Project (2017-)

Changing Contexts and Practices of Basic Science during the Twentieth Century

Throughout the twentieth century the social and cultural dimension of basic science changed dramatically. These changes affected the daily practices of the sciences in multiple ways, from the increasing level of cooperation between practitioners to the definition of shared standards for communicating research products and certifying their validity. One major change concerned the editorial practices. The peer review, for instance, only became the ubiquitous, pervasive practice we know today—where a review by external referees is a requirement for editors to publish papers—in the late 1960s. A project has been initiated to investigate the historical transformations of editorial strategies and refereeing practices and evaluate the impact of these transformations on the evolution of research agendas in twentieth-century physics (Lalli). The project focuses on the journal Physical Review and other publishing venues of the American Physical Society (APS). In the 1920s, these journals were regarded as minor publications in the international landscape of physics periodicals. By the mid-1930s the Physical Review and the newborn Reviews of Modern Physics had gained momentum and became the leading physics journals in the world. In this period the APS editors began to introduce a series of editorial novelties that would become the norm for scientific journals during the second half of the twentieth century. Among these, one can mention the requirements to significantly reduce the articles’ size and to publish abstracts at the beginning of the text, which later became widespread practice in scientific writing and publishing well beyond the field of physics. A first phase of the project focused on the historical process that led to the standardization of the refereeing practices in the Physical Review in the 1930s and the introduction of innovations. These transformations were caused, on the one hand, by the competition of the American community with leading European physics communities, and, on the other, by the specific needs of the dynamical American physics community at the time, which underwent a deep transformation of its own during that period.

Of course the twentieth century also saw massive political upheavals, which had a profound impact on scientific practice. The project studies the case of the mathematical community in Vienna between 1930 and 1945, analyzing the variety of epistemological (and general philosophical) and political opinions (Frühstückl). The observed diversity has been further analyzed through historical network analysis and it could be demonstrated how distinct political networks among the Viennese mathematicians, already established in the early 1930s, shaped the discipline throughout the entire Nazi period.