6th International Conference of European Society of History of Science, Lisbon, Portugal, 4–6 September 2014

Session on:

Publish versus unpublished claims of priority: The role of science journal publishing in scientific disputes, c.1850–c.1950

Session Abstract

The focus in this session is on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century examples of claims to priority and on the role of the published record in these disputes. Hitherto, work on scientific disputes has largely focused on assessing the veracity of individual accounts. Others have looked at the reasons why scientists have been preoccupied with the origin of discoveries. For example, Robert Merton (1957) suggests that scientific disputes are ‘responses to what are taken to be violations of the institutional norms of intellectual property’. In other words, institutions like the Royal Society are seen to be stalwarts of justice in the practice of science. When this is violated, contentions result. The purpose of this session is to think more about claims to priority in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and, specifically, how and why some testimonies were seen as more valid than others. We suggest that scientific disputes were often determined less by the actual timescale of events (who did what first?) and more by the proof individuals possessed of their pioneering work, namely in the form of the published record. The main question addressed here is what role the science journal has in arguments over provenance?

Main themes

  • The role of science journal publishing in debates about provenance. How and why did publishing one’s work assist in staking possession of a discovery?
  • At the same time, what part did the science journal have in publicising challenges to priority?
  • The value placed on published/unpublished information. Was the date of origin of a scientific discovery tantamount to its first published record?
  • How was the issue of priority settled? When there were challenges to priority who won and why?
  • What other modes of communication did individuals use to validate their findings and claims to be their originator?

This session comes out of work on the AHRC funded project ‘Publishing the Philosophical Transactions: the social, cultural and economic history of a learned journal, 1665-2015’, with the University of St-Andrews and the Royal Society of London. Offers of papers, including a 250-word abstract, should be sent by the 28th November 2013 to Dr Julie McDougall-Waters, [email protected]