- The Scientific Journal: Authorship and the Politics of Knowledge in the Nineteenth Century by Alex Csiszar
by Alex Csiszar
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. 368 pp. $45.00 (cloth)
Many scholars might like to believe the notion that scientific research and publishing are both divorced from the messy world of politics. They might also like to believe that scholarly publishing is largely immutable and that the way things are is the way things have always been. The reality, however, could not be further from the truth. In The Scientific Journal: Authorship and Politics of Knowledge in the Nineteenth Century, Alex Csiszar takes us on a grand tour of the intersection between politics and scholarly communication over a crucial period in the recent history of western Europe. This fascinating past reveals much about how we arrived at the present state, where scandal, political drama, and scientific egos play [End Page 398] prominent parts in the complex evolution of the publishing press. Each page contains eyebrow-raising and illuminating tales that demonstrate just how important an academic understanding of the history of scholarship is. At a time when just about every aspect of scholarly publishing is experiencing strong reforms, this book could not be better timed to help us recognize just how adaptable this fragile ecosystem can be.
This book helps, at least in part, to address the question of how the scientific journal, from its modest origins within small scholarly communities, came to be the primary source for global scientific communication and legitimacy. The modern journal is key in defining the structure and hierarchy of modern academies and institutes, as well as the careers and livelihoods of researchers, and in providing the very foundations for which new discoveries are now often made. But it was not always this way, as Csiszar discloses to us, digging deep into the archives of scientific history to tell us time and time again that key message: no matter what politics and public discourse throw at them, scientific journals find a way. Furthermore, he describes how the journal was able to attain its elevated status of almost totally dominating the scientific communication landscape and the role that specific individuals, communities, and technological innovations played in this. Given the major tensions and changes occurring in the world of scholarly publishing at the present, this book provides timely and informative context to help us understand the past so that we might be able to create a better present and future.
Perhaps one of the strongest elements of the book is its ability to challenge us, in a productive way, with a compelling narrative of captivating and dramatic stories of individuals and their strange politics. Battles and alliances of intellect, competitive zeal, and a lust for novelty and recognition—all still very prominent today—have their roots in the very foundations of our modern journal system. One major theme that stuck out was the role that power plays in scholarly research and communication and that any call for reform cannot be successful without first overthrowing the current regime in power. I feel that this will be particularly illuminating, therefore, for those seeking to restructure current methods of scholarly communication and will help them more deeply understand the inherent political dimensions. One cannot understand what modern science is for, if one does not understand the politics of scholarly communication.
Csiszar touches on a range of highly topical themes, such as the role of journals as the governing mode for communicating science, the dimensions of science as a public good, and the power that technological innovation can have on knowledge dissemination. In particular, there is a strong focus on the shifting place of scholarly learned societies and [End Page 399] the special position that they occupy within scholarly communities as a point of contact between publishing, science, politics, and the general public. From humble, gentlemanly meetings, these important institutes continue to play a critical role in modern scholarly societies, and their rise to power in line with the evolution of academic presses is a wonderous tale. In...