HSS Announces New Society Editors

[At its recent meetings, the HSS Executive Committee and the HSS Council voted overwhelmingly to accept the Committee on Publications recommendation that the Society appoint Alexandra (Alix) Hui and Matthew (Matt) Lavine as Co-Editors for the Society (July 2019 to June 2024). We invited Alix and Matt to share their vision for Isis and the Society’s various publications.]

Matthew (Matt) Lavine

Alexandra (Alix) Hui

In July of 2019, the Editorship of the History of Science Society will move from its present home at the Descartes Centre in Utrecht to the Starkville campus of Mississippi State University. As the incoming Editors, we (Alix Hui and Matt Lavine) are excited for the opportunity to help shape the Society’s publications, in what we hope will be a close collaboration with its members. To that end, we’d like to use this opportunity to share with our colleagues our ideas and aspirations for our coming five-year term, and to invite members of the Society to begin a dialogue with us about how we collectively write the history of science. And while we are at it, we’d like to say how honored we are to do this work in partnership with the History of Science Society, which has shaped our careers for the better at every turn.

Since 2014, H. Floris Cohen has been responsible for overseeing all of the Society’s publications—most notably Isis and Osiris, of course, but he has also guided the development of our forays into social media and online content. Floris’s many contributions to our discipline as a scholar and editor defy easy synthesis or brief recitation, but as we write this (barely a week after receiving word of our selection) we are already keenly aware of the enormous debt that we owe him for the order and efficiency that he has brought to the editorship. In a job where “on time and under budget” is an almost unheard of accomplishment, he has managed to do just that without sacrificing any of the quality for which the Society’s publications are rightly known.

Nevertheless, while we hope to match his accomplishments in that respect, we also bring a somewhat different approach to the task. For one thing, we are two. Co-editorships are less unusual in academic journals these days: within our own discipline, the Journal of the History of Biology and History and Technology have both recently moved to having two editors, and Osiris has been overseen by teams of associate editors and guest editors for quite some time. When we first began considering submitting a proposal last year, it seemed natural to us to apply jointly: we began our careers together in the same year at Mississippi State and even, thanks to a colleague’s sabbatical leave, shared a house during that first year. As colleagues and friends we already know and rely on one another’s particular strengths and talents, and we are excited to put that good working relationship to work on behalf of the history of science community.

But perhaps the most salient virtue of a joint editorship lies in the fact that many hands may make light work—or, as we see the task ahead, two extra hands may make manageable an ever-growing list of responsibilities. Isis and Osiris (the latter already under the able care of Suman Seth and Patrick McCray) will still demand the lion’s share of our attention, but the Society’s publications are quickly expanding into new realms as well. The 2014 HSS Strategic Plan calls for a substantial increase in the Society’s digital content and outreach efforts to non-scholarly audiences. To quote that document directly, it will now be our task to “maintain the outstanding quality of our print publications, while making HSS more welcoming of innovative research methods and modes of publication, from informal blogging to major online research projects.”

We have some ideas in that vein (more on those in a moment) but we’ll be spending much of the intervening year before we formally take up the reins looking for the input of Society members. One area we intend to focus on is public engagement. The Strategic Plan calls for a companion publication to Isis that summarizes the contents and topics for a general audience, and we very much agree that this should be a priority. Indeed, increasing the amount of high-quality scholarship in the history of science visible to the world without an Isis subscription seems to us to be essential to the long-term health of the profession. To that end, we are mulling over a number of ways that we could help our contributors reach more people more effectively. This might include doing brief interviews, or summary and synthesis of current scholarship through blogs or podcasts. Of course, there are already some spectacular examples of this kind of public-facing history of science: in particular, we are fans of the blog Nursing Clio and Carla Nappi’s New Books Network podcasts, and we see the good work that they do as a challenge for the Society to do likewise.

While the Society’s publications, especially Isis, have long enjoyed something approaching a right of first refusal for the best work in the field, we are mindful of the fact that some truly excellent scholarship in the history of science cannot appear within its pages—or indeed in the pages of any journal. Digital history is now a mature (if hardly static) form of scholarship, and there are important works that deserve the Society’s consideration. We intend to build a framework for evaluating and, where appropriate, showcasing works sufficiently scholarly or pedagogical significant to our field that do not fit comfortably into traditional textual formats.

But there are several other ways in which we intend to help Isis and Osiris to navigate the discipline’s gradual drift away from a wholly ink-and-paper-bound model of scholarship. First, and most straightforwardly, we will offer more robust support for (and a warmer welcome to) digital adjuncts to traditional articles, expanding the cognizance of the online versions of these journals past the borders of the static image and into video, audio, mapping, and interactive datasets. We will also be exploring the possibility of anchoring Focus or Viewpoint sections with mature digital history projects, holding them to the same standards of analytical heft and rigorous peer review as we would a traditional article. Finally, we believe that Isis’s role as book-reviewer-in-chief of the discipline should be expanded to include digital history projects—not least because not all such projects are created equal.

We intend to maintain the Focus, Viewpoint, and Second Look special sections. These sections have proven to be appealing to both contributors and readers. Indeed, we hope to further mobilize the conversations that these special sections facilitate by more closely integrating them with the Society’s other publications and public engagement efforts. As for content, we are guided by something that Floris Cohen said to us in a recent conversation: that one of his goals, when crafting an Isis issue, was to be sure that every reader would find at least one item of temporal, geographical, or topical interest. We embrace this ideal and see these special sections as excellent means of putting it into practice. We also see them as spaces in which contributors can engage with the “big questions” of the discipline that can be further expanded to include explorations of its future through discussions of pedagogy, public engagement, or activism.

Editors of journals like Isis can have a gatekeeping function, although this isn’t how we’re inclined to see our role. Rather, we intend to be something more akin to matchmakers, joining in productive conversation sound scholarship on superficially disparate topics. We regard the discipline’s fluid borders as a good thing, something that is itself essential to the continued relevance of the scholarly study of science. Yet, anecdotally, we know that scholars whose work strays even slightly across the perceived boundaries of our field are more likely to submit their work to specialist journals than to Isis. Also, histories of non-western science are not as common in our publications as they might be given the amount of work currently being done on them. Environmental history, biological sciences, and the history of the human sciences all have their own growing meetings now. We believe that the discipline of the history of science is strongest when it is most eclectic, and that to lose any degree of the discipline’s hard-won diversity of subject and method would be disastrous. The Society’s publications have a disproportionate influence over where the boundaries of our discipline lie, and as editors we will be at pains to ensure that all stakeholders in our field see their interests reflected in some fashion.

Put more directly, the alternative to a conscious embrace and active pursuit of our discipline’s internal diversity is to lose it entirely. The best compliment we can pay to the labor that has already been done to make our community a welcoming one on intellectual, methodological, professional, and personal grounds is to redouble our own efforts in that vein. In particular, we know that no one reads the Society’s publications as broadly or as mindfully as graduate students and early career scholars, and one of our first tasks, even before we formally assume the editorship, will be to forge new relationships with that cohort. Ultimately, though, we aim to make the various publications of the History of Science Society as accessible to, and as reflective of, its entire membership as possible. To that end, we ask now—and will continue to ask going forward—for the advice and perspective of the membership. (Contact Alix at ahui@history.msstate.edu and/or Matt at MLavine@history.msstate.edu).

We’d also like to say a few words about our own neighborhood within the scholarly community. Shortly after his appointment, Floris Cohen was asked in an interview what changes moving the editorship from Toronto to Utrecht would bring. He expressed his gratitude to the leadership of the Society for their willingness to entertain what in some respects was an unorthodox proposal. He also pointed out the reciprocal benefits that such an arrangement would bring: better representation for European scholars, but also a stronger relationship between them and the History of Science Society as a whole. Five years later, we find this captures our own sentiments almost perfectly. We’re thrilled that the Society is open to a somewhat novel approach to the editorship and its responsibilities, but we’re also excited that the discipline will now have a physical and symbolic presence in a part of the world that has seen dramatic growth as a locus of studies in the history of science. The two of us share the usual scholarly reticence to talk about ourselves, but we are only too happy to call attention to the good works of our many colleagues in the southeastern United States. As attendees at the 2016 Annual Meeting in Atlanta know, the region now supports two annual HSTM conferences, and scores of active scholars at dozens of institutions working with a vibrant graduate student community. We note with parochial pride that the SEC now rivals the Ivy League in terms of its proportion of member schools that have hired HSTM faculty, and that at least five of them regularly graduate MA and PhD students in those fields. We would like to think that the editorship’s arrival in the South is in part a reflection of the accomplishments of the scholars in the region.

We’re also enormously grateful to Carin Berkowitz, who will be joining us as the Book Review Editor. Many members of the Society will already know Carin from her scholarship and her work as the director of the Center for Historical Research at the newly renamed Science History Institute (formerly the Chemical Heritage Foundation). With her, we will be instituting a number of changes to the 60-80 pages at the end of each physical copy of Isis. In particular, we expect to move a portion of the reviews online, in order to free up space for longer or more detailed reviews, including review essays, and co-authored “review conversations” where warranted. We see Isis’s book reviews as a profoundly valuable service to the community—or, given the number of people who are involved in their production, perhaps we should say that is a service that the community provides to itself. In principle (and very nearly in practice), it has for some time been the policy that every legitimate scholarly book on the history of science made known to the Society should be reviewed. We agree, but even more so than articles, most traditional reviews have highly specific audiences, and these days they are more likely to be consulted via an online search than a browse of the paper copy.

Carin will also be supervising a rotating cast of Mississippi State graduate student assistants who will take up residence in Philadelphia to work on the Book Reviews and take advantage of that city’s own vibrant community of historians of science and related fields. But we intend to make sure that it will not be only our graduate students who benefit from the editorship coming to Starkville. We know from not-too-terribly-distant experience that the academic publication process can feel opaque and frustrating to someone just beginning to submit articles—or indeed to those who have been doing it for some time. Accordingly, we’ll be making ourselves visible and available at conferences, both to demystify the process to the extent possible, but also to learn about the interests and talents of the next generation of our discipline.

We enter into our new responsibilities with enthusiasm, and not a little trepidation. There is much to be done. But we know that we will begin in an enviable position. Floris will be leaving us an editorship running on all cylinders, and we will have the benefit of an engaged membership, skilled and professional leadership, and an intellectually vibrant discipline. We look forward to working with you in the years to come.