The state of the journal, January 2021

A note from the Co-Editors of Isis, Alexandra Hui and Matthew Lavine.

Like many scholarly journals, Isis has seen its normal rhythms disrupted by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic and political turmoil. After an initial decline in article submissions in the spring of 2020, we received an unusually large number in the second half of the year. 

At the same time, however, there has been a remarkable constriction in the number of available reviewers. In late 2019, nearly 70% of our initial reviewer invitations were accepted. A year later, that rate has fallen to just above 25%. Reviewers who have accepted our invitations to review manuscripts have often needed extra time to complete their reports. The reasons for this decline are as obvious as they are understandable, and the Isis office is moving as quickly as it can to find suitable reviewers for the manuscripts in our pipeline.

We mention this in the interests of transparency: even as we have made an efficient editorial timeline a high priority, we are seeing the time that manuscripts spend under consideration rise as a result.

But we also want to record here, for our collective disciplinary memory, another data point about the profound effects this crisis has had on our institutions, and on our colleagues’ lives.

We are enormously grateful to the authors, reviewers, and readers of Isis, who inspire us with their continued engagement in the life of our discipline under these trying circumstances. 

Isis Current Bibliography published

With the December issue of Isis comes the annual edition of the Isis Current Bibliography, a phenomenal resource for scholars in the history of science and allied disciplines. Readers tell us they use the print edition as a ready reference for recent scholarship in their field, or a shopping list for books they may have missed.

For a comprehensive online bibliographic resource, available without subscription, editor Stephen Weldon and his staff have assembled IsisCB Explore. This enormous searchable database includes listings for decades of scholarship and can be filtered by subject, time period, geographical region, and author.

The Isis Books Received List

A note to the readership from the Isis Book Review Editor, Projit Mukharji.

Dear Isis readers,

Some of you have noticed by now that we have not been publishing the list of books received over the past few months. I thought it might be helpful to fill you in on why this has happened.

While we try to review a large and inclusive (though not exhaustive) cross section of books published in our field, it is impossible to review every single book that is sent to us. The process for those that are reviewed, naturally, takes a certain amount of time from our first receipt of the book to the review appearing in print. The “Books Received” announcements are therefore a quick way of acknowledging to publishers that we have received and considered the books they sent, while also alerting the larger field that the book is now out in the world.

Last year’s life-changing disruptions completely upended our operational procedures. Initially, we were locked out of our Book Review Office in Philadelphia due to the pandemic. The continued difficulties of access eventually forced the Book Review Office to temporarily relocate to Starkville, so that it could function out of the main Isis office at Mississippi State University. During the same period, several publishers closed down their physical offices. Above all, the postal departments of various countries struggled to maintain the usual delivery schedules. In many regions of the United States, events leading up to and following the general elections that directly targeted the postal department also stretched its ability to maintain optimum service times.

All this meant that for several months we completely stopped receiving physical copies of recently published books. Happily, we have gradually begun to once again receive some copies, but compared to our pre-pandemic numbers this is a very small number. We have kept the Book Reviews section going by directly soliciting books from publishers based on publishers’ catalogs, and by pivoting to the use of electronic copies for review rather than physical books.

Like everyone else, we hope that some semblance of normalcy will return to our work, and soon. Even before that, we hope that we will be able to recommence the Books Received announcements. Until then, we hope you will bear with us and continue to support us in maintaining as much of the basic rhythms of our scholarly lives as we can.

Thanking you,

Projit Bihari Mukharji
Book Review Editor, Isis.

Featured article: Noortje Jacobs on postwar research ethics

Noortje Jacobs’s article, “A Moral Obligation to Proper Experimentation: Research Ethics as Epistemic Filter in the Aftermath of World War II” appears in the December issue of Isis. The article is free to all readers for a limited time.

In one of his last acts as our manuscript assistant before returning to his first love of teaching, Alexander Cagle interviewed Dr. Jacobs about her work on Dutch medical research ethics, a florid but curiously understudied moment in the larger history of bioethics.

CAGLE: Your essay focusses on Dutch medical research ethics in the decades immediately following World War Two. Could you briefly describe what drew you to this history and your process for finding relevant archival sources?

JACOBS: In the history of human experimentation in medicine, the decades immediately following World War II are often described as the “Gilded Age or Research”: a period that saw a vast increase in human experimentation, with little attention to the rights and safety of human research subjects. This fascinated me, as World War II is also often described as “the birth of modern medical research ethics”. And when I kept on reading that the Dutch were very early to raise international awareness of this issue, I started researching the documents this literature refers to. It turned out that very detailed minutes have been kept of many meetings that Dutch physicians had on this topic in the early 1950s. They did raise early awareness, because they were afraid that especially American and English researchers were starting to cross fundamental ethical lines in human experimentation. However, it turns out they were just as much—and perhaps even more—concerned with an ethical issue that we would not recognize as such today: i.e., the (poor) quality and quantity of most medical research. For me, as a historian of science, this was were it started to become really interesting, and so I followed my historical actors and sources into all sorts of domains and archives to further uncover this history.

A main throughline of your essay seems to be not only a discussion of medical ethics, but also a discussion of medical expertise and who could be considered an expert. Were you surprised by how much of the focus of the vivisectionists’ early ethical meetings seemed to not be about the patient at all but in fact on maintaining their medical authority and fending off the antivivisectionists? 

Yes, I was surprised by this initially, and was sometimes shocked to read how easily—on paper at least—they seemed to dismiss the interests of individual patients in favor of “the progress of good medical science”. But I became convinced, and I hoped this shows in my essay, that these physicians were not so much motivated out of self-interest (i.e., maintaining their authority or societal standing), but out of a very deep conviction that their definition of “good science” was little understood, under attack, and thus had to be protected and promoted for the benefit of human kind. As I write in my essay, they were often a bunch of frustrated elitists really.

At end of your article, you argue that the “use of ethics to further epistemic convictions” as a methodological tool has been undervalued. What are some other areas of research, whether it be in the history of medicine or beyond, that would benefit from the use of this framework?

For one thing, I see a lot of analogies between my historical actors and their arguments and the contemporary Open Science and Research Integrity Movements. I would argue that scholars like John Ioannidis et al. are at heart also therapeutic reformers, who make overt ethical claims to further their epistemic convictions. For another, I have benefited a lot in my work from historians of science such as Melinda Baldwin, Laura Stark, Alex Csiszar, Imogen Clarke, and Aileen Fyfe, who show how scientific journals and funding bodies in the modern period have become gatekeepers of “good science”. I think there are a lot of interesting connections to be made here with the historical functioning of research ethics committees—which is research that I am currently pursuing as well.

 As the questions for this interview are being written and answered, the first COVID-19 vaccines are being administered. How do you think your research applies to the current world health crisis as well as the current Dutch medical apparatus? 

Oef, that is a big question. I do wonder at times what my historical actors would have made of the big political push that we are currently seeing to get these vaccines out there as soon as possible—even if they have not yet gone through all of the stages that clinical trials usually go through to establish efficacy. As Austin Bradford Hill famously said: “In treating patients with unproven remedies we are, whether we like it or not, experimenting on human beings, and a good experiment well reported may be more ethical and entail less shirking of duty than a poor one.” But then again, these are exceptional times, that ask for a special type of trade-off between efficacy and expediency.

I do know though what my historical actors would have made of COVID-deniers! They would very much have convinced them that “good science” needs to be protected and promoted—and that this constitutes a moral obligation, even if this means that they are a bunch of frustrated elitists most of the time.

HSS Newsletter – Jan. 2021

Greeting HSS members and best wishes for a safe and happy 2021, better in all respects than 2020 has been. As noted when we sent out the previous issue of the Newsletter, despite all the doozies that COVID-19 has thrown — and continues to throw — our way, our Society and members have kept up their good work in myriad ways. We have yet another voluminous Newsletter for you, featuring some of our noteworthy prizewinners from October’s virtual forum (more to follow in upcoming issues), insights from an editor for an academic publisher, and the usual suspects of our corners and sections.

Read the Newsletter.

Download a pdf.

Featured article: Robin Wolfe Scheffler on “Brighter Biochemistry”

Robin Wolfe Scheffler’s article, “Brightening Biochemistry: Humor, Identity, and Scientific Work at the Sir William Dunn Institute of Biochemistry, 1923-1931” appears in the September issue of Isis. The article is free to all readers for a limited time.

Our manuscript assistant, Alexander Cagle, interviewed Dr. Scheffler about his research on humor in science, which in this article focuses on Brighter Biochemistry, a humor journal produced locally by a Cambridge biochemistry institute.

CAGLE: How did you find Brighter Biochemistry, and were there any challenges in historicizing scientific humor?

SCHEFFLER: As so many research projects have started, I came across Brighter Biochemistry while looking for something else — in my case information about Joseph Needham, a member of the Sir William Dunn Institute probably best known to readers of Isis as the author of Science and Civilization in China. It was only later, after reading Robert Darnton’s essay on the cultural history of humor before the French Revolution, “The Great Cat Massacre,” that I recognized that Brighter Biochemistry was a rare find. Fortunately, at that point I was in Cambridge, so I was able to track down a full run.

Locating all the issues was the least of my problems. I spent many hours with British magazines and dictionaries from the 1920s to try to “get” the jokes in Brighter Biochemistry to little avail. The old adage is true: if you find yourself explaining a joke, it’s no longer funny! However, I came to realize that my sense of frustration as an outsider was both one of the points of the publication and also a historical opportunity to reconstruct a particular form of experimental life by the humor it had left behind. That’s when I started working on what became my article.

CAGLE: In your essay you say the members of the Dunn Institute felt Brighter Biochemistry was an important tool in fostering camaraderie. Are there any lessons to draw about our own profession concerning the importance of relationships, particularly during a global pandemic?

SCHEFFLER: Brighter Biochemistry shows how much intellectual community exists outside of the formal channels of papers, conference papers, and the like. Following Jenna Tonn’s idea of the importance of “extra-laboratory life” for scientists I think it’s fair to say that we historians depend on our extra-library, extra-seminar, and extra-archival lives to make our field work. Finishing this article in the mist of the pandemic’s disruption of our profession’s normal social rituals has made me feel their absence even more.

On the other hand, in recognizing all the informal ways that we build community and camaraderie, it’s also easy to see how a community knit together in this way can be exclusionary — in fact, that was part of what the biochemists intended with Brighter Biochemistry. Even as we return to our “normal” round of professional social activities, we should keep the openness and flexibility in how we do scholarship and build the communities that we have been forced to adopt.

CAGLE: You note that the tone of the publication shifted from a primarily inward to a primarily outward focus in the mid-1920s. Do you think this played a part in the eventual folding of the journal, or did the tension between wanting to contribute to Brighter Biochemistry and not having the time finally tip towards the latter? 

SCHEFFLER: Sometimes, success can look like failure and failure can look like success. Although I could never find a definitive cause for why Brighter Biochemistry ceased publication, I do think it reflects that it had accomplished what the members of the Dunn Institute had hoped for: stabilizing a distinct biochemistry community at Cambridge. I do not, however, think that humor disappeared from the laboratory — it’s just one of the limitations of relying on textual evidence.

CAGLE: Given that journals like Brighter Biochemistry are somewhat rare, what are some other avenues or methods that historians of science might use to study humor in science?

SCHEFFLER: Brighter Biochemistry may be unique in how well it was preserved, but I think that it represents a very common activity across scientific communities. Ever since I started studying humor in science however, I’ve found it everywhere. In my current project on the history of biotechnology around Boston, for example, different laboratories produced several humorous newsletters.

I think the issue is not the absence of evidence, but the fact that as historians of science we are not primed to look for it — which was my first experience. I would urge others to spend time in the ephemera folders of their scientists, read texts such as award speeches or retirement tributes, scrutinize announcements in professional journals, and pay attention when the scientists and others we interview try to tell jokes. Very often this can reveal something about the serious side of science.

HSS Newsletter – Oct 2020

Welcome to the October 2020 issue of the HSS Newsletter, just in time to coincide with our first ever Virtual Forum. It is not everyday, or even every year, that history or historians of science are recognized beyond our community, so it was especially gratifying to lead this issue with an article about just that, a commemorative coin in honor of Rosalind Franklin and her crucial x-ray photograph of DNA. We hear from graduate students and early career historians of science about the importance of unionization and from folks in our community who have taken the paths less travelled in their careers. Despite the havoc wreaked by COVID-19, HSS continues to go about its activities as can be seen in our regular columns. We have a letter from a reader and last, but not least, a list of books to read and films to watch in these times of continued lockdowns.

Read the Newsletter

Download a PDF

Emergency Pandemic Fund

Dear Friends of the HSS,

Back in May, we made an unusual request. The current pandemic was upending many of our members’ lives, and we asked for your support. Your enthusiastic response enabled us to aid many students and independent scholars, helping them take care of basic needs, such as rent, to more advanced challenges, such as replacing lost research funds. We believe that this support aligned with our mission – “To foster interest in the history of science” – and since the pandemic is still with us, we are renewing our call for help.

The system that we used last time to distribute funds – a five-member committee, with representatives from Council, from the Development Committee and from the Finance Committee – worked well and we will continue with that model. Because the Society’s finances have been shaken by these events, we will only award amounts based on donations we receive in response to this appeal. Through this unique program, we especially hope to help those who are early in their careers, as well as those whose future in the history of science has been dimmed. If you are able to give any amount, please go to this link: (If this link does not work, you may give through the University of Chicago Press site: Simply write “Pandemic Fund” in the note field).

And if you are one of those members in need, you may go to this link to request help: We will accept applications through 18 September 2020. If you are not an HSS member, we will deduct the membership dues from any award. Scholars who reside in non-OECD countries, will be eligible for our Sponsor-a-Scholar program (see for details).Please remember that our funds are limited, but we will help as best as we can. All applications reviewed by the committee will be anonymized.

Thank you for your membership.

Jan Golinski, HSS President
Jay Malone, HSS Executive Director