Thursday 26th July saw the launch of SciLogs.com, a new English language science blog network. SciLogs.com, the brand-new home for Nature Network bloggers, forms part of the SciLogs international collection of blogs which already exist in German, Spanish and Dutch. To celebrate this addition to the NPG science blogging family, some of the NPG blogs are publishing posts focusing on “Beginnings”.
Participating in this cross-network blogging festival is nature.com’s Soapbox Science blog, Scitable’s Student Voices blog and bloggers from SciLogs.com, SciLogs.de, Scitable and Scientific American’s Blog Network. Join us as we explore the diverse interpretations of beginnings – from scientific examples such as stem cells to first time experiences such as publishing your first paper. You can also follow and contribute to the conversations on social media by using the #BeginScights hashtag.
Way back in the olden days, way before the internet or phones or even trains, the scientists of the 17th century (called natural philosophers at the time1) had two primary ways of hearing about the latest scientific ideas:
If you really wanted to be on the cutting edge, option number 2 was your only choice. The group of folks sending letters across Europe at the time are often referred to as the Invisible College.2 Judging from my skill at keeping up email correspondence with folks, I would have been very bad at this letter writing. Then again, I wouldn’t have been distracted by things like this.
In the middle of the 17th century, small groups of scientists invented a third way of spreading scientific news: meeting together to share their results in person, and presumably consume alcohol. These meetings turned into the first scholarly societies, like the Royal Society (founded in 1660) or the French Academy of Sciences (founded in 1666), and scientists still gather in person to share results and drink alcohol.
At one of the first meetings of the Royal Society, someone said something like this: “Hey, maybe we should write this stuff down, get it printed up and share it with the folks who can’t make it today. Damn plague.”3
Like many good suggestions, no one did anything about it for several years.
Finally, in 1665, the first secretary of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg, decided that it was time to put something together and possibly make himself a bit of money at the same time (Oldenburg was often looking for ways to make a bit more money).
With the blessing of the Royal Society, Oldenburg pulled together the content, had the first issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society printed and solicited subscriptions. Despite the title, Philosophical Transactions was not an official publication of the Royal Society, something that Oldenburg tried to make clear in the first issue and then again in an issue from 1666. I can imagine him shaking his head and saying “Why don’t people just read?”
Oldenburg published letters he received about scientific observations and experiments, and he composed reports about advances shared at Royal Society meetings. Recent books were also advertised and reviewed.
Now, another periodical, the french Journal des Sçavans, started publication a few months prior to the Philosophical Transactions. Despite the fact that the Journal included a large quantity of scientific content, most of the historians I’ve read don’t consider it to be the first true scientific journal: while the Journal published a lot of book reviews and news of interest to the scientific community, they didn’t publish a lot of original science. Of course, I don’t speak French, and French historians might disagree. It wouldn’t be the first time that scholars disagreed about the merits or details about a particular journal (or the last).
The Philosophical Transactions does have one other claim to fame – besides being the first scientific journal, they are also the longest continuously published journal (apart from a few small breaks in the 17th century due to plague , imprisonment4 and eventually Oldenburg’s death). You can read the most recent issues at the Royal Society website (not free), as well as the first volumes (free).
Other scientific journals soon followed, although it took some time for the journal article to become the primary method of communicating scientific results. Other aspects that we equate with scholarly journals took longer to develop: our current system of peer review didn’t come about until after the second world war, around the same time as the for-profit publishers began to eclipse scholarly societies as publishers of scholarly content.
For more history and less snark, see: Andrade, E., 1965, The birth and Early days of the Philosophical Transactions: Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, v. 20, no. 1, p. 9-27.
The Trailblazing site by the Royal Society has a great timeline and links to some of the most important papers from Philosophical Transactions, including Newton’s report on optics and van Leeuwenhoek’s early microscopy work.
1. Sorry, nothing to do with the British version of the first Harry Potter book
2. Invisibility was metaphorical, not actual, unfortunately
3. I’m paraphrasing
4. Really. Oldenburg was imprisoned in the Tower of London for a few months in 1667 after he managed to offend the King of England by criticizing his conduct of the Dutch War in letters to Europe