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Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Annex 1


  Learned publishing by means of the journal first began in the mid 17th century. Henry Oldenburg created the world's first scientific journal for the newly founded Royal Society of London (of whom he was first Joint Secretary) in March 1665 to solve a number of problems faced by early scientists. Principal among these was the desire to establish precedence: the first authors of a phenomenon or result wanted their priority as discoverer to be publicly acknowledged and secured before they were prepared to share their results with their colleagues. Oldenburg realised that an independent periodical publication run by an independent third-party that would faithfully record the name of a discoverer, the date the paper was submitted and a description of the discovery could resolve this dilemma for the pioneering scientists of his age. Philosophical Transactions, the journal Oldenburg set up for members of the Royal Society (but at his own financial risk and profit) did exactly this. In its monthly issues, it registered the name of the authors and date that they sent their manuscripts to Oldenburg as well as recording their discoveries, thereby securing the priority for first authors and encouraging them to share their results with others, safe in the knowledge that their "rights" as "first discoverers" were protected by so doing. Philosophical Transactions from its outset did not publish all the material it received; the Council of the Society reviewed the contributions Oldenburg received before approving a selection of them for publication. Albeit primitive, this is the first recorded instance of "peer review". It was quickly realised by Oldenburg's contemporaries that the accumulating monthly issues of the journal also represented a record of the transactions of science of archival value.

  The four functions of Oldenburg's journal: registration, dissemination, peer review and archival record are so fundamental to the way scientists behave and how science is carried out that all subsequent journals, even those published electronically in the 21st century, have conformed to Oldenburg's model. All modern journals carry out the same functions as Oldenburg's and all journal publishers are Oldenburg's heirs.

  The journal article performs a unique role in scholarship. It is an on-the-record, validated public statement of the claims made by its authors, like a witness statement under oath in the court of scientific opinion. It occupies a central position in terms of the wider set of possible communication modes that a researcher may adopt (oral presentations at conferences, early draft versions of a paper (preprints), an evaluated review article of other research articles in a field, a scholarly monograph or textbook). It is the evaluated (that is, peer reviewed) public, formal and final nature of the published journal article that make it so important to its authors, their individual standing and their career prospects.

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Prepared 20 July 2004