Have you ever wondered which scientific journal was the first of its kind? Or why there are scientific publications at all? In this post you will learn how far we have come since the first journals, what it means to communicate science today and what the future might hold for traditional journals and publishers.
Probably these issues crossed your mind, but you never found the time to dig deeper. I don’t blame you. It’s tough to be a young and upcoming researcher these days. Today’s advances in scientific literature are so fast-paced that it can be hard to keep up, let alone ask such remote questions.
At the same time I think you will agree that it may be useful (or, just plain interesting) to have a broader perspective on how scientific journals came to be and how this might help us understand today’s publishing landscape. This article will guide you through the different stages of science communication, going back to ancient civilizations, the invention of the printing press, all the way to a present where to “publish or perish” is the name of the game and restrictions in the access to science are an harsh reality.
From the Walls of Babylon to the Medieval Scriptorium
The word ‘science’ itself, coming from the Latin ‘scientia’, means knowledge. So, to communicate science is to communicate knowledge. Today we do this through scientific journals and magazines, but how did we came up with these concepts and how did they evolve over time?
It’s known that civilizations as early as Mesopotamia grounded their worldview on some form of observation and experimentation. The advent of agriculture (c. 5500 BCE) – and the resulting surplus in food – allowed Mesopotamian empires to dedicate their energy to activities besides survival, such as improving technology (with the invention of the wheel and the development of cursive script) and organizing knowledge in the form of mathematics and astronomy.
They were serious about it too. Thousands of annotations in clay tablets, dating to 3500 BCE, include detailed descriptions of motions of stars, planets and the moon. Even today, astronomical periods first identified by Mesopotamian scientists are still widely used in our calendar (e.g., the solar year, the lunar month and even the seven-day week).
As Sumerian towns grew into cities, the people needed a way to keep track of business transactions, ownership rights, and government records. Sumerians thus developed the first form of writing, the first written code of law and the first major piece of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh. However, it’s difficult to know the exact date of the first scientific report with the fragments of ancient papyri and cuneiform clay tablets that remain.
It was only with the Ancient Greeks (c. 500 BCE) that communication took a different course. Communication was mostly oral, but it was thought of as a more integral part of city life. Socrates walked around the streets of Athens looking for flaws in his fellow citizens arguments, Plato used dialogues to express his views on different values and Aristotle formalized all the knowledge about communication in his Rhetoric. In his treatise, Aristotle stresses the role of emotional appeal, logical argumentation and the character (i.e., reputation) of the speaker, which still play a central role in contemporary scientific discourse.
Later, during the Middle Ages (c. 900 CE), trade increased, policy was systematized and citizens were organized in larger administrative units. This led to the foundation of the first universities and with it the systematic collection and distribution of knowledge (which at the time meant Christian doctrine and scholastic philosophy). The ivory tower got its name and although paper was available, all books were copied by hand in monasteries which meant little widespread availability.
The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg around 1450 quickly changed that. Now the broad access to knowledge was a reality and the medieval road to open access was in place. By 1500, this technology was operating throughout Western Europe and had already produced more than twenty million volumes. In a single generation countless books flooded Europe and, in a flash, the Dark Ages became just a little brighter. Of course, enjoying a good book with the bubonic plague and the Inquisition still around could prove to be difficult, yet standards of living were slowly on the rise.
To the Scientific Revolution… and Beyond!
These advances in standards of living culminated in 17th century Europe and led to the emergence of a literate upper class, mainly in France and England. This period saw the creation of the Royal Society of London, in 1660, and numerous founding texts such as Newton’s Principia (1687) and Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651).
During this time “natural philosophers” began to advocate the use of the scientific method inspired by the writings of Bacon and Descartes. The intellectual interest sparked by this “social movement” (Science!) now encouraged the critical examination of ideas independently of who said them. This resulted in a huge increase in the volume of scientific knowledge and led to the issue of how to best distribute it to all those interested.
To discuss and “open up scientific culture” a pioneering group of scientists started to gather in secret meetings in England (1660). Newton, Oldenburg, Hooke and their “invisible college” soon grew and became known as The Royal Society of London. The adopted format for the exchange of research work was the periodical journal. The idea was rather simple: one experiment or observation per article. And thus the scientific journal was born, in 1665, as the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.
Now scientific work could finally reach a larger audience and contribute to the improvement of society in a more systematic way. Scientists now had the chance to build on each other’s work and advance scholarly work in a context of collaboration and openness. The scientific ethos was thus to “work, finish, and publish,” as Michael Faraday described it less than a century later.
With this increase in scientific output, governments soon replaced individual patrons as the subsidizers of science, with researchers applying for grants from the government or foundations to carry research projects. And because there were more people doing science, competition for grants and tenures increased and journals transitioned from an innovative means to publish findings to take on the role of a yardstick for pedigree and credibility.
The Great Paywall of Science
Fast forward to today, the academia is an industry of prestige and the currency in which prestige is traded is journal titles. For scientists a publication in an elite journal like Nature or Science is a direct ticket to a job, lots of grants and a tenure-track. In the spirit of Faraday, the capacity to publish often and in big time journals is the single best predictor of career success in the academia. This fact alone gives the publishing industry the monopoly on career advancement in science and makes the researchers absolutely dependent on it.
On top of this, the scientific community carries out the majority of the peer review process for free. After this process is over the journal publishers show up and charge millions of dollars per year in subscriptions for the ability to read the final product. It works wonders for publishers but editorial teams, reviewers, proofreaders, authors and, more importantly, the readers are left out of the equation. Researchers know this and vowed to boycott Elsevier’s business practices.
This general concern of academics is not new either, and even though we might be told otherwise, the model used by big publishing is not the only viable one. Back in the 90’s several people began promoting a simple but alternative model. This movement, now known as open access, aims to treat publishing as a service, with publishers being paid a fee for the value they provide, but once this fee is paid, the finished product enters the public domain.
Governmental agencies (in the UK, US and Canada) are starting to understand the flaws with this business model and are now issuing grants that require all research to be part of the public domain, but the caveat remains. All the authors that operate outside these public-funded grants will have to pay to have their work published in major journals. This is certainly an improvement, but authors that are not included in this sponsorship program will remain behind locked doors and fall victim to a spiraling elitism that is already visible.
There’s still a long way to go and despite public agencies advocating open access policy, they are also making a push in the opposite direction. The story of Aaron Swartz is a tragic testament to that and, more recently, Alexandra Elbakyan, a russian neuroscientist who released “more than 48 million journal articles – almost every single peer-reviewed paper every published – freely available online” is also answering for the crime of bringing science to the public.
The current model of scientific research and publishing was developed during the days of Isaac Newton in response to 17th century problems and is therefore out of place and time. The current state of things, with publishing houses amassing vast amounts of influence over researchers and the whole academic system is broken. It’s clear, for the reasons shown above, that this method doesn’t work for most of the interested parties and a drastic change is inevitable. Science communication, as we know it today, exists because it challenged the 17th century status quo of secrecy and elitism. Is there a good reason why it can’t happen again?
As Michael Nielsen puts it: “The process of scientific discovery – how we do science – will change more over the next 20 years than in the past 300 years.” Answers to this problem may come from different areas, but the Internet and alternative ways of publishing will certainly be a part of the solution. The preprint method, widely used by physicists and mathematicians for over two decades, is an example in this direction. The largest repository of academic preprints, arXiv.org, enables authors to get feedback from their colleagues and distribute their work far quicker than with the traditional peer-review process.
More recently the Journal of European Psychology Students adopted a similar preprint method with their Registered Reports initiative. Now authors have the chance to publish their work prior to data collection and thus independently of the results achieved. The submissions are judged based on the quality of the research and, if granted acceptance, they undergo peer-review and are later published. This innovative method mitigates two prevailling issues in the scientific literature. The journals cease to use significant results as the single criteria for accepting articles and, at the same time, the authors lose the incentive to tamper with the data (consciously or otherwise) in order to satisfy publication pressures.
With all these initiatives the common denominator is to go beyond the journal, at least in the traditional sense, and adopt new forms of media; to “open scientific culture” and make it an accessible network of knowledge that can be used by everyone interested. How else could we “stand in the shoulders of giants” and make our contribution for the generations to come?
**This article has been published in the author’s personal blog in May 2016**