Cross-posted from The H Word.
This seems to be a good year for anniversaries in the history of science, particularly 50th anniversaries. Science studies clearly turned a corner in 1962. I have already mentioned the anniversary of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and there has been much attentionon Rachel Carson’s now-classic Silent Spring. This year also sees one of the discipline’s leading international journals, the British Journal for the History of Science, turn 50.
The British Society for the History of Science, which supports the BJHS, has been reflecting on the journal’s history and celebrating the anniversary by making a selection of past articles free to access.
This moment – when academic publishing is being scrutinised with questions of open access, impact ratings, and the role of print in a digital world – is an interesting one in which to reflect on the past and future of a journal. Will it continue to build up on my bookshelves, in physical form? What was the journal’s role in defining and cementing the discipline? Which articles have been most influential? How have our interests changed over the last half century?
Some of these issues are considered in the October issue of Viewpoint[PDF], the magazine of the BSHS. I particularly enjoyed a feature that got five current scholars to look over the articles published in the very first issue BJHS, from June 1962. They provoke some interesting reflections, although as Frank James writes:
An inattentive reader comparing the first with more recent issues of the BJHS might be forgiven for thinking that not much has changed in the history of science over the last fifty years. The subject matter looks remarkably similar – papers on the history of institutions, communication technology and genetics all continue to be written about in the Journal and elsewhere. But a detailed reading … reveals an entirely different approach….
One of the things that James notes is that four out of the five contributors to Issue 1 were scientists. In 1962 there were only a few tiny enclaves of professional historians of science. Today, although the discipline is still not large, the vast majority of articles in the BJHS are by academics working in history, history of science and science studies departments. The journal was a sign of this nascent professionalisation.
The change in the content of the BJHS thus chiefly reflected the way in which professional historians of science sought to differentiate their approach from what came before. In particular there was a rising interest in the social, cultural and economic contexts in which science and technology were developed and used. As a result, there was a reduced focus on the specialist technical content of scientific publications.
There are other changes. For example, Andrew Gregory, examining “Greek astronomy and its debt to the Babylonians”, notes that the last century saw a gradual shift away from a “great cultures” understanding of the development of science, to one that takes interest in a wider range of cultures. Historians now take note of the many routes through which knowledge has been transmitted, and have developed an interest in these cultures for their own sake, rather than purely for that of developing a story of progress from great civilisation to great civilisation.
As with so much academic research, the BJHS is not free to access. University libaries usually subscribe and members of the BSHS receive a print subscription and digital access to the whole 50-year back catalogue. Profits are shared between the publisher, Cambridge University Press, and the Society. It is a reasonable model compared to some, since it benefits the discipline as well as CUP, and there will, increasingly, be Research Council-funded research that will need to be made publicly accessible.
It seems a good omen that the Society and CUP should have decided to mark the anniversary by making a selection of articles open access. The list has been put together by two eminent former editors of the journal,Simon Schaffer and Janet Browne, and there are some corkers.
Ranging from the 1970s to 1990s, they show where history of science has headed since 1962. To pick a few, there is Hugh Torrens’presidential address on Mary Anning, Anne Secord on artisans and gentlemen corresponding on natural history in the 19th century, J.R.R. Christie considering big picture historiography of science, Steven Shapin looking at Robert Boyle’s self-fashioning and Deborah Warner asking “What is a scientific instrument?”
There is much in these physical and digital pages that is worth revisiting. It continues to provide food for thought, despite changes in fashion and developments in scholarship. Here’s to BJHS’s next 50 years!