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The Birth and Growth of Scientific Journals

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Today in 1665, the first issue of the Journal des sçavans (later renamed Journal des savants), was published in Paris. It is widely regarded as the first scientific journal but a more apt description would be a journal for men of letters as it also carried non-scientific material such as book reviews, obituaries of famous men, church history, and legal reports. The next day, January 6, 1665, saw the publication of the first (exclusively) scientific journal,  the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. The two were followed by Giornale de litterati d’Italia (Italy, 1668), Miscellenea Curiosa (Germany, 1670), Acta Medica et Philosophia Hafniensa (Denmark, 1673?), and Acta Eruditorum (Germany, 1682). Say Lewis Pyenson and Susan Sheets-Pyenson in Servants of Nature: “The scientific paper or journal article eventually displaced the definitive and comprehensive book as the appropriate showcase for a scientist’s work. This development hastened the process of specialization, whereby scientists strove for mastery of an ever more narrowly circumscribed area of knowledge.”

In 1944, Fremont Rider, the University Librarian at Wesleyan, calculated that American research libraries were, on the average, doubling in size every sixteen years. Given this growth rate, he estimated that the Yale Library would have in 2040 “approximately 200,000.000 volumes, which will occupy over 6,000 miles of shelves…. New material will be coming in at the rate of 12,000,000 volumes a year; and the cataloging of this new material will require a cataloging staff of over six thousand persons.”

In 1961, Derek Price published Science Since Babylon, in which he charted the growth of scientific knowledge by looking at the growth in the number of scientific journals and papers. He concluded that the number of new journals has grown exponentially rather than linearly, doubling every fifteen years and increasing by a factor of ten during every half-century. Price called this the “law of exponential increase,” explaining that “each [scientific] advance generates a new series of advances at a reasonably constant birth rate, so that the number of births is strictly proportional to the size of the population of discoveries at any given time.” 

In The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973), Daniel Bell observed that “The idea of exponentiality, the idea that scientific knowledge accumulates ‘linearly’ in some compound fashion, has obscured the fact that the more typical, and important, pattern is the development of  ‘branching,’ or the creation of new and numerous subdivisions or specialties within fields, rather than just growth…. One can find some evidence of the extraordinary proliferation of fields in the breakdown of specializations listed in the National Register of Scientific and Technical Personnel… The Register began shortly after World War II with about 54 specializations in the sciences; 20 years later there were over 900 scientific and technical specializations listed.”

It was estimated that in 2006, the total number of scientific articles published was approximately 1,350,000, in more than 23,000 journals (including social sciences and the humanities). Of this number, 4.6% became immediately openly available on the Web and an additional 3.5% after an embargo period of, typically, one year. Furthermore, usable copies of 11.3% could be found in subject-specific or institutional repositories or on the home pages of the authors. In 2010, it was estimated that about 50 million articles have been published in scientific journals since 1665. 


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