The Establishment of Modern Scientific Discourse

We take for granted the scientific norms and practices which govern many of today’s standard publication procedures in modern scientific journals. But, indeed, the development of modern scientific discourse owes its immense history back to 17th century England. Henry Oldenburg, a 17th century German theologian, saw the need for a means to disseminate scientific knowledge to the public. This was a time, when many of the leading scientific figures, the likes of Sir Isaac Newton and Galileo Galilei, kept their findings and withheld them from the public, for fear of mis-attribution. Nonetheless, Oldenburg was able to develop an active correspondence with many of these eminent figures. By virtue of his correspondences, Oldenburg later became the secretary of the Royal Society of London.

Henry Oldenburg, secretary of The Royal Society in 1662. Image Credit: The Royal Society

As secretary, Oldenburg continued to carry on his extensive letter correspondence and in addition communicated all of the latest scientific developments and ideas between the natural philosophers and mathematicians all across Europe.  This frequent contact and the resulting extensive network culminated in Odenburg’s creation of the Society’s first periodical, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Essentially, this was the world’s first ever scientific journal. And, it solved many of the arising problems of natural philosophers refusing to impart their knowledge. Oldenburg solved this problem by ensuring author credit and won support by guaranteeing priority and acknowledging the precedence of the first authors before disseminating their discoveries. Oldenburg also guaranteed rapid publication, which, combined with the creation of a public record of intellectual property, encouraged the scientists of the time to share their work. They were momentous arrangements that saw the creation of the first seeds of the modern scientific process and all of the associated procedures. The Philosophical Transactions would go on to include the works of Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday, and many of the great names of science.

350-year-old journal: First issue of The Philosophical Transactions, published in 1665. Image Credit: The Royal Society

Oldenburg became the first editor of The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. By his own words, its purpose was to: “allow scientists to impart their knowledge to one another, and contribute what they can to the grand design of improving natural knowledge and perfecting all philosophical arts and sciences.”

Initially, the Philosophical Transactions were published in the form of an overview of the letter-to-letter correspondences gleaned by Oldenburg from the natural philosophers. Oldenburg would edit and bind the letters, archive the dates, and present the publications. And, meetings would be conducted in order to discuss the letters printed. However, the tone of the periodical would later evolve into one that is geared towards the public audience and the far wider readership of the outside world, rather than just to the Royal Society.

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The Philosophical Transactions would finally be endorsed by the Royal Society as an official journal in the 18th century. Image Credit: The Royal Society

Being a theologian, Oldenburg saw himself as unfit to assess or referee the quality of the manuscripts that were submitted for approval. As such, he saw the need to depute this task to a committee of experienced Royal Society academics. In essence, submissions were to be subjected to a scrutiny of judicial evaluation and screening, where inaccuracies, biases, and errors would be weeded out and where the quality of research would be ensured before approval and subsequent publication. These procedures constituted the first incidences of what we now know as “peer review” – an established procedure deeply valued, today, as a means to filter out or approve new information as recommended and which is currently used almost entirely by all scientific journals.

By setting up the first scientific periodical where a public archival record was maintained to preserve the precedence of intellectual effort, Oldenburg had established a public platform for authors to freely present and share their knowledge and for readers to replicate the experiment, scrutinize the results, and verify them. Indeed, Oldenburg’s efforts are largely the foundations of the crucial features that govern today’s scientific journals.

Featured Image Credit: The Royal Society


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