How journals became – evolution of the form

Someone asked on twitter the other day if there was a good history of the scientific journal. A memory of this book, compiled by Alan Gross and colleagues, stirred, but I really couldn’t remember where I’d written about it, or trace a version of the review. I have it now (thanks to the same inquirer) so post it here so I can find it again – provided, I suppose, I remember that I put it here, or google does. That seems worth doing because it is easy to come by references to (Paul) Gross, of Higher Superstition fame, denouncing leftists and relativists in the academy, less so to track Alan Gross, author of the excellent Rhetoric of Science – some years before this equally well researched volume – and a real scholar of science and its literature.

What survives of scientists’ labour, after the field notes have been archived, the laboratory rig dismantled and the conference talks have faded from memory, are their writings. The collective efforts of researchers are distilled into papers in journals, hundreds of thousands of them, all recording claims to new knowledge and trying to persuade peers that those claims are justified.

As writing, the journal paper is a peculiarly constrained form, as anyone knows who has tried to compose one. Despite occasional laments about the impenetrability of professional scientific writing, complaints that it excludes the laity, and the current rapid development of new modes of publication, the standard form shows no sign of loosening its grip. Perhaps, then, it exists for good reasons. And since it did not emerge fully-formed at the birth of modern science, perhaps a historical look at how it took shape will show some of the reasons.

This rewarding study offers just such a look, in rich detail. Alan Gross and his colleagues start from the observation that there have been many recent studies of how scientists’ texts are put together – of the rhetoric of science as they term it – but they are almost always individual case studies and so offer no insight into change over time. It is easy to understand why. Examining the rhetoric of scientific papers does not imply that they are ‘mere rhetoric’, that the words are all that matter. But it does demand close attention to exactly which words are chosen, and how they are arranged. It is hard to do justice to this level of detail when working on more than a few papers, or a single book, at a time.

As you might imagine, the ambitions of a more sweeping historical study demand a compromise, a sampling frame that generates manageable data while yielding a fine-enough resolution to persuade that we are getting a clear picture of what actually happened. In this case that means analysing short passages (10 lines) from scientific articles published in a cross-section of journals in three languages, English, French and German. The smallest set, 200 items, is from the last third of the seventeenth century, the first journal that qualifies being the French Journal des Sçavans (Journal of the Learned), which appeared in 1665. There follow 500 selections from each of the next two centuries, and 600 from the twentieth century. By then, of course, there are many tens of thousands of journals, but their form is firmly established so a relatively sparser sample still suffices to disclose key features of the texts. The pre-twentieth century journals were chosen from the ranked lists published by the historian of science Robert Gascoigne. The modern set was derived from rankings based on the Science Citation Index.

The 1800 short passages used purely for stylistic analysis would obviously yield a restricted picture, so 430 complete articles were also dissected to display features of presentation and argument. What emerges from all this, century by century, is a fascinating record of the gradual emergence of the scientific paper as a distinct type, along with a novel perspective on the professionalization of science. All the authors whose work is highlighted, some celebrated, some delight- fully obscure, are engaged in establishing new facts about the world. But the way they present them has changed enormously since the personal reports of intriguing observations that typify the scientific article of the late seventeenth century. Communicating science shows how, over the next three centuries, the explosion of scientific publishing incorporated a whole series of changes, gradually and at different rates in different countries. They include shifts in who the authors are addressing, in the language they use, in presentation, even in the kinds of facts that are on offer (from observed particulars captured through the unaided senses to the sophistication of modern experimental contrivance).

After a step-by-step account of this history, in which the statistical analysis of textual features is augmented with many rewarding examples, the authors conclude with a brief review and a tentative explanation. The review highlights such features as a shift toward objectivity, manifested in the ‘suppressed-person’ of the passive, elimination of personal pronouns, focus on the action of things rather than people and an increasing use of hedges (like ‘we suggest that’). At the same time, the syntax — not the cognitive content — grows simpler in some respects, with shorter sentences and increasing use of complex noun phrases as their subjects. All this goes along with much more elaborate, and standardized, organizational, subheading and citation conventions.

The explanation sketched is cast in evolutionary terms, with appropriate caveats about the large differences between biological and cultural evolution. The authors suggest that the main ‘selection pressure’ operating on scientific articles is communicative efficiency, as registered in the rather special communities of readers who are the audience for these texts. I was not completely convinced that this framework added significantly to a more straightforward historical account of the developments charted here. But it is certainly good to have them laid out in such detail and analysed with such care. The book will be an essential starting point for future discussion of the history of scientific writing. (2002)

(Gross, A.G., Harmon, J.E. & Reidy, M. (2002)

Communicating science — the scientific article from the 17th century to the present. Oxford University Press)



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