Open access journals. Part 2.

“ceiiinosssttuv” –Robert Hooke (1676)

“I was country when country wasn’t cool.”– Barbara Mandrell (1990)

When the peerless Isaac Newton and his contemporary Robert Hooke[1]walked the earth, natural philosophers were few and far between. The pace of discovery and change was relatively slow. Fact is, the term “scientist” wouldn’t supplant “natural philosopher”for more than another 100 years. (When it did, the label would first be applied to a woman – the remarkable Scottish science writer and polymath, Mary Somerville– who died at the age of 91, almost exactly 150 years ago.)

During Newton’s time, the oldest national science institution in the world, Britain’s Royal Society, formerly the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, was established in 1660. (A reminder, that by some lights, the American Meteorological Society, at age 100, might be considered a relative newbie.) The institution was the outgrowth of a more informal group established some fifteen years earlier by Robert Boyle (claimed – and acclaimed– as a chemist by most, though some in our community also see him as a proto-meteorologist). 

The Royal Society’s formation occurred in several stages. Under Boyle’s leadership, the original group met weekly and conducted experiments. Royal approval and a formal charter were granted in 1662. A second royal charter, using the historic name, followed in 1663. In November of that same year Robert Hooke was appointed Curator of Experiments. Member scientists recognized early that a journal was a critical need. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society was cranked up about 1665, and is credited with being the first journal in the world devoted exclusively to science, and therefore also the world’s oldest and longest-running science journal.

The Wikipedia article suggests that the familiar functions of the scientific journal – registration (date stamping and provenance), certification (peer review), dissemination and archiving − were introduced at [Phil. Transactions’] inception.

To expand a bit, scientific journals have provided means for researchers to share progress as they go along. But journals have also been, and continue to be, asked to accomplish much more. Journals are used to establish priority (who published first?). Journal peer review is supposed to assess worth (validity, novelty, scope and breadth of implications, etc.). Peer review is also to bring to light and thereby limit data falsification, manipulation, and plagiarism[2]. Historically, journals have helped the science community provide a measure of transparency and reproducibility. Then there is curation. Once a paper has been accepted, journals make the work and the foundational data and metadata accessible – and inviolate – not just in the short term but over the long haul.


This suite of journal functions is not just incidental but indispensable to the progress of science. Before the advent of journals, and even in their early days, scientists like Hooke would achieve some of the needed functionality by publishing their results in the form of anagrams, such as the one above, floated in 1676. Only two years later would Hooke reveal that rearranged, these letters were the Latin expression ut tensio, sic vis of his eponymous law: stress is proportional to strain. (If interested, you can read a bit more of the backstory on such use of anagrams here.)

Which brings to mind a question (channeling the inimitable Barbara Mandrell a bit): Could science journals have been blockchains before blockchains were a thing?

They certainly perform some blockchain functions. Look at this excerpt from an IBM website, typical of many on-line introductory links out there (if interested, dive into the five-minute-total collection of introductory IBM videos on the topic available on the same link). Blockchains embody

Distributed ledger technology

All network participants have access to the distributed ledger and its immutable record of transactions. With this shared ledger, transactions are recorded only once, eliminating the duplication of effort that’s typical of traditional business networks.

Records are immutable

No participant can change or tamper with a transaction after it’s been recorded to the shared ledger. If a transaction record includes an error, a new transaction must be added to reverse the error, and both transactions are then visible.

Smart contracts

To speed transactions, a set of rules – called a smart contract – is stored on the blockchain and executed automatically. A smart contract can define conditions for corporate bond transfers, include terms for travel insurance to be paid and much more.

Of course, the blockchain folks have bigger, more expansive ideas for the ways blockchains can underpin or supplant journals, and even how blockchain technology can weave through the entire fabric of science.

To sum up: specialized recordkeeping – peer-controlled, immutable, a shared record of truth. These similarities/shared goals – and the prospect that journals and the scientific enterprise may adopt or more blockchain-based mien – together suggest that the current information revolution, far from reducing the cost of journals, may force costs up. That’s because blockchains, as presently implemented, tie up vast computing capacity and consume stupefying amounts of energy as they grow.

More in the next post.

[1]Hooke was a bachelor, but may have had a child out of wedlock. If you’re reading this, your chances of being related to him in some way are probably as good as mine.

[2]Another side note: in the early days, before the Royal Society would accept your paper for publication, they’d repeat the experiment. Hooke earned his pay by performing two experiments per week for the Society. Imagine passing that test today – imagine forcing those working on multi-national, multi-year projects like VORTEXor big satellite instrument platforms and packages like GOES to wait for years until successor, confirmatory projects could be run, before accepting their research results for publication.

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2 Responses to Open access journals. Part 2.

  1. “… tie up vast computing capacity and consume stupefying amounts of energy as they grow.” Those dreaded externalities will bite you in the butt every time!

    A very important topic, with a lot of side issues. For example, should government-sponsored research data be available even if the research results are reported in a for-pay journal? Will/do people value open access research as much as what they must pay for? Looking forward to more on this.

  2. William H. Hooke says:

    🙂 thanks, John,

    once again you’ve succinctly captured a couple of the important issues.

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