The session was led by John McKay and Eric Michael Johnson. John posted the text of his presentation and Eric posted his presentation a la YouTube. I’m going to take this as permission to skip doing a proper recap here. Instead, I’m going to write about the big ideas this session raised for me.
First, I’m struck by how easy it is for those of us who were trained to do science to know very little about where scientific practices come from — especially practices around communicating results and methods to other scientists. Somehow, we either assume it’s always been this way (where “this way” is often the way we were taught to do it), or that the practices were put in place in plenty of time for the scientists of earlier eras who might have needed them, or that the practices that were established as the right ones were so obvious that their adoption was inevitable.
What I’ve gleaned from my coursework and reading in the history of science is that the inevitable usually takes a lot of work (plus some luck).
I also had a nice little flashback to a course I took in grad school where we got to spend a good bit of time looking at early scientific texts from the library’s special collections. So much depends on the right confluence of technologies, resources, and social practices (and each of these can, in turn, influence the others). The shift from hand-copying manuscripts to producing books with the printing press was a crucial step … but then you need to figure out how to produce the diagrams and crucial illustrations in those books (since hand-drawing is no longer an option). It’s amazing what woodcuts could accomplish (as in Copernicus’s De revolutionibus), but I bet they burned through a lot of woodcutters to get those precise geometrical figures on which scientific and mathematical arguments turned. Engraving made illustrating easier … so much so that some of the engravers creating illustrations of New World flora and fauna (going from the descriptions and maybe rough sketches of the explorers who had actually seen them) probably got carried away and introduced details that were pleasing to the eye but not empirically grounded.
Even with printing presses and engraving, the cost of paper was doubtless a damper on publishing scientific findings before you had something really important to share (or a wealthy patron satisfied that publishing your work was a good investment). And I wonder how much the expense of books worked to encourage those doing scientists to meet regularly — maybe at first to share their books, but then to discuss their work in progress and the ideas they had for further experimental or theoretical advances.
This gets at a big question about scientific practice (including, but not limited to, publishing one’s theories and results): Why share? What is the purpose of putting the information out to your peers or the public? What are you establishing? What relationship are you recognizing (or creating) to the people with whom you’re communicating?
There are other closely connected questions: Who is doing science? Where is science done? These two details have changed quite a lot over the history of science as a human activity. Is science democratizing force, or a closed practice? Part of the appeal of science during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment was that it offered a source of knowledge that was not restricted to the priestly classes or the closed guilds, but was potentially open to anyone with working sense organs and powers of reason. Still, not all scientific pursuits embraced democratic ideals. An open history of alchemy? Not so much.
Is the knowledge scientists shared in books and early scientific journals or society proceedings broadly applicable (by an educated person), or the kind of thing only a specialist, or a professional, or someone with access to specialized equipment could apply? This is the kind of thing that shifted as distinct disciplines coalesced, as scientific fields became professionalized (rather than the sorts of things in which educated people who were not professional scientists might dabble, to which they might even contribute), and as educational paths and credentialing became more standardized. It’s hard to know what scientific writing, or larger societies, would be like today if gentleman farmers and their ilk had not been marginalized from the “real” scientific discussions in the journals that emerged.
When your role is simply as a spectator to science rather than a minor participant, after all, there’s a chance that you’ll be drawn to spectate by something more appealing.
Another interesting thread in this session was the somewhat uneasy relationship between science and capitalism. Does knowledge want to be free when it requires significant expense to share it? Is knowledge something to be controlled so you can profit from it? Eric pointed to the Mertonian norms that presumably define science and its institutions, noting that secrecy is antithetical to them. Of course, to some extent openness is already in tension with the reward system Merton identifies as driving scientists (priority). Still, scientists feel like it’s part of their job as members of a scientific community to communicate their findings to journals, to review what other scientists have submitted to journals before it is published (which often includes sending detailed comments about the manuscripts) — and to do this for free. Then, they pony up the money to buy these very journals which depend on their (unpaid) labor.
There’s something a little perverse about this, combining an essential function (facilitating communication within a scientific community) with a profit motive. Arguably, what makes a publishing venture worthwhile to scientists might be quite different from what would make it worthwhile to the publisher hoping to profit from it.
Maybe there will be ways to use new technological tools to dial down the influence of profit motive on scientific communications, although this will doubtless require tweaking many of the existing social practices in the tribe of science.