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National Research Council (US) Chemical Sciences Roundtable; Heindel ND, Masciangioli TM, von Schaper E, editors. Are Chemical Journals Too Expensive and Inaccessible? A Workshop Summary to the Chemical Sciences Roundtable. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2005.

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Are Chemical Journals Too Expensive and Inaccessible? A Workshop Summary to the Chemical Sciences Roundtable.

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2Historical Perspective

Arnold Thackray illustrated the history of chemical journals, proposing to understand what is happening in the present by looking into the past.1 “In every age, the amount of literature has seemed as if it is going to overwhelm people,” Thackray said. Science has been about communication for the past 350 years, he continued. Both the science itself and the means of its communication are competitive enterprises, where the prize is to be first, he said. He talked about the origins of chemical journals, the rise of scientific societies, the idea of a “world brain” and journals after World War I.


Much of what is true today was true 350 years ago, when scientific journals originated. “The issue of how you pay for what you want to do was right there on the first day,” Thackray said. At that time Robert Boyle, son of one of the richest men in England, funded the newly established Royal Society. One mission of the early Royal Society was that it would help to establish priority of discovery. “It finally got enough people poking about interrogating nature that the concern of, ‘I was first,' and ‘I thought of it,' was right there,” Thackray said.

When one of Robert Doyle's employees, Henry Oldenburg, founded the first scientific journal, the problem of making it profitable soon arose. Oldenburg founded Philosophical Transactions (changed to Philosophical Collections by Robert Hook in 1677) in 1665 as a private venture, thinking he could make a profit from subscriptions paid to the Royal Society, but he never made more than 40 pounds a year, which was what it cost to rent his house.

Meanwhile, in Paris, at the same time, another independent journal was started up, Le Journal des Sçavans (Journal of the Learned). It predated the founding of Academie Royale des Sciences in Paris, but no sooner had the journal started than there was a scientific gathering on which it could report. Members of the academy could buy personal subscriptions to this journal. The French Academy did not begin publishing its own journal, the Histoires et Memoirs, until 1699.

From the concept of establishing who was first in science and in the ensuing communication, it took about 100 years to develop what we today would call peer review. By 1752, the Royal Society had put a committee in charge of the selection of the papers, provoked by a book published in 1751, A Review of the Works of the Royal Society of London, Containing Animadversions on Such of the Papers as Desire Particular Observations. “Some guy called John Hill lampooned the quality of what was in Phil. Trans.,” Thackray said.

The eighteenth century also brought the proliferation of journals, because entrepreneurs, many of whom were natural philosophers themselves, saw an opportunity for publishing. One of the most memorable journals, Observations sur la Physique, sur L'Histoire Naturelle, et sur les Artes, was published by Rozier and Mongez in 1778. At this point in history, “The number of scholars has increased. These motives led to the desire for a periodical supplied quickly and regularly which would announce the discoveries which are made each day in the different branches of the sciences. You can see that the pace is really picking up,” Thackray said.

One of the more rapid communications in Rozier's journal was Antoine Lavoisier's paper on the burning of diamond. It illustrates the games you could play even then with publication, Thackray said. The paper that Lavoisier published in Rozier's journal in 1772 was published officially in the memoirs of the academy four years later, allowing him to profit from Joseph Priestley's work, which he learned of in the interim.

Soon after, the first journals that dealt solely with chemistry appeared. The Chemisches Journal, in 1778, by Lorenz von Crell was founded to encourage German chemistry, followed by the Annales de Chimie, in 1789 in France. The Annales de Chimie is the first journal to promote a program, since it only published chemistry in the then-new nomenclature. As late as 1800 Joseph Priestley published his Doctrine of Phlogiston Established in the United States, but from 1789 on, there was no longer any reference to phlogiston in the Annales de Chimie. Only things cast in Lavoisier's new theoretical scheme and nomenclature appeared there.

The high price of journals was also an issue back then. A volume could cost 3.5 pounds for 300 pages. Translated into how many days the average person would have to work to publish it, this is probably equivalent to about $1,000 today, Thackray said.

Then as now, new work appeared in new journals. The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society made no mention of electrochemistry. The new work in electrochemistry, by Humphry Davy, appeared in the Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, and the Arts, founded by the entrepreneur William Nicholson.

As is also true today, reading a journal did not necessarily mean being current in the newest science. Dalton's atomic theory, for example, was first published in a university textbook, written by Thomas Thompson. Thompson, who published the Annals of Philosophy in 1814, was very influential. He lectured to university students, and his System of Chemistry was the standard text. The third edition reads: “We have no direct means of ascertaining the density of the atoms of bodies, but Mr. Dalton, to whose uncommon ingenuity and sagacity the philosophic world is no stranger, has lately contrived an hypothesis which, if it proved correct, will furnish us with a very simple method of ascertaining that density with great precision.” Thompson goes on to articulate Dalton's chemical atomic theory. Of course, the reason scientific research moved so slowly, Thackray added, was that the professional scientist had not yet appeared. “Dalton didn't have any promotion riding upon this thing,” Thackray said. Today a scientist has to attend meetings to be current in his or her field, a participant remarked.

J.J. Berzelius started the annual review, Jahresberichte in 1822, to try to give his readers an annual conspectus of what appeared in the literature that year. By that time, most European nations had an academy under royal patronage. Berzelius' work was translated into German by Gmelin, and later by Friedrich Woehler.

Another attempt at creating a premiere journal was the Comptes Rendus of the French academy of sciences, which was published weekly in 1835. It was started by members of the academy, to some extent, to answer competition from the popular press, which reported, what was going on within the Academy. It also accepted contributions from nonmembers. “It required an amazing level of organization to get this thing out every week—couriers running all over Paris with proofs,” Thackray said. Fifty seamstresses were called in at the last moment to sew the copies together.


Science became a profession in the nineteenth century, and professional societies emerged: the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1831; the American Association for the Advancement of Science, founded in 1848 in Philadelphia by people who had been to the British Association. It was in order to name the people who went to the British Association for the Advancement of Science that the word “scientist” was coined by William Whewell, who had previously come up with the terms “cation,” and “anion.” This was the moment of professionalization.

Germany was becoming the leading power and locus of professionalization in chemistry. Justus Liebig invented the Ph.D. machine (i.e., the publication machine), Thackray said. Liebig's Annalen actually began as the Annalen der Pharmacie, because it was with pharmacy students that Liebig began his teaching. In 1832, the name was changed to the Annalen der Chemie und Pharmacie. This journal still exists today as the European Journal of Organic Chemistry.

This was also the era in which specialist professional societies in chemistry appeared—the Chemical Society of London, the Societé Chimique de Paris, and the Deutsche Chemische Gesellschaft. America was late on the scene. In 1876, the American Chemical Society was a local New York society. The ACS of today really came into existence in the 1890s, 50 years behind the Chemical Society of London. The emergence of professional learned societies led to the development of scholarly journals, funded by societies.

Such efforts were not necessarily easy, because in every case the “turf” was already occupied by other journals. It is instructive to look at development of the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS) as outlined in Figure 2.1. In the beginning, JACS was not of much importance. The path to the real JACS came by way of the American Journal of Science, the American Chemist, the Journal of Physical Chemistry, the Journal of Analytical and Applied Chemistry, and the American Chemical Journal.

FIGURE 2.1. The path to the real Journal of the American Chemical Society.


The path to the real Journal of the American Chemical Society. SOURCE: Arnold Thackray and Mary Ellen Bowden, Chemical Heritage Foundation.

One scientific society could no longer satisfactorily cover the whole field of research. Thackray provided a quote from J.W. Richards in 1902, “Differentiation and specialization are the watchword, now, of all progress—industrial, scientific, philosophical…. The day is past when one scientific society can cover satisfactorily the whole field of scientific research…. [T]he analogue of the specialist in science is the society which specializes.” That is true of the ACS said Thackray. Around 1902, ACS suddenly discovered that no sooner had it gotten established as a national society than fission occurred. During the decade between 1900 and 1910, numerous other societies were formed, most noticeably the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE). The ACS began publishing Industrial & Engineering Chemistry in 1909, which was a direct response to the formation of AIChE. The stance of the ACS was, “You think you will have a separate organization, do you? No, you won't. We will plant a flag right there,” Thackray said.

The American Chemical Society as a broad-based professional society is an extremely interesting phenomenon in the world, Thackray said, because after a wake-up call in that era, it is the society that has most effectively adapted to changing circumstances and kept members inside the “big tent.” This, of course, has given ACS some significant clout in the publishing domain, Thackray said.

Another major response to specialization and proliferation is abstracting journals. The first attempt to do this was actually made in 1830, but the twentieth century versions of these journals are more familiar. The original financial plan for abstracting journals was that members' dues would pay for the publications. ACS members, until 1933, received JACS, the news edition of Industrial & Engineering Chemistry, and Chemical Abstracts for their subscription. That model worked for the first quarter-century.

The continuing specialization, proliferation, and growth—chemical databases, Gmelin, Beilstein—was supported by a new frame of thinking in the second half of the nineteenth century, and was driven by technological change. The first essential technology in relation to the scientific enterprise was printing. It was 150 years after the invention of printing (mid-seventeenth century) that the scientific society and the scientific journal were established. In the nineteenth century, the by-products of the Industrial Revolution were revolutions in printing and papermaking. The key change that related to mass literacy was applying the steam engine to the printing press; suddenly it was possible to print many more copies of anything at a reduced cost of production per copy. This revolution fed into the increase in literacy, the rise of the teaching profession, the science teacher, and the appearance of advertising as a financial mechanism that subsidizes journals.

Indicative of this new frame of thinking was the appearance of Nature and Science, both independent ventures established by entrepreneurial scientists. Norman Lockyer set up Nature, and James McKeen Cattell established Science. Nature remains an independent journal to this day, whereas Science eventually formed an alliance with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, but this did not occur until 1944.

This period of time also marked the appearance of explicitly chemical publishers in Britain and in Europe. In the United States, this phenomenon was weaker, in part because the country was still a marginal player, and there was no market for such a tight focus in the United States in the nineteenth century.


By 1900, people were really beginning to feel overwhelmed and besieged by information, and they were looking for ways to put it together. Paul Otlet, Wilhelm Ostwald, and H. G. Wells each had an interesting vision. In 1895, Paul Otlet set up the International Institute of Bibliography in Brussels, subsidized by the Belgian government. His idea was to bring everything together in one place: information from all major libraries and from all publications. He had a large building called the Mundaneum, in which he developed an elaborate version of the Dewey decimal system. He and his co-workers created an enormous catalogue of three-by-five cards carrying information gleaned from the printed catalogues of all the world's great libraries. This enterprise actually survived into the 1970s.

The founder of physical chemistry, Wilhelm Ostwald, took the money from his 1909 Nobel Prize to set up something he called the Bridge. This was supposed to be an office that would be able to answer any question about the literature, the information, and link all organizations working for culture and civilization in the world.

Later, H. G. Wells brought up the idea of a “World Brain.” In 1938, he wrote a book of this title, based on the idea of creating a giant encyclopedia of all knowledge. He tried to get Doubleday to take on the project, but it was not interested. Thackray believes that today's Internet is the ultimate expression of Wells' World Brain idea which also fulfills the early missions of Otlet and Ostwald.


After World War I, the United States emerged onto the chemistry scene. Chemical Week began publishing in 1914 in part to promote chemical manufacturing because it was not possible to get fine chemicals from Germany. The social and economic state in wartime and postwar Germany provided an interesting subject for comment by American authors. Thackray quoted William A. Noyes, a great mover and shaker, who said in 1923: “Despite the dreadful financial situation in which Germany finds herself at the present time the Berichte [Berichte der Deutschen Chemischen Gesellschaft] has published during the past year about 4000 pages of original papers, and this in addition to a large volume of publication in the Annelen [Justus Liebigs Annalen der Chemie], J. pr. chem. [Journal für praktische Chemie]; Z. phys. Chem. [Zeitschrift für physikalische Chemie] and other journals. Are we willing to admit that here in America, now the richest country in the World, we can not do as much for our scientific publication as is done by Germany?”2

One of the publications that came out of this, at the urging of the National Academy of Sciences, was Chemical Reviews.3Annual Reviews date from this era as well, beginning with the Annual Review of Biochemistry.

The era of “Cold War and Hot Science” followed World War II. Thackray discussed the visionary dream of Vannevar Bush in 1945: “Scientific publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record. The means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.” In this era, two seminal conferences that began to look at machine searching methods took place; the Royal Society Scientific Information Conference in 1948 and the International Conference on Scientific Information here in the United States in 1958. The computer was there, and the question of, “How are we going to use this thing?” arose. Thackray noted that in the early 1960s the new National Science Foundation (NSF) began made a considerable investment in the development of Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS),4 noted Thackray (Figure 2.2).

FIGURE 2.2. NSF support of CAS research and development.


NSF support of CAS research and development. SOURCE: Proceedings of the Symposium on Chemical Abstracts in Transition, Chicago, IL, August 28, 1973.

The scene was changing. There was the emergence of the independent entrepreneur—people such as Eugene Garfield founder of ISI (Institute for Scientific Information), who was employed on the Index Medicus machine-reading project at the Welch Library. There was the proliferation of the paper record. Europeans were coming in, for example Eric Proskauer, the co-founder of Interscience. Thackray cited a remark of Proskauer's from 1986: “Ostwald would have said that what you need is a textbook to teach the science. You need a journal to publish new developments, [and] you need an encyclopedia as a crowning collection of all the facts.”

“So that brings us to where we are today, to the world of complex molecules, complex science, the creation of the Internet, [and] the creation of the wholly on-line journal,” Thackray said.



For more in-depth information on the history of chemistry and chemical journals presented here, visit the Chemical Heritage Foundation web site at


Correspondence between William Noyes and Harrison E. Howe, January 5, 1923, Central Policy File, Divisions of the National Research Council, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Projects, Publication of Chemical Reviews Proposed, 1923, National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council Archives.


M.E. Bowden, “The Early History of Chemical Reviews: ‘Established to Fill a Definite Want'” Chemical Reviews, 100(1): 13-22 (2000).


The American Chemical Society's CAS indexes and summarizes chemistry-related articles from scientific journals, patents, conference proceedings, and other documents pertinent to chemistry, life sciences, and many other fields.

Copyright © 2005, National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK22129


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