London Experience, Day 2: Cultural Impact on E-Publishing?
Since settling in and prior to arrival, a key question on my mind is this: why is London, England such a center of publishing activity for scholarly journals? Why might it be more advanced than in the United States?
Are there cultural differences, or has Europe simply been at the forefront of publishing for the longest?
Certainly there is a long tradition of academic scholarship in Europe – and Europe is the birthplace of publishing in the modern sense, of mass production and dissemination of printed material.
There are certainly an abundance of scholarly institutions – libraries, museums, universities – in and around London. Great scholars from Newton to Darwin hail from England – Darwin is even on the 5 pound bank note here, and is buried in Westminster Abbey. Egyptology, “natural philsophy” and medical arts were all in vogue in Europe – particularly London.
The Dutch Scientist Anton Von Leeuwenhauk in 1683 published a series of letters and pamphlets on his observations of small “animacules” via primitive lenses, precursor’s to today’s microscopes. Who received his correspondence? The Royal Society.
Not of Denmark. That’d be the Royal Society of London. So why was a Dutch scientist corresponding with the Royal Society? Was it the only venue for scientific communication in Europe? Perhaps. Founded in 1660, it was certainly the oldest, and in 1665 began publishing “Philosophical Transactions,” arguably the first scientific journal in the world.
So London clearly had an early start in the scientific publishing game. Two protestant states, Germany and England, seem to have a key role in the science communication story. Perhaps because anywhere else, scientists risked excommunication? Or, was English as the language of commerce the central focus of early science communication efforts?
This might be the first sign of the cultural impact upon scholarly publication in Europe.
I also have considered the attitude of the people of England themselves. Citizens of the U.K., especially following the Victorian age of empire and epic struggle against fascism and totalitarian rule in the latter half of the 20th century, are perhaps among the most ardent supporters of a free and open democracy. England indeed was among the first countries to reject foreign rule by the Vatican, and first to set the course for modern representative democracy with the Magna Carta.
What might this cultural love affair with open access and democratic control and self determination mean for scholarly publishing? In spite of being the center of commerce and a world financial center, clearly embracing the capitalist model, might the cultural love of community spirit lead to a greater emphasis on open access? These are interesting questions to consider in contemplating access to scholarly materials as a product of England.
A few cultural differences I noticed right away: on my trip from Heathrow to Central London via the Tube, I noticed that the concept of “personal space” was non-existent. In the U.S., the social norm is to give each other a wide berth of at least 3 feet. Even on the elevator to our dorms, and among friends who’ve known each other for nearly a year, American students would forgoe a packed elevator to wait for the next “lift.”
Not so in the U.K. Complete strangers shared not only personal space but physical contact – completely without hesitation. No accident, I sat elbow-to-elbow on the tube, with no effort made to keep at least an airspace.
I wondered if this was something inherrent to a large city – I’ve visited New York and Washington underground transit systems and don’t remember such familiarity – or if it’s just part of British culture. They fought tooth and nail through a war – many families cramming into the underground system. Propoganda posters like “All together now” may have galvanized society to see itself as one cohesive unit – casting aside the “cowboy” or “desperado” mythos of the U.S.
Further prompting my thinking along these lines was a message in both the common kitchen and bathroom – concerning “fairness” of cleaning up. While in the U.S. such snarky, slightly passive aggressive notes are more concerned with “we are not your mother or father” and encouraging personal responsibility, the bathroom/kitchen messages in my University College dorm (Astor College on Charlotte Street) extolled the virtues of being “fair.” It is “not appropriate or fair to others” to leave dirty dishes in the sink; “it is not fair to the cleaning staff or others” to leave a mess in the bathroom.
The U.K. does seem concerned with fairness as evidence by public transit, universal healthcare, and this anecdotal evidence provided by my signs.
Might this cultural reverence for “fairness” also permeate into the publishing realm, specifically regarding open access to scholarly and scientific information?
Finally, London was the birthplace of the term “scientist.” There was some discussion today in class regarding the start of the first true “scientific journals.” An interesting way of looking at it could be via the Google nGram project. Already described by a variety of bloggers, the popularity of the word “scientist” can be traced against that of “natural philospher” based on both words’ appearances in digitized literature. A chart of the two from 1800 to 1900 shows “scientist” is the clear victor.
From Cambridge University, William Whewell coined the term “scientist” around 1830 as a play on “artist.” It was not until the later half of the 19th century that the term flourished in the popular literature – from the Google nGram for the word, we can see that it passes “natural philosopher” only in the 1870s.
The scitext website from Cambridge puts the earliest French semi-scientific publication, Journal des Sçavans at 1665, the same year that “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London” started up.
Finally I see something of an arc from the “natural philosopher” – the tinkerer, ponderer, renaissance man – to the true specialist – and finally to the “generalist,” as one blogger suggests prominent, interdisciplinary scholars like Jared Diamond can be described.
Even Charles Darwin himself was a generalist – with wide ranging interests.
Yet to stay current, scientists seem to increasingly be forced into specialization. Perhaps a rise in collaboration is the only way to retain the “natural philosopher,” holistic perspective.
Some additional reading: