Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Alex Csiszar's "The Scientific Journal"

Alex Csiszar is associate professor in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Scientific Journal: Authorship and the Politics of Knowledge in the Nineteenth Century, and reported the following:
Page 99 begins with images [below, click to enlarge] of two scientific instruments, a simple microscope and a humble apparatus for magnetic experiments. The Scientific Journal is packed with images of documents, but these are the only instruments depicted in it. Understanding why they matter goes a long way to explaining how this book turns the conventional image of scientific journals on its head. One was designed by François-Vincent Raspail and the other by his friend Jacques-Frédéric Saigey. They met in the 1820s as paid writers for a scientific journal called the Bulletin universel des sciences et de l’industrie, a publication aimed at diffusing scientific news as widely as possible. Both had come to Paris from humble beginnings in the provinces and -- lacking the inside connections of more well-heeled savants -- both struggled to make it in science. Page 99 retells Raspail’s narrative of the barriers to recognition at the Paris Academy of Sciences:
[Raspail] recalled how he “trembled upon entering the courtyard of the Institut for the first time,” and finally mustered the courage to approach the botanist René Desfontaines with his manuscript. Upon learning that the subject was botany, the academician inquired what new species he had discovered. Raspail responded that its subject was not new species but rather new organs and analogies. “At these words Desfontaines turned his back to me, as if I had given him an insult to which he could not stoop to respond.” Raspail did eventually have his manuscript—on “The Formation of the Embryo in Grasses”—read at the Academy. Eventually—after Raspail had given up hope—a commission presented a report that was more or less favorable. And then nothing happened. Because Raspail had no particular patron at the Academy, his positive report won him no further notice. Raspail continued to pepper the Academy with memoirs over the next several years, most of which the Academy simply seemed to ignore. This was disappointing. But there was something worse than being ignored. While Raspail became a subject of ridicule among academicians for his many submissions, he noticed that their protégés and family members were beginning to re-present his ideas as their own.
Such misfortunes turned Raspail and Saigey into radical scientific activists. The cheap scientific instruments they designed would broaden access to experimentation, while a cheap scientific press would give the people control over the advance of knowledge. Scientific journals were rarely the prestigious venues we now see them as, and they were often shunned by prestigious institutions such as the Academy. Raspail argued that the judgments of academicians were biased, behind the times, and corrupt. The legitimate judge of scientific truth was the educated public, and it was the periodical marketplace that represented that judgment. After the 1830 July Revolution, Raspail and Saigey stepped up their critique of scientific elitism as part of a broad Republican political opposition, reporting on and exposing the weekly doings of the Academy. Eventually the Academy realized the best way to fight back was to appropriate the same weapons. It launched its own competing journal in 1835, the Comptes rendus hebdomadaries, hoping that official weekly reports might put their critics out of business.

Despite, or because of, these sordid beginnings, the Comptes rendus became part of a trend in which the most prestigious forms of scientific writing became short articles somewhat akin to advertisements (think Nature, Science, or, indeed, the Comptes rendus, still thriving today). Amid present upheavals in publishing, refocusing the history of the scientific journal around seemingly peripheral figures such as Raspail and Saigey shows that even the most prestigious genres of knowledge have been the result of political, commercial, and epistemic compromise.
Learn more about The Scientific Journal at The University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue