When there are more shoulders to stand on, fewer giants are required: scientific publishing is an incremental process

Disclaimer: the first sentence of this post is deliberately provocative.

There are no papers by Robert Hooke in Philosophical Transactions. The Society’s first curator of experiments is curiously absent when searching through the archive, by which of course I mean using a web interface and entering ‘hooke, r’ in the author field – a rather basic search that is nevertheless still more ‘personal’ (relating as it does to a human you’ve heard of) than the keyword searching most researchers now use to find new papers relevant to their field (such as ‘biocompatibility’, ‘emergent behaviour’, ‘topology’, ‘metamaterials’ and so on).

Yet, in the very first issue, there is a report of an observation made by Hooke, about an observation of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot – quite probably the first in print – confirmed by Sr. Cassini some months later. The author of that article – and this is how he often related to others his absolute control of the journal – was the journal’s first Editor, Henry Oldenburg. Not the originator of the idea, but its final communicator. The notion of authorship, like so much else in scientific papers and journals, has changed a great deal since 1665.

That is not to say that the originator received no credit for their work. Oldenburg never passed off others’ work for his own, even going to the trouble of indicating the complex route by which he obtained information; showing off his crucial importance in the international republic of letters that laid the foundations for scientific publishing. However, Transactions was his alone. Strong editors in later journals there certainly were, but the fundamental difference was that journals eventually became vehicles for communication shaped from content supplied by others. The journal, the scientific article, and the process of science that these fundamental units of communication enabled, supported science as an international collaborative process that continues to this day.

Robert Hooke had a strange relationship with Phil Trans, and with Oldenburg on a personal level. He failed to make the connection between publication (in print) and having a solid claim on priority. He publicised his idea for the spring balance watch years before Huygens, in lectures, but didn’t publish. Here, it was established that the printed word meant more than the spoken word, even if the speech preceded the print by many years. When Hooke took over the journal as Secretary of the Society, years after Oldenburg’s death, he changed the name and the format of the journal, to Philosophical Collections. He organised the journal along themes, like a serialised encyclopedia, or (much more in vogue at the time) a commonplace book.

Despite his idiosyncratic approach to managing journal publishing, Hooke was a masterful communicator and collaborator with people at all levels. This served him well as surveyor of London after the Great Fire, as Curator of Experiments at the Society and as facilitator of associated scientific discussions related to experiments being demonstrated. Today, the committee that decides on the suitability of topics for scientific discussion meetings is called the Hooke committee.

Through discussion meetings, scientists at the Society have the opportunity not only to present, hear, question and challenge scientific ideas, but also to network and form new collaborations with other scientists. Increasingly such collaborations span geographic and disciplinary boundaries.

On 27 May, the Society is embarking on a new venture: opening up the questions and comments during a regular discussion meeting to online participants, who will be watching the meeting live over the web. The theme of bioinspiration is cross-disciplinary, harking back to a time when science had few boundaries. The papers have already been published ahead of the meeting in the Society’s cross-discipline theme journal Interface Focus, to spark discussion among local and international online audiences. In this special anniversary year for scientific publishing at the Royal Society, we celebrate the link between discussion of the scientific work being presented and that of scientific papers already published. We also offer the opportunity for those first initial communications between scientists that could lead to collaboration and to better science for all.