The Origins and Purpose of Scientific Publications

Have you ever wondered which scientific journal was the first of its kind? Or even further, why there are scientific periodicals at all? Probably not, since today’s advances in science are occurring so rapidly, the researcher doesn’t have the time or energy to dwell into the history of scientific literature. Although, this being true, it is undoubtedly useful for the scientist to have the fullest perspective on what they are doing. And, with this in mind, this article aims to shed some light into the historical roots and purposes of scientific journals and publishing, going back to Ancient Greece, the Middle Ages and the invention of the printing press.


Ancient World and Middle Ages

Although it is impossible to know the precise date of the first scientific report, early civilizations like China, India, Egypt, Assyria and Babylonia contributed to science and technology in numerous ways. However, writings from such civilizations are difficult to evaluate since only the fragments of ancient papyri and cuneiform clay tablets (Porter, 1964) remained.

But it was during the time of the Ancient Greek Empire that scholarly communication took a different course. Since most communication was oral (given the shortage of written scrolls) this paved the way to a more systematic and organized approach to all kinds of communication. And like most non-fiction writing, scientific writing is designed to be persuasive. As such, this type of communication was formalized with the writing of Art of Rethoric by Aristotle (which can be summarized as an encyclopedia of persuasive speech and techniques). In this book, Aristotle distinguishes three important characteristics of persuasive communication: clarity, elegance and appropriateness to the subject. We cannot do better today. In particular, Aristotle stresses and analyses the role of metaphor and its associated imagery which resembles a lot of elements from today’s scientific discourse.

Later, during the Middle Ages, from the 11th century and on, trade increased and organized itself and people identified themselves with progressively larger administrative units under more powerful rulers (Garrett, 2000). This led to the foundation of the first universities which symbolized a huge footstep for attaining and distributing scholarly knowledge (which, at the time, was strongly associated with the Christian doctrine and scholastic philosophy). And, although paper – a Chinese invention of a millennium before – was available, all books were copied by hand in the monasteries which translated into a very limited availability for the public.

But it was only with the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg around 1450 that the widespread dissemination of knowledge could be a reality (the medieval road to open access, you may call it). By 1500, printing presses in operation throughout Western Europe had already produced more than twenty million volumes (Lucien, 1976). In a single generation millions of books flooded Europe and in the next two centuries some 300 thousand more editions were added summing up to around two million by the 18th century (Lucien, 1976).

Scientific Revolution and Beyond

As a consequence of economic, social and technological advances in the 16th and 17th century a literate upper-class emerged in Europe, particularly in England and France. During this time, “natural philosophers” began to advocate the use of the scientific method of inquiry and direct observation of nature inspired by the writings of Bacon and Descartes. The intellectual interest sparked by this “movement” (which today we call science) encouraged the critical examination of ideas through observation and experimentation took its roots. Scholars, as Porter (1964) puts it, soon realized that the search for truth was not just a superficial term, but rather an actual experience of life itself. This resulted in a huge increase in the quantity and sophistication of scientific knowledge and led to the problem of its dissemination.

At the beginning of the 17th century most exchange of scientific content was either through the correspondence of several scientists between themselves or through the publication of books. Nevertheless, both these methods proved inefficient in a wider context and lacked the adequate reach. The book format meant that only large portions of research could be published. Consequently, a scientist that conducted and experiment had to wait until he accumulated enough results so he could publish his work.

All of this changed when, around 1660, a group of pioneering scientists started to gather in secret meetings in England whose prominent representatives were Newton, Boyle, Hooke and Oldenburg. This “invisible college” soon grew and transformed into what we know today as The Royal Society of London. The adopted format for the exchange of scholarly knowledge would be that of the periodical journal: one experiment or observation for each publication or communication. And thus, in 1665 the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society was founded, the first scientific journal.

By the end of the 17th century, about 30 scientific and medical periodicals had been established (Porter, 1964). But most of these were short lived. Besides, the early journals did not contain many papers describing the results of original experiments as we know them. In fact, today’s structure of the scientific paper only appeared as a product of the 19th century, when growing activity and public interest in science led to the creation of most of the big titles we know about today: Science, Nature, The New England Journal of Medicine, The Journal of the American Medical Association and The Lancet published their first editions in the 1800’s.

As noted by Eisen (2013) in a recent blog post, the establishment and success of these journals was also empowered by the technologies of the industrial revolution – steam powered rotary printing presses and efficient rail-based mail service. But they also exerted limitative forces upon them. Indeed, printing and shipping articles around the world was expensive, and because of this, two key features of modern journals were made common practice. First, journals restricted what they printed, choosing for publication only works deemed to be of the greatest interest to their target audience and fit to the journal’s scope and theme. And second, they followed the subscriptions-based model of business (i.e. sending copies only to those who had paid). Of course, this meant every printed copy of a journal incurred a cost to the publisher, and charging readers meant revenues scaled with costs.

The Motivation to Publish in Peer-reviewed journals

But then again why do researchers feel such a fundamental need to publish in scientific journals? Unquestionably, the primary goal of any scientist is to disseminate his work and make a substantial contribution to the public domain of science. For science is public, not private knowledge. In a similar line, Merton (1979) points us to the latent socio-cultural structure of science and the use of references and citations acting as a positive reinforcement reward system. The accumulated recognition (through means of the number of citations or the number of articles published in high impact-factor journals) is the social mechanism by which the community encourages one to be a scientist (Herschman, 1970). Indeed, the greatest ambition of a productive scientist is to do the kind of work that will be much used and much esteemed by fellow scientists best qualified to assess its worth.  And, generally speaking, scientific work is valued in the measure that the scientific community can draw upon it to advance their own future inquiry (Merton, 1979). And although scientists do not get paid when the papers they submit to research journals get published, they nonetheless receive something of very high value. Academia is an industry of prestige, and the currency in which prestige is traded is journal titles. In most scientists’ minds, a publication in an elite journal like Nature or Science is a direct ticket to a job, grants and tenure (Eisen, 2013). But there is a rampant misconception at work here. Scientists don’t need the journals to serve as a proxy of their work’s value and importance. The quality of a researcher’s work should be evaluated by itself and in itself and not my means of shortcuts such as the journal’s acknowledgment and notoriety or even certain reductionist metrics like Tompson’s Impact Factor.

Another important aspect pointed up by Merton (1979) is the seemingly paradoxical character of property in the scientific enterprise: the circumstance that the more widely scientists make their intellectual property freely available to others, the more securely it becomes identified as their property. But this poses the question: why aren’t more scientists endorsing such practices such as self-archiving (as discussed here by Flis (2012)) or the Golden Road to Open Access (i.e. publishing in an open-access journal)? Undeniably, studies show us that the practice of self-archiving has been shown to increase citation impact by a dramatic 50-250%, but so far only 15% of researchers are actually doing it (Harnad, 2006).

The future of Scientific Publishing

While the ideals behind scientific publishing are honorable and noteworthy the industry behind it is anything but. The biggest travesty, according to Michael Eisen (cited in Van Noorden, 2013) is that the scientific community carries out peer review — a major part of scholarly publishing — for free, yet subscription-journal publishers charge billions of dollars per year, all told, for scientists to read the final product. Back in the 1990’s several people began promoting a simple alternative model. This movement- now known as “open access” – proposed to treat science publishing like a service, with publishers getting paid a fee for the value they provide, but once this fee is paid, the finished product would effectively enter the public domain rather than the publishers private one (Eisen, 2013). Of course, this type of business model is not of great interest to the publishing juggernauts since it would translate into a huge decrease in the profits of these powerhouses (i.e. Elsevier, Sage, Wiley-Sons, etc.). Following this line of thought, it becomes evident that the concern of the scientific community and readership in general is not the thing taken into consideration when scrutinizing scholarly publishing. On the contrary, it is a perversion of the very same idea outlined in the beginning of this paragraph. This tendency, entrenched in the scientific enterprise, should be fought against and ultimately wiped out.

It doesn’t make sense for universities to waste a great portion of their budget in subscriptions that shouldn’t exist in the first place (even Harvard has refused to pay its subscriptions last year as stated by Sample (2012)). Furthermore, the expansion of web-based scientific journals has eliminated the need for journals as distribution channels, so their primary current role is to provide authors with feedback prior to publication and a quick way for other researchers to prioritize the literature based on which journal publishes a paper (Kravitz and Baker, 2011). Thus, if researchers (particularly young ones) choose to publish their work in open-access journals this would mean that, over time, the subscription-based journal system would become extinct as a result of less and less submissions and eventually replaced with a far more adequate and up-to-date business model. The publishing industry and its interests have been living at the costs of sweat, blood and tears from scientists all over the world for far too long and that must be ended.


Lucien, F. & Henri-Jean, M. (1976).The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800. London: New Left Books.

Porter, J. R. (1964). The Scientific Journal – 300th Anniversary. Bacteriological Reviews, 28, 3, 211-230.

Kravitz, D. J. & Baker, C. I. (2011). Toward a new model of scientific publishing: discussion and a proposal. Front. Comput. Neurosci. 5:55. doi: 10.3389/fncom.2011.00055

Herschman, R. (1970). The Primary Journal: Past, Present, and Future. Journal of Chemical Documentation, 10, 1, 37-42.

Merton, R. K. (1979). Foreword. In Garfield, E. (Ed.) Citation Indexing — Its Theory and Application in Science, Technology, and Humanities. John Wiley & Sons Inc

Garrett, A. (2000). A Short History of Scientific Writing in Scitext Cambridge. Retrieved April 02, 2013, from

Harnad, S. (2006). Publish or Perish — Self-Archive to Flourish: The Green Route to Open Access. ERCIM News, 64

Van Noorden, R. (2013). Open access: The true cost of science publishing. Nature. 495,426–429: doi:10.1038/495426

Eisen, M. (2013). The Past, Present and Future of Scholarly Pubslihing in Retrieved April 04, 2013 from

Sample, I. (2012). Harvard University says it can’t afford journal publishers’ prices. The Guardian, 24 April 2012. Retrieved April 08, 2013 from

About the author

Pedro Almeida Pedro Almeida is a graduate student and research assistant at the University of Groningen, Netherlands. His main research interests are evolutionary psychology and the intersection between marketing and psychology. Previously, he worked as an Editor for the Journal of European Psychology Students (JEPS).