In this 350th anniversary year of scientific publishing, which began with the first issue of Philosophical Transactions in 1665, we can reflect on the huge impact the invention of the scientific journal has had on the way science is done.
Before the advent of the journal, scientific ideas were closely guarded by their originators, who often only communicated them – if they communicated them at all – in personal letters to their colleagues and competitors, which were all too easily lost. Afraid of being usurped by others, these early ‘natural philosophers’ (the term scientist didn’t come into use for another two centuries) would often use anagrams or coded messages in their letters to simultaneously keep their discovery a secret, and be able to claim priority once an idea became more established.
Secrecy is no foundation for building up a body of useful, reliable knowledge to be used for the benefit of humanity, however, and so the sharing of ideas was limited and progress was slow.
The Royal Society’s charter, granted by King Charles II in 1662, gave it the right to publish – a significant step when print was otherwise tightly controlled.
Set up by the Royal Society’s first secretary, Henry Oldenburg, Philosophical Transactions provided a means by which natural philosophers could gain credit for sharing their discoveries, with their names appearing in print alongside a date stamp that proved when the discovery was communicated. The decision of what would make it into the journal rested not only with Oldenburg, but also with the Council of the Royal Society, who were allowed to revise the tract, and so provide a framework for what we now call peer review to eventually fully develop. This condition established that the best judges of what counted as good science were other scientists.
Because the journal was published monthly, it was a quicker way of sharing the latest scientific ideas than a book, in addition to being cheaper to produce and buy. The journal also allowed significant standalone ideas, which on their own might not be substantial enough for an entire book, to be shared, framing scientific discovery as an ongoing process rather than a finished body of knowledge. Ideas were, for the first time, made accessible for others to scrutinise, challenge and improve upon.
Scientific publishing has therefore been crucial for the progress of science, and so it is fitting that in this significant anniversary year we are working with Young Scientists Journal to publish the findings of scientific projects funded by our Partnership Grants scheme, which funds science, technology, engineering and mathematics projects in schools around the country with grants of up to £3000. Since 2000, the scheme has awarded £1.3 million to 770 schools and colleges, allowing young scientists the opportunity to work on their own investigative project with the help of a scientist or engineer. In this special issue of Young Scientists Journal, we present 15 papers by school groups whose projects were funded by our Partnerships Grants Scheme – all of which have undergone rigorous peer review by other young scientists.
The advent of the web just over a quarter of a century ago, and the first online journals a few years after that, has brought about some significant changes to scientific publishing, including open access, and changes to how data can be accessed and linked to. Fundamentally, however, the tens of thousands of journals that are published today all operate on the same principles established 350 years ago. I hope that the original research presented in this issue will provide the foundations for further projects that extend the work outlined here, both in the schools that undertook the projects originally, as well as others that have their own ideas about how those findings.