One of the participants at the recent moderated discussion on open access journal publishing at Duke University made an interesting comment about the online environment that now supports both open access and scholarly communication through social media. “In an ironic sort of way we are using this [online] technology to restore the original purpose of journals.” He pointed to the first scholarly journals from the late seventeenth century, like The Royal Society of London’s Philosophical Transactions, and noted that the content frequently consisted of correspondence between scholars and scientists commenting on and clarifying their own and other’s research. Indeed, you can really sense the vibrant back-and-forth as you browse the contents of the early issues of that journal. [Incidentally, free access to issues of over 300 journals in the public domain (pre-1923 in the United States and pre-1870 elsewhere), including Philosophical Transactions, is now available to anyone through JSTOR’s Early Journal Content program.]
I found it interesting, while further considering the purpose of the scholarly journal, that in the very first issue of Philosophical Transactions dated Monday, March 6, 1665 (issues were published on the first Monday of each month), Henry Oldenburg, the journal’s founder, funder, and first editor introduces the journal, and states its purpose thusly:
Whereas there is nothing more necessary for promoting the improvement of Philosophical Matters, than the communicating to such, as apply their Studies and Endeavours that way, such things as are discovered or put in practice by others; it is therefore thought fit to employ the Press, as the most proper way to gratifie those, whose engagements in such Studies, and delight in the advancement of Learning and profitable Discoveries, doth entitle them to the knowledge of what their Kingdom, or other parts of the World, do, from time to time, afford, as well of the progress of the Studies, Labours, and attempts of the Curious and learned in things of this kind, as of their compleat Discoveries and performances: To the end, that such Productions being clearly and truly communicated, desires after solid and useful knowledge may be further entertained, ingenious Endeavours and Undertakings cherished, and those, addicted to and conversant in such matters, may be invited and encouraged to search, try, and find out new things, impart their knowledge to one another, and contribute what they can to the Grand design of improving Natural knowledge, and perfecting all Philosophical Arts, and Sciences. All for the Glory of God, the Honour and Advantage of these Kingdoms, and the Universal Good of Mankind.
Nearly 350 years later, this concise statement of purpose has a remarkably contemporary relevance. Communication is required to promote and disseminate knowledge. Making use of the best available communication technology—the printing press in the seventeenth century, the World Wide Web in the twenty-first—facilitates this promotion and dissemination, to and from all parts of the world. Knowledge has intrinsic (delightful) and extrinsic (useful/profitable) value. The advancement and progress of knowledge requires—and the medium of communication invites and encourages—sharing among persons. Since submissions are to be shared, there must be a commitment to clarity and accuracy in communication. Through submission of one’s experimentation, discovery, or reflection to a public forum (post-publication peer review?) human knowledge is collectively improved. If we dared to presume (or at least allowed ourselves to be empowered by the thought), this improvement of knowledge glorifies God, and contributes to the common good of humankind.