Quality in Scholarship in the Age of the Impact Factor Official Opening of the HSS Editorial Office at Utrecht, The Netherlands

By Noortje Jacobs, Didi van Trijp and Ruben Verwaal, Isis Editorial Assistants

On 10 September 2014, in the intimate and historic atmosphere of the Lutheran Church in Utrecht, scholars gathered to celebrate the official opening of the History of Science Society’s Editorial Office. Many historians of science, as well as people from outside the field, were present to witness this happy occasion. A special guest for the ceremony was the President of the History of Science Society, Angela Creager. In her opening address, she posed the question “How can we maintain quality in scholarship and scholarly journals in the age of the impact factor?” She was followed by various speakers who reflected on this central topic. The HSS’s new Editor, H. Floris Cohen, concluded the day by describing how he plans to maintain the journal’s high quality and standards. He chose to do so with a most remarkable metaphor. Two hours earlier, when the guests were just arriving at the church, they had been welcomed by the impressive sounds of an organ. During his closing remarks, Floris revealed that he had been the one playing the instrument, but not before he asked the audience what they had thought of the performance. This semi-trick question posed the prelude to an important point of reflection: would the audience have dared to be honest if they had known it was the Editor pressing the keys? Or with this knowledge, would they have hastily readjusted their opinion? If so, does that mean that quality judgments are no more than subjective expressions glossed over by taste? Or can we foster reasonable discussions that do not focus on the subject that is judging but on the object that is being judged? Floris adheres to the latter notion. He will ensure that all those seeking to contribute to Isis will have an equal chance and that they will receive fair and meticulous reviews. Although this may cost considerable time and effort—for which Isis very much relies on the members of HSS’s volunteer community—this is the only way to ensure quality in scholarship, especially in the age of the impact factor.

Utrecht Speakers

From left to right: our illustrious speakers, Keimpe Algra (Humanities faculty Utrecht University), Rens Bod (professor of Computational and Digital Humanities, University of Amsterdam), Jeroen Bouterse (member of Horus), H. Floris Cohen (HSS Editor), Lex Heerma van Voss (Director of Huygens ING), Angela Creager (President of the HSS), Paul Ziche (Descartes Centre), Dirk van Delft (Director of Museum Boerhaave), Paul Wouters (Director of the Center for Science and Technology Studies, Leiden University), and Bert Theunissen (Director of the Descartes Centre). 

There were, of course, other contributors to the festivities. Paul Ziche, chair of Utrecht’s Descartes Centre for the History and Philosophy of the Science, which houses the editorial office, posed the question of whether Isis the journal, like the ancient Egyptian goddess, is a myth. Myths, after all, are created and require sustenance; they can also be altered and molded. Continuing on the etymology of the goddess Isis, Lex Heerma van Voss—the general director of the Dutch Huygens Institute ING, which has kindly supplied the HSS with one of its two book review editors, Eric Jorink—used pictures and illustrations to show the audience how this goddess of fertility and healing also came to stand for knowledge and wisdom. Isis, Heerma van Voss therefore concluded, is a perfect title for a journal dedicated to the history of science. Also, Keimpe Algra, head of the Utrecht University Humanities Faculty and a historian of antique philosophy, used the title of the journal as a metaphor and noted that the journal Isis, like the goddess, is cosmopolitan in nature; even though Isis has Egyptian roots, she became an important figure throughout the Greco-Roman world. Hence, Algra concluded, Isis may have moved from America to Europe, but the journal’s high reputation will continue to be as clearly and widely perceived as that of the goddess. Vivat crescat gloriat! (May it live, grow, and flourish!)

The Horus Circle with H. Floris Cohen, Eric Jorink, and Angela Creager.

The Horus Circle with H. Floris Cohen, Eric Jorink, and Angela Creager.

These are certainly interesting times for academic journals. Isis serves not only the discipline, it also serves all academics, as well as society at large. This broad view, Angela Creager admitted, made the choice of a new Editor especially difficult. The HSS sought an Editor who would be dedicated to meticulous and high-quality scholarship, but who also dared to ask the big questions, such as whether or not Isis should be made completely and freely accessible. If so, who would pay for open access? The authors? The readers? The members of HSS? The ramifications of open access are significant.

Amsterdam Professor of Computational and Digital Humanities Rens Bod stressed that we as historians of science have a special responsibility to the entire academic community, including non-historians. This also means that we should aim to reach a broad public and not just the specialists in our respective sub-fields. Over the years, Bod warned, journals in the history of science have been specializing and professionalizing, attracting fewer and fewer readers. As historians of science who reflect on the ideas and practices of all those engaged in science, we have to make sure that these works continue to offer insights to everyone, including scientists. To reach this broad readership, Isis should motivate its authors to take a comparative approach across disciplinary and geographical boundaries. Quality also means relevance and accessibility.

But what constitutes quality, really? Leiden Professor of Scientometrics Paul Wouters advised Isis and the audience to simply not worry about the impact factor. It is clear to many in contemporary academics that there is too much reliance on such indicators. Instead, Wouters said, we should worry about what the notion of quality means and what it has meant in different times and contexts. Historians of science can play an important role here by exploring the historical contingency of the concept and by showing how contemporary standards are only of limited value.

PhD candidate Jeroen Bouterse gave the audience one clear example of quality and dedication in the age of the impact-factor. When it became clear that Isis would be coming to the Netherlands, Floris immediately decided to form a young Isis circle, consisting of students and doctoral candidates in the history of science. The group is called Horus, after the son of Isis. Last spring, Floris, along with the Isis book review editors Ad Maas and Eric Jorink, spent the day discussing the art of book reviewing. All thirteen Horus members had submitted a book review and collectively they went over each review to discuss the merits and pitfalls of good reviewing, because, as George Sarton once wrote, “learning cannot progress without appreciation or criticism.” Sarton was writing about the fundamental importance of good reviewing, but the same principle applies to Horus. As Bouterse explained to the audience, it was an inspiring experience for the students to have three scholars take this much time and effort for an educational session outside of the set curricula. Horus will continue to meet in the years to come, covering different aspects of the academic journal.

A journal such as Isis is, of course, concerned with the letter and the word. However, Dirk van Delft, the Director of the Dutch science museum Boerhaave, reminded the audience of the importance of material science. Together with the Descartes Centre and the Huygens Institute, Boerhaave has made the transition of Isis to the Netherlands possible. The museum has generously provided us with one of our book review editors, Ad Maas. Van Delft hopes this will contribute to a synergy between the academic world and the world of the museum. Boerhaave aims to have a firm position in the history of science community and Van Delft is confident that Isis has an important contribution to make to the museum, as well.

From left to right: H. Floris Cohen (HSS Editor), Angela Creager (HSS President), Desiree Capel (Isis Managing Editor), Eric Jorink (Book Review Editor), and Ad Maas (Book Review Editor).Floris ended the festivities with some kind words of thanks, emphasizing the collaborative effort in bringing Isis to Utrecht. He thanked in particular an important trio who helped to make the move possible. These are of course Bert Theunissen and Wijnand Mijnhardt, the current and previous directors of the Descartes Centre, and Annemarieke Blankesteijn, the Centre’s managing director. From the beginning, the Descartes Centre has offered Isis a firm institutional basis. Finally, Floris reminded us that what is needed to become and remain a good historian is a combination of sufficient command and daring, of intuitive judgment enhanced by expertise. He underscored this sense of daring by quoting the late historian Lynn White, Jr.: “For an historian it is better to be wrong than to be timid.” It is this admonition that he and his colleagues will keep in mind as they work to maintain the quality that Isis has exhibited over the past 100 years.