The History of Scientific Publication
While as young scholars we engage in the race to get publications and keep a tab of publication as a metric of one’s academic achievements, it is an interesting exercise to step back and look into the history of the evolution of scientific publications.
While being a scientist has always been a full-time professional engagement through the ages, the norm of the profession has not been the same. Not all scientists were attached to Universities, and it was very common for individual scientists to engage in their experimentations in their own backyards in their own private laboratories. The tradition is still carried on by some recent tech pioneers, but they are more of businessmen than academic scientists.
The scientific community has always struggled for means to communicate amongst themselves to share knowledge. The earliest forms of such communication were not research papers but actually codification or standardization of scientific content. The earliest evidence of scientific recording dates back to ancient clay tablets, dating to 3500 BCE, found from the Sumerian Civilization of Mesopotamia, which records detailed astrological descriptions of the stars and their movements.
Communication was not always confined to writing though, as much of the Greek and ancient Indian scientific communications were verbal or oral in nature. When Aristotle formalized his treaties on communication in his famous ‘Rhetoric’, he established the basis of emotional appeal, logical arguments, credentials, and character of the speaker; ideas that we still replicate in the modern world! When we engage in journal selection, looking for high impact factors, we are essentially still playing out the concepts formalized by Aristotle so many years ago!
Universities emerged in the middle ages. For a long, the Monasteries were the centers of scientific discourse, which still was a mix of science, philosophy, theology back then. Famous monasteries housed the earliest books, which were painstakingly created by hand. This made books precious and even rare, and some only existed in originals with no copies available. Such monasteries/Universities were found across the world, including examples of Nalanda University in India.
The advent of the printing press in 1450 by Johannes Guttenberg changed the course of human history. Suddenly, printed materials could be produced in bulk for distribution and it also became popular amongst the masses, who by now had greater levels of literacy in history.
But it was really the emergence of a new age of educated elites that formed the last building piece for the phenomenon of scientific publication as we know it today. A pioneering group of scientists like Newton, Oldenburg, got together to formalize the scientific community in the form of The Royal Society of London in 1660. The Royal Society decided on developing a periodical journal where each scientist would share one experiment or observation per issue. Thus, was born the Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society in 1665, the world’s first scientific journal that recently celebrated its 350th anniversary in 2015!
Today, the world of journal/periodicals for publishing is such an integral part of our professional lives that it has emerged as a business by itself.