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Scientific publication: Philosophical, Historical and Sociological Perspectives - a conference report

On May 7-8, 2024, AIAS gathered philosophers of science, scientometricians, and historians of science at the conference “Scientific publication: Philosophical, Historical and Sociological Perspectives" to examine in an interdisciplinary light how publication practices are evolving in response to all sorts of pressures.

Credit: Science, Nature, and TheScientist, latest issues 2023.

The conference “Scientific publication: Philosophical, Historical and Sociological Perspectives”, organized by AIAS Associate Fellow Brad Wray (Science Studies, Aarhus University) with the sponsorship of the Carlsberg Foundation, brought together philosophers of science, scientometricians, and historians of science for two days with a goal of examining how publication practices are evolving in response to all sorts of pressures. 

Authorship, peer review and publication funding

The four philosophers of science in the conference discussed, all on a cautious note, the changes in three central elements in scientific publication: authorship, peer review and publication funding. Hanne Andersen (University of Copenhagen) analysed the epistemic sustainability of the exponential growth of science. For Andersen, we should not be considering just progress, but also whether we are training scientists to have the skills and competences to filter an ever-growing amount of knowledge. As an illustration, she discussed the changing practices in doctoral dissertation authorship. When theses become a compilation of scientific papers, often co-authored, graduate students become early contributors to the publication flood and they may feel like hired hands on someone else’s project, and not vouching for the claims presented. This is the wrong entrance into the scientific profession. To secure sustainability, Andersen presented different proposals like finer grained metrics that distinguish between publications done on one’s own, and those done collaboratively with the support of a larger grant, metrics that tracked the proportion between submission and review, and that captured the relation between training efforts and placement record.

The challenges to peer review

Haixin Dang (University of Nebraska) and Brad Way (Aarhus University) explored independently the challenges to peer review. Dang considered the costs of transparency in open peer review. Transparency would be a key value in the open science movement, but these values do not always create a more inclusive science. Transparency is often defended as a remedy for conflicts of interests (the sunlight is the best disinfectant), but, following O’Neill and Nguyen, Dang argued that there is a tension between transparency and truth in open peer review. Young reviewers will probably not deliver sincere assessments of senior authors, which risks increasing the Matthew effect and fostering nepotism.

Brad Wray answered some recent objections against the reliability of standard peer review: reviewers rarely agreed on their assessments, as they should if they were tracking an objective quality of the paper. For Wray, peer review does not need to be reliable. Rather, it should lead to valid editorial decisions. A rejection would be valid if (a) the rejected paper was not published later in a better ranked journal or (b) the number of citations the rejected papers receives when published in the lower ranked journal are generally lower than the citations of the average paper in the journal where they were originally rejected. Wray showed that there is evidence in chemistry that both claims from chemistry (Bornmann, L., and H.-D. Daniel. 2008. “The Effectiveness of the Peer Review Process: Inter-Referee Agreement and Predictive Validity of Manuscript Refereeing at Angewandte Chemie,” Angewandte Chemie, 47: 7173-7178). The reason why this validity matters is, for Wray, Popperian: peer review mitigates scientific errors: it contributes to avoiding retractions in the future, for instance. Critics of peer review think there is much to gain for scientists if all papers were published, letting the scientific community make up their minds afterwards. For Wray, ex ante peer review is crucial for avoiding a potential flood of errors that would waste the community’s resources.

Models of open access publication

Finally, David Teira (UNED) focused on the different models of open access publication, examining the case for non-commercial (diamond) open access. Teira discussed the role of journal editors in making it possible, examining their incentives through an ethnography of Spanish philosophy journal editors. To confront the rising challenge of commercial (gold) open access publishing, Teira claimed that scholarly societies should prioritize the promotion of independent journals with their membership fees, either in their traditional format or as overlay journals anchored in repositories.

Reconstructing history

Two scientometricians, Robin Haunschild (Max Planck) and Eugenio Petrovich (University of Turin) reconstructed the history of, respectively, Pilates research and recent analytic philosophy using novel techniques. Haunschild used reference publication year spectroscopy to reconstruct the origin and expansion of a field from a focal paper, through the references this paper cites and through the further references that cite that focal paper. Petrovich focuses on acknowledgments, showing how the genre became popular in philosophy papers and tracing through the people thanked in acknowledgements in five key journals over the last 15 years who the most frequently featured names are, where they cluster and how they connect to each other.

The historian Alex Csiszar (Harvard University) presented his project to reconstruct a key chapter in the history of scientometrics, the rise of Eugene Garfield’s Institute for Scientific Information. Csiszar analysed the material constraints in the formation of the ISI citation database, contrasting the pressure for selectivity in the fields and journals covered and the marketing strategy to sell the impact factor to science managers - and standardize, as well, citation practices. The use of ISI as evidence in a trial -when the biochemist Sharon Johnson was denied tenure and sued the U. of Pittsburgh in 1972- illustrates, for Csiszar, the methodological compromises of the ISI, especially when they appeal to the indexes in the assessment of individual scientists.

The role of images in scientific publication

Two historians discussed the role of images in scientific publication. Christoffer Basse Eriksen (Aarhus University) showed how Leeuwenhoek’s work on the microscopy of nutmeg was driven by the commercial needs of the East India Company, seeking more effective pest control procedures. Leeuwenhoek, a trader himself without formal qualifications, presented his results in letters that were later compiled and published, communicating both to scientists and traders alike.

Laura Søvso Thomasen (Royal Danish Library) presented her research on a new archival trove of drawings by the scientist and writer J. P. Jacobsen. The drawings ranged from mere doodles and scientific representations to more artistic images, often found in the margins of his writings. Thomasen discussed the different reasons why Jacobsen never published them and the role they could have played in the articulation of his thoughts.

Contrasting approaches through interdisciplinary dialogue

In the closing general discussion, the contrasting approaches of the three disciplines in dialogue at the workshop emerged. Scientometricians showed the power of scientific papers to reconstruct the intellectual history of a field. Philosophers were conservative in their defence of some key features of the traditional publication model, whereas historians showed how the evolution of publication formats responded to broader social forces beyond their epistemic virtues. All noted that such interdisciplinary debates on the topic have been rare and committed to extend them further.


Brad Wray, Associate professor & AIAS Associate Fellow
E-mail: kbwray@css.au.dk

Department of Mathemathetics,
Centre for Science Studies,
Aarhus University,