Remarks for Official Opening of Isis in Utrecht

Utrecht canalBy Angela Creager, HSS President

Today I am here not as an expert on scholarly publications or digital humanities, but as the President of the History of Science Society. And as it happens, as Vice President I was on the search committee for the new Editor of the History of Science Society. So I am in a good position to comment on why the selection of Floris Cohen as Editor and the opening of our editorial office in Utrecht are exciting and sound developments for us.

First a few words about HSS’s new Editor: Floris Cohen is well known to historians of science for his books The Scientific Revolution: A Historiographical Inquiry (1994) and How Modern Science Came Into the World (2010). A shortened version in Dutch of the latter was awarded the Eureka Prize in 2007 for its success in bringing science and scholarship to a broad audience, a cause to which Cohen is strongly committed. He has a well-deserved reputation as a conscientious, responsible, and focused scholar, qualities he now brings to the editorship of Isis. All of Cohen’s work combines a dedication to meticulous scholarship with a focus on big historical questions, and in editing Isis he aims to achieve what he called “a judicious mix” of the two. Although his own work has dealt mainly with the period before 1700, as Editor he is serving the broader readership in his assurance that the distribution of topics addressed in the journal remains roughly proportional to the research interests of HSS members. That is, he would expect Isis to retain a substantial focus on 19th and 20th century science. Here he is helped by an excellent editorial board. Cohen will also oversee the continued publication of our yearly thematic serial Osiris, whose editor Andrea Rusnock, has brought out a series of sparkling volumes that are keenly attuned to the best and most innovative history of science being written. In searching for a new Editor, the Committee on Publications was impressed by Cohen’s desire to be of service to the discipline and by his commitment to the highest standards of scholarship, to rigorously objective and fair peer-review procedures, and to judicious, fair, and informative book reviewing.

Cohen has inherited from our former Editor Bernie Lightman our field’s premier journal, with an incredibly low acceptance rate for articles (about 12% of submissions make it into print). Isis is known for its attention to cutting-edge historiography as well as for its commitment to producing the highest caliber scholarship in the field. It was, of course, a big step for our Society, which has been based for nearly a century in North America, to move such a vital part of our operations to Europe. But I am convinced it was both sound and forward-looking. From its founding in 1924, the History of Science Society has always been an international Society, and I was surprised when I analyzed our membership that fully one-third of our members live outside of the U.S. (and one-quarter outside the U.S. and Canada). To ascertain if the postage costs would go up for mailing books to reviewers from Utrecht, my colleague Bruce Hunt was surprised to discover from a survey of recent issues of Isis that close to half of our book reviewers are Europeans. So while the symbolism of moving our Isis office across the Atlantic is significant, in reality we are catching up to where the Society is, and where the field is going. With its thriving graduate program and close links with other key research institutions and museums in the Netherlands, the Descartes Center possesses a wealth of talent and institutional support as host of our editorial office. I am thrilled to be here today to celebrate the return of Isis to the Low Countries, after a century in the New World.

We will rely on Floris Cohen’s good judgment in these next few years, which may be critical ones for our longevity. Like other learned societies, HSS is faced with the uncertainty of how to sustain our tradition of scholarly excellence in the age of electronic publishing. The pressure for open access poses a particular challenge. Most people agree that open access—making the scholarly literature freely available on the Internet (to give Stephen Curry’s simple definition)—is a good idea. Yet the economic implications are complex and counter-intuitive. In effect, the model shifts the burden of publication costs from readers onto authors (or onto the funding bodies that support the authors). Is this sustainable in the humanities and social sciences, where public funding is not lavish?

Our own Society invests significant resources into making our journal the finest in the field. One estimate places the cost of publishing Isis for HSS at $16,000 per article.* University of Chicago Press offers gold open access as an option for authors; their article processing fee is set at $2,500. (This is in line with the fee from other publishers, both academic and commercial, such as Oxford and Springer.) That sum may sound princely to an author, yet it does not come close to covering the resources HSS puts into its refereeing, editing, and production. Moreover, our base of members, and thus our individual subscribers to Isis, has been eroding steadily for the past decade—in part because scholars can access our journal online through their libraries and thus do not have an incentive to retain their Society membership. Who will pay for publishing our excellent scholarly journal (and others like it) in the future? University of Chicago press offers us the option of benefiting from the growing institutional and bundle subscriptions to our journal, since individual subscribers are a shrinking source of revenues. This strategy for financial sustainability relies on taking advantage of our main intellectual property, Isis and Osiris. How do we then respond to the calls for greater open access? This is a conundrum we have not yet resolved.

These changes are gradual, and for now our budget remains on sound footing—in no small part due to the direct and in-kind support we now receive from the Descartes Center, the Huygens Institute and Museum Boerhaave, as well as the University of Utrecht and the Ammodo Foundation. We are grateful for your generous support of our editorial office and the excellent Isis staff. That said, we are not complacent. With an eye to marking our centennial ten years hence, we have embarked on developing a strategic plan. We have identified six goals that are central to our Society’s mission; the second is to “foster a publishing environment that promotes top-quality history of science scholarship.” Even as we seek to disseminate our scholarship to more diverse audiences and in more diverse media, the core of our intellectual value is right here—the editing and publication of Isis and Osiris. Thank you for being our partners in this crucial part of our Society’s work and legacy. In particular, I want to express our gratitude to Wijnand Mijnhardt, Bert Theunissen, and Floris Cohen, for their vision and work in bringing the editorial office to the Netherlands. We are also grateful for the other members of the publication team, especially Eric Jorink, Ad Maas, and Desiree Capel. You all have become vital friends and supporters of the HSS, and have quite literally brought us to a new place in our history. We look forward not only to reading the next five years of outstanding scholarship edited out of Utrecht, but also to our arrival en masse to convene our first annual meeting beyond the borders of North America, here in Utrecht in 2019! Congratulations and best wishes to our new Editorial Office.