The Scientific Journal: Authorship and the Politics of Knowledge in the Nineteenth Century

By Alex Csiszar, University of Chicago Press, Chicago Il, 2018, 368pp. Cloth $45.00 (ISBN: 9780226553238)

Many scholars might like to believe the notion that scientific research and publishing are both divorced from the messy world of politics. And also that scholarly publishing is largely immutable, and that the way things are is the way things have always been. The reality, however, could not be further from the truth. In The Scientific Journal: Authorship and Politics in the Nineteenth Century, Alex Csiszar takes us on a grand tour of the intersection between politics and scholarly communication over a crucial period in recent history in western Europe. This fascinating past reveals much to us about how we arrived at the present state, where scandal, political drama, and scientific egos play prominent parts in the complex evolution of the publishing press. Each page contains eyebrow-raising and illuminating tales that demonstrate just how important an academic understanding of the history of scholarship is. At a time when the world of scholarly publishing is feeling strong reforms in just about every aspect, this book could not be better timed to help us recognise just how adaptable this fragile ecosystem can be.

This book helps, at least in part, to address the question of how the scientific journal, from its modest origins within small scholarly communities, came to be the primary source for global scientific communication and legitimacy. The modern journal is key in defining the structure and hierarchy of modern academies and institutes, the careers and livelihoods of researchers, and providing the very foundations for which new discoveries are now often made. But it was not always this way, as Csiszar discloses to us, digging deep into the archives of scientific history to tell us time and time again that key message: no matter what politics and public discourse throws at them, scientific journals find a way. Furthermore, he describes to us how the journal was able to attain its elevated status of almost totally dominating the scientific communication landscape, and the role that specific individuals, communities, and technological innovations played in this. Given the major tensions and changes occurring in the world of scholarly publishing at the present, this book provides timely and informative context to help us understand the past, so that we might be able to create a better present and future.

Perhaps one of the strongest elements of the book is its ability to challenge us, in a productive way, with a compelling narrative of captivating and dramatic stories of individuals and their strange politics. Battles and alliances of intellect, competitive zeal, and a lust for novelty and recognition—all still very prominent today—have their roots in the very foundations of our modern journal system. One major theme that stuck out was the role that power plays in scholarly research and communication, and that any call for reform cannot be successful without first overthrowing the current regime in power. I feel that this will be particularly illuminating, therefore, for those seeking to restructure current methods of scholarly communication, and helping them more deeply understand the inherent political dimensions. One cannot understand what modern science is for, if one does not understand the politics of scholarly communication.

Csiszar touches on a range of highly topical themes, such as the role of journals as the governing mode for communicating science, the dimensions of science as a public good, and the power that technological innovation can have on knowledge dissemination. In particular, there is a strong focus on the shifting place of scholarly learned societies, and the special position that they occupy within scholarly communities as a point of contact between publishing, science, politics, and the general public. From humble, gentlemanly meetings, these important institutes continue to play a critical role in modern scholarly societies, and their rise to power in line with the evolution of academic presses is a wonderous tale. In parallel to this, Csiszar also touches upon that sacred cow, the original role and functionality of peer review. Peer review often is wielded by academics as the arbitrator between scientific truth, legitimacy, and nonsense, and with the oft perception that the current state has ‘always been this way’. Csiszar casually demolishes these myths around peer review by delightfully recalling its humble origins as part of a gentlemanly discourse, and that indeed often its modern practice has very little to do with its original purpose and intent. Csiszar’s real speciality here is his able to keep us continuously challenged with each page we turn, with meticulous expertise crafted into compelling narrative through skilful application of the written word. This is what makes this book so much more special than, well, just an average research paper.

What is perhaps most revealing throughout is that many of these issues in scholarly publishing that we deem to be ‘current’ seem to have their roots in the very foundations of scholarly publishing, and thus viewing them through a historical lens should be fruitful for those wishing to enact change. All of these issues are cleverly centred around elite role of the early learned societies and academies as the arbiters of scientific legitimacy, which still unto this day remains in a state of constant challenge. As such, this book should not only become a critical read for those interested in the development of modern scientific communication, but also viewed as an authoritative piece for discussing the future of journals in this space, as well as the critical role of science in society. It should be as illuminating to the most veteran scholar as it is to the most wide-eyed, young graduate student, getting ready to embark on their own adventure into the world of publishing.

Jonathan Tennant, Independent Researcher, Institute for Globally Distributed Open Research and Education (IGDORE)