Sheep Rot & Rogue Publishers: advertising in early scientific journals

January 20, 2015, 4:21 pm

I’ve been watching a great talk by Jason Priem on altmetrics.

During the presentation he mentions the history of scientific journals and how they evolved from handwritten letters describing observations into aggregated print volumes for a larger audience. Philosophical Transactions was the first one. I was curious about the composition of science articles in 1665 so I clicked around. Here is a partial listing from the inaugural issue:

journal1What grabbed your attention? For me it was the calf. A very odd monstrous calf!

I thought it was  quaint but then I saw the front page of the Wall Street Journal last week and we’re still admiring livestock 350 years later.


It is interesting to observe how journals evolved from short blurbs into longer articles. You can also trace the slow adoption of scholarly writing conventions and formatting over the past three centuries.

But the thing that really stood out to me: advertisements.

Bundled with the articles are advertisements that served as notices to readers/subscribers. The first few were from the publisher and mentioned printing delays and other logistical matters related to production .


That changed in the second volume with this intriguing controversy:

journal5Here we have a physician taking out an ad claiming that a publisher produced a second edition of his book without his permission. Was it a mistake? Was it a media ploy? Was it a misunderstanding? Was it the birth of the textbook business model? Was it a contract disrupt? Were there new medical discoveries and  techniques (as the author claims) that needed to be shared?

Leaving motive aside, it is fascinating that this was the first real advertisement that appears in a scientific journal: a rogue publisher and a disgruntled author. This ad was transformative though because it opens the door for others to promote their books and bookshops. Shortly after the dispute we start seeing ads like these:


Then in 1673 we witness the first advertisement using modern promotional tactics. This one demonstrates a sales principle still used today: create a sense of urgency and then offer the solution. Are your sheep diseased? There’s a book for that!

It is interesting to see how journals evolved and I definitely recommend listening to Jason’s talk. A theme he builds upon is that people used the technology of their era to share insights: they did the best they could with the tools available at the time. And as technology evolves, so does the practice of scholarship.

Scientific and scholarly publishing continues to change in our era. But this is much more than just converting print into PDFs– the entire framework is being reimagined. How we find, use, share, write, and cite ideas is transforming before our eyes. Interesting times indeed. Librarianship today has to be much more than just maintaining (and licensing)  the scholarly record. We have the opportunity (and obligation?) to help it morph and become what readers need it to be so they can continue their conversations.


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