Publish or Perish: the past, present and future of the scientific journal

Third-year Laura Brassington has won a Laidlaw Undergraduate Research Internship and started out by attending Dr Aileen Fyfe’s conference at the Royal Society. Here she reflects on seeing an academic conference in action…

The Royal Society of London, Philosophical Transactions, Vol. 1. London, 1665-1666, photo attr. Eve of Discovery,  CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Royal Society of London, Philosophical Transactions, Vol. 1. London, 1665-1666, photo attr. Eve of Discovery,
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In a break from all that Spring Break essaying I know we’re all doing, I volunteered to assist at the conference, “Publish or Perish: the past, present and future of the scientific journal,” at the Royal Society, in London. This fascinating conference was part of Dr Fyfe’s “Publishing the Philosophical Transactions” research project on the history of the world’s oldest science journal. I am looking forward to working with the research team this summer on a project to find out who was reading this journal in nineteenth-century Manchester.

I first became interested in the history of science after taking Dr Fyfe’s module, “Nature and Society in Victorian Britain” last semester. At the end of the module I took the opportunity to design my own research question and chose to pursue primary research on working-class engagement in science in nineteenth-century Britain. I was amazed to read first-hand accounts of individuals such as Thomas Edward, working 14-hour days for a few pence a week, yet spending every night outdoors observing and recording information about the natural world. I was even more fascinated to find that despite their intense dedication to science, such individuals have received very little historiographical attention. It was for this reason that I applied for the Laidlaw Internship. Not only will I have the chance to support valuable academic research, but I hope to recover more stories of the unsung working-class scientists, and their contribution to scientific knowledge.

In all honesty, I’m not really sure what I expected of the conference. Enthusiastic academics, high level intellectual debate, the realisation that the names on all those library books actually pertain to real people … but I came back inspired by the passion with which everybody spoke about their subject and their unhesitating offers of helpful advice even to a humble undergraduate. It was a pleasure to meet and talk to academics who have spent years researching and writing about the history of science.

Photo attr. Astrid Berglund, CC BY-NC 2.0

Photo attr. Astrid Berglund, CC BY-NC 2.0

I heard speakers from Harvard to Pretoria to China in what was a truly global conference celebrating 350 years of the scientific periodical. A few highlights included Dr Beth LeRoux discussing the delicate balance struck between academic freedom and political ideology in colonial South Africa, Dr Alex Csiszar on the secret history of offprints, and a public oral history event at which Fellows of the Royal Society discussed their own experiences of publishing science. The conference closed with a discussion of the history of the readership of scientific journals, which gave me the chance to ask Professor Jim Secord for advice as I prepare for my project this summer.

It was also very surreal to be a part of the way that communicating the history of science is changing. Put in charge of the conference’s Twitter account I found myself in conversation and debate not only with academics in parallel sessions but also Taylor Swift – who knew she had such a passion for science? Most of all, my interest in my research project was only heightened, and not even the gruelling 7 hour return journey could dampen my enthusiasm.

I am deeply grateful to Dr Aileen Fyfe, Dr Noah Moxham and Dr Julie McDougall-Waters for their welcome, and the opportunity to work on their project this summer. Alas for now it’s back to those essays …

If you are interested in knowing more about the conference, you can get an idea of the debates by looking up @AHRCPhilTrans, #philtrans350, and #histsci, and images from the conference can be found here. The research project can be found at: https://arts.st-andrews.ac.uk/philosophicaltransactions/.

About standrewshistory
With over forty full time members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from S cotland to Byzantium and the Americas to the Middle East and South Asia.Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching and tutorials allowing for in depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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