating the paper, which is based on the credit and reputation of the journal in which it had been printed. However, if this function could be performed by some other mechanism, any arbitrary system could serve as a locating device. In some sense, this is the way many investigators access the literature today, with the use of indexes and other aids such as Current Contents, Chemical Abstracts, Science Citation Index, and a score of other services. The need for these kinds of aids was recognized very early in the history of the scientific journal. With the growth of experimental science, the individual paper became the significant dissemination unit. It is the unit with which the ιnvestigator is primarily concerned.

New technology is making possible the successful introduction of new systems of distribution for research reports and the creation of what can be-come personally designed journals for investigators. The early journals, like most of our scientific and technical journals of today, were composed of dif­ferent kinds of ingredients, such as news items, reviews of books, and ab­stracts of papers, just as most journals are today. There will always be a place for journals that are created for more general audiences, leaving specialized research reports for individual distribution. The issue is not between the use of electronιc or paper media for storage or distribution, but of rationalizing and creating economically, socially, and intellectually viable systems that will be able to satisfy all the different options readers desire. These new sys­tems, when they are created, must, of course, not ignore the reward and recognition aspects of the current system, nor sacrifice its methods of qual­ity control and openness, which, as history reveals, were fostered from the very beginnings of the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century.

The study of the history of scientific communication is influenced by many factors, including the prevailing philosophies of the time, the social role of the scientist, the scientist's political environment, and the available technology for communication. There are many disciplines that impinge on these factors, including the philosophy of science, the sociology of sci­ence, the history of science, and the rhetoric of science. There is a rich and voluminous literature on all of these subjects and I can claim only a nοdding knowledge of any of them. However, all of them must be considered in the study of scientific communication, not only in the early modern period addressed in the papers in this collection, but in the modern period as well. The growing literature on the subjects involved is not encom­passed in a single language. I must take credit or blame for many of the translations into English. I only hope they convey if not an elegant, at least a reasonable sense of the original.

The first twelve essays included here were published at different times, in different journals, and for different audiences. The final three have never appeared in print, except for the last one, which was published in an abbreviated form in the Library Quarterly [71(1), 2001, pp. 28--43], They are brought together here in the hope that they will serve, if part, as an introduction to this interesting subject.

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