March 18, 2013
Alex Csiszar, Harvard
“A System of Minute Interference”: Authorship and the Origins of Peer Review in Britain
Department of the History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania
Location: 337 Cohen Hall, University of Pennsylvania
When the public must decide whether there is expert scientific consensus about a matter of concern today, the institution of peer review is often put forward as a prime marker of the authority of that consensus, indeed as the key mechanism by which scientists themselves determine what claims are worthy of belief. The transition from earlier regimes of personal trust to the impersonal structures of accountability exemplified by peer review is generally imagined to have occurred during the nineteenth century, but why, how, and to what extent this happened has remained mysterious. This talk begins to excavate the origins of these practices during the era of reform in Britain, when natural philosophers began to cobble together procedures of refereeing that ended up serving as the blueprint for later twentieth-century norms. Rather than being a means of solving a problem of trust internal to a growing body of specialists, however, the impetus for the Royal Society’s scheme for the mandatory refereeing of manuscripts for the Philosophical Transactions was a concern to renovate the public standing of natural philosophy in England. These changes were motivated, therefore, by evolving convictions about the nature of good government; this historical point might shed light on current debates and assumptions about the functions of this crucial marker of scientific modernity.