Papers, please: the history of publishing

How the peer review process got started, and how it's changed
18 May 2020

Interview with 

Melinda Baldwin, American Institute of Physics


Old books packed on bookshelves


In almost all Naked Scientists shows, there will be words like paper, journal, and “peer reviewed” tossed around. These concepts make up the process by which almost all science is published for the world to see. However, journals and papers are relatively recent in human history, and have changed greatly over the past centuries. Melinda Baldwin is a historian at the American Institute of Physics who researches these changes, and explained them to Phil Sansom...

Melinda - So a scientific journal is a publication that publishes articles revealing new research results. There are a lot of different kinds of scientific journals: so for example Nature, which is one of the most prestigious journals in the world today, tends to publish short articles from every discipline; but many scientific journals today publish much longer articles and publish in a very narrow discipline.

Phil - Is this how science has always been published?

Melinda - It's not. For much of the early history of scientific publishing, scientific results could be published in a lot of different types of formats. So for example, Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species - that's a book. You also see men of science publishing their findings in pamphlets, in encyclopedias, occasionally in newspaper articles.

Phil - Why did journals then become the thing?

Melinda - During the 19th century, science as a whole became a much more stable career path. In the early 19th century, oftentimes - especially in the English speaking world - people who wanted to pursue scientific research had to do it as their after-hours hobby. Either that or they had to be independently wealthy so they would have enough money to support themselves. But during the 19th century, science becomes a much more stable and respectable career path. And what that means for publishing is that scientists no longer have to worry about selling their scientific findings to an audience outside of other scientists. And so the journal is a place where you're writing by and for other scientific researchers.

Phil - Science articles today, they obviously vary, but generally they're really hard to read...

Melinda - Yes, absolutely. If you go back to an early issue of Nature - one published in, let's say, 1870 - just about anyone could have read most of the articles. By 1900 it's completely different. And then by the 20th century you have articles that are so detailed and so specialised that not only can you not understand this biology article if you're not a scientist, you can't understand this biology article if you're not a biologist.

Phil - People describe articles as "peer reviewed" - is that people who do know about that article saying, "yes, that's okay"?

Melinda - Yes, exactly. When we say something has been peer reviewed, the article has been looked at by a number of specialists, usually one to four, and that those peer reviewers have said, "yes, this article should be published".

Phil - What was there before this?

Melinda - Refereeing was the term that was usually used. Starting in the 1830s at the Royal Society of London, the Society started soliciting formal reports about papers that were submitted to them for publication. The idea originally was that those reports were going to be published to spark scientific debates and discussions. That doesn't really take hold, but that comes in handy when you have someone who's a member of the Royal Society, but maybe written something that is a little wacky. And so by having these referee reports to fall back on, the editor can say, "oh, I'm terribly sorry. The referees said the piece is not acceptable."

Phil - Covering their butts.

Melinda - Yes, exactly. After that, a lot of learned society journals tend to use external refereeing to evaluate their submissions. Commercial journals, for profit journals, generally don't; and they don't do that well until the 20th century. It's not until the late Cold War that the scientific community starts to feel that something has to be peer reviewed in order to be considered scientifically legitimate.

Phil - Given that this is sort of now the way that people agree, "yeah, that's legitimate science," do you think that if you showed that process to someone from the 19th century it would be totally unrecognisable?

Melinda - I think it would be unrecognisable, and I think that if we showed the way we do things today to someone from the 1830s or the 1850s, they would probably see some problems. They would say, "what if the paper gets sent to a competitor who wants to sabotage? What if the paper gets sent to someone who's not really an expert in your field?" The fascinating thing to me about looking at the history of peer review is how much it changes over time. And it's something that can change again in the future.


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