Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Philosophical Transactions and Michelangelo

Yesterday, I was pleased to celebrate two birthdays: the birth of The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (of which I was Editor in Chief between 1997 and 2003), and the birth of Michelangelo.

The birth of The Philosophical Transactions (established March 6, 1665) was celebrated at a party at the Royal Society (accompanied, strangely enough, by hot dogs and French fries!!). Phil Trans, as it is now commonly referred to in abbreviation, is the world’s first scientific journal, its longest running, the first to introduce the peer-review system and the first to publish a paper by a woman scientist (Caroline Herschel in 1787).

As the President of the Royal Society reminded those gathered to celebrate last night, before Phil Trans was established, scientists used to correspond with each other, often in code, for fear that their findings may be stolen. Phil Trans changed all that and hence made science more accessible, while at the same time giving a scientist priority for his/her findings.

It was established by Henry Oldenburg, German by birth and the first Secretary of the Royal Society, and has since published many interesting papers, including ones by Newton, Boyle and others. More recently, these have been in the form of reviews and the issues have often been theme issues, devoted to a particular topic.

Soon after its birth, London was hit by the Great Plague and then the Great Fire. Phil Trans was spared because, at that time, its offices had moved to Oxford.

But Oldenburg himself was incarcerated briefly at the Tower of London. He had been in correspondence with some Dutch scientists and, during the Anglo-Dutch wars, the security services suspected him of having Dutch sympathies and therefore of being a security risk.

In 1887, the journal divided into two sections, one devoted to the physical sciences (A) and the other to the biological sciences (B) and has continued in that form (I was Editor of the B section).

The birthday was also a moment of reflection about the future of scientific publication and the peer-review system. The latter is often abused but not nearly as much, I think, as people believe. But with so many scientists producing so much, can the peer-review system survive in its present form?

In a sense, the peer-review system is itself somewhat outdated now, or rapidly becoming so. Scientific findings, especially ones that are considered to be important, are subject to post-publication scrutiny. Just think of what happened to a certain well-known paper published in Nature last year. This perhaps will rapidly reduce the peer-review system to a sort of check-list, to ensure that it is broadly respectable, without too much quibbling about the interpretation of the results.

Plus of course, any scientist who is completely shut out can always publish results on the internet.

In fact,  post-publication review has been with us for as long as Phil Trans and even longer. Good papers stand the test of time because they are found to be good post-publication and bad or indifferent ones wither away and are forgotten, no matter how glowing the peer review may have been. 

No one invited me to a celebration of Michelangelo’s birthday (March 6, 1475) – assuming that any had been organized.

So I celebrated it with friends, all of them Michelangelo nuts, at a dinner.

Altogether a very nice day.