Monday 16 April 2012

Unlocking the Universe: Off prints and scientific publishing

I’ve been following the arguments surrounding the publishing of scientific research with interest; what the Guardian are calling an ‘Academic Spring’. Since the Wellcome Trust, in conjunction with The Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Max Planck Society ‘announced they are to support a new, top-tier, open access journal for biomedical and life sciences research’, various academics have come out very much in favour of freely accessible research papers. Recently mathematicians have taken matters into their own hands and thrown down the gauntlet in front of Elsevier publishing. This has major implications for academic libraries and the renegotiation of journals contracts. I will continue to monitor this from a professional stand point.

However though there are connections, the tussle with vendors isn't what this post is about. What I am interested in is the web of communications and co-operation which provides the basis for all scientific research – a web that transcends wars, language, culture and publishing politics.

Which brings me to last night’s CILIP in London Event entitled ‘Unlocking the Universe: bibliographic forensics applied to important scientific papers’. The speaker Julian Wilson is Specialist at Christie's Books & Manuscripts Department and his focus was 'off prints'. Very briefly, off prints (or separates as they are sometimes known) are reproductions of a single article/paper from a journal, proceedings or similar, designed for public circulation and bibliographically distinct from their periodical publication. Numbers that the publishers give away to authors vary from 15-50 copies and it depends on the author to request more, which they have to pay for.

He took us through 3 off print examples; one each from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries to demonstrate the various issues that the specialist faces. The first thing is that over all, very little has changed with regards off prints since the enlightenment. Using the Scot James Hutton's unorthodox and startlingly original paper Concerning the System of the Earth, its Duration and Stability (frontispiece from 1785 was provided) as an early example, Julian demonstrated the importance of deep subject knowledge and recognition of gems amongst bundles of pamphlets.

For example Hutton's very rare off print was listed for auction in a lot of pamphlets with the simple phrase 'inscription on title page Mr Watt from James Hutton'. This demonstrates that it was one of the few personal off prints with which he was provided. He was clearly in correspondence with scientists/industrialists of his day and their influence on one another by sharing information was immense. Julian pointed out that the excellent provenance of this paper - connecting one famous name to another - ensured that collectors would be excited by the romance and historical sensation. Indeed this rare off print sold for £25,000 with the initial estimate of £400-600 being way out.

The second example, connected with the first by geology, was Charles Darwin's On the connexion of certain volcanic phenomena in South America (1839). Though Darwin is obviously known for his studies in biology he was also keenly interested in geology, as the British Journal for the History of Science says, 'the paper was a remarkable attempt to develop a global tectonic synthesis. It was the culmination of a period of intensive geological activity by Darwin – then twenty-nine – who had returned from the Beagle voyage only eighteen months previously'. Julian's painstaking research at the Geological Society revealed council minutes of 18 Dec 1839 that astonishingly only 15 copies were off printed. A testament to Darwin's extreme financial closeness, according to Julian. The Christie's website records that this rare off print sold for £16,250.

Finally he came to the rarest and most recent set of papers; the Turing-Newman collection which came up for auction for the first time last year. It caused quite a stir with questions being asked in parliament about them because it was feared that they would disappear into a private collection. As it happened, private donations and the National Heritage Memorial Fund came together successfully and they are now on public display at Bletchley Park. This once again demonstrated that off prints from key historical scientific moments, with excellent provenance and 'sensational connections' are highly sought after.

Julian concluded with a warning to specialist scientific collections. Off prints of significance are recognised as valuable, however journal/periodical issues which contain notable papers are also becoming very popular  and many of these are in collections on open shelves. He advised 1. increased security 2. marking them thoroughly with the institution's stamps and 3. if papers are stolen/razored out, to alert auction houses as soon as possible.

It was an interesting talk offering an insight into a specialised topic. Once again it highlighted the importance of organised archives and accurate record keeping so that specialists can investigate and shed light on important moments in scientific history and identify key papers in collections. It also leads me back to my opening remarks on publishing - key scientific discoveries/investigations should be disseminated without barriers to spreading knowledge, only in this way can we unlock the universe.

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