The many diversities of the history of science discipline

Yves Gingras[1]

Emily Klancher Merchant and Projit Bihari Mukharji and Myrna Perez Sheldon also contributed responses to this essay.

Reading the fifty-page-long “open conversation” among nine historians of science, all but one coming from dominant American universities, about the “diversity” (or lack thereof) of the discipline, I could not but be struck by the fact that—looking on from outside the USA—this conversation lacked in reflexivity, was incredibly self-centered and considered the discipline as being embodied by Isis, presented as the “flagship journal” of the discipline. Also surprising was the vagueness of the very notion of “diversity” present in the conversations, as if it was obvious for all what was meant by that word, which thus needed no precise definition or clear delimitation of the extent of its content. The fact that at least six of the authors present themselves as working on “race,” and that most of the contexts of use of the word “diversity” were pointing to questions of ethnic origin and also, to a much lesser extent, of gender, but very rarely of social and class origins, suggest that the authors were most of the time implicitly focusing on ethnic diversity. That is of course legitimate, but I think it would be useful to look also at other kinds of diversity in history of science: thematic, geographic, economic, gendered (essentially male and female).

The suggestion by Emily Merchant that one could make a computational analysis of the discipline by taking Isis “as emblematic of the field” (p. 338), is a striking example of this lack of critical reflection on the discipline for, as I will show, regardless of the undisputed quality of that journal, Isis is far from providing a representative sample of the global discipline of the history of science. I do, however, agree with her that “data collection is an important first step” in order to examine how diverse a field is relative to whatever notion of diversity one might have and then use this knowledge to promote any particular diversity found lacking. I thus would like here to show that although one can always get more data on various sociodemographic characteristics of the members of the discipline, one can use already existing data to get a multidimensional view of the notion of “diversity” whose content and meaning should not be taken for granted.

Such a large-scale analysis of the discipline provides a first level of reflexivity in that it helps to take a step back from one’s own local situation and thus to escape the danger of ecological fallacy, which takes the part for the whole and a local and biased sample as representative of the larger population under investigation. While it is perfectly normal for the people convened at the roundtable to focus on their own particular field of interest and personal convictions, I think it could be useful to take a broader and more comprehensive look at the discipline to evaluate the degree of its diversity along several measures, including gender and geographic origins of the papers, from which we could then get an idea of the existing diversity of questions, methods and topics present in the discipline.

Also, if one wants to talk about the discipline in general, looking at the content of many history of science journals would help position Isis in that field and gauge its relative position in terms of diversity of topics, regions of origin of papers and gender of its authors. As mentioned by Projit Bihari Mukharji in his concluding remarks, “there is no simple answer to the question of whether demographic data helps to diversify the discipline” (p. 353), but it can hardly be denied that such data would help to get less speculative and more concrete about what the situation of the discipline actually is in terms of different kinds of “diversity” that can already be measured. We may even be surprised to find that in some areas such diversities are larger than in others.

I am, of course, aware that some scholars assume that all statistics are “socially constructed,” hence all numbers may be problematic, misleading or even completely useless. Regardless of these theoretical possibilities, I think that the bibliometric data I will use here (authors, institution, and country) are informative, and they are provided by the authors themselves. The results shed light on the present state of the discipline and can thus contribute to conversations about the kinds of diversity needed, at least in terms of editorial practices. For it is worth recalling that neither the History of Science Society nor any other similar disciplinary organization (not to mention journals) around the world have any control on job creation in the field. That means that the most a journal can do is to make sure it is receptive to all the existing historians of science dispersed across many institutions around the world who want to contribute to extending our knowledge about the past of the many sciences, or knowledge broadly construed. Scholarly associations may, of course, usefully work to keep the discipline visible in the academic field and more largely among the general public in order to assure its institutional and intellectual renewal.

In the remaining part of this essay, I thus contribute to the open conversation launched by the editors of Isis by providing readers with a collection of data based on a quantitative analysis of the content of 25 journals specialized in history of science, to which I also add for comparison some analysis of 10 additional journals covering history of technology and history of medicine (Table 1). For lack of space, I summarize the main results, but all the data are available on request and can be reproduced by anyone having access to the Web of Science.

Isis in the global space of the discipline

If we look at the content of a sample of 25 journals in history of science covered in the Web of Science (WoS) data base over the last decade or so (2010-2018), excluding for the moment the history of medicine and the history of technology, which have their own organizations, we observe that the discipline of history of science is quite diverse in terms of countries, topics and time periods studied. In this large yet necessarily incomplete sample of journals—as it does not include all local or national journals (like Scientia Canadensis), which are not covered in the WoS—we find that the annual production of research papers has grown very slowly over the last decade from about 380 to 440 per year in these 25 journals. In this group, Isis papers account for about 8% of the total. It goes without saying that including history of medicine and history of technology and other national journals would lower this proportion even more. Using a list of the ten major journals covering technology and medicine would add 2334 papers to the 3755 of the set of 25 journals of history of science, thus lowering the contribution of Isis to about 5%. Of course, simply recalling the relative weight of Isis in the field should in no manner be taken as a criticism of its value and content but simply be seen as a way to be reflexive by positioning it in the larger field.

Geographic diversity of authors

Let us have a look at the geographic location of the authors (Table 2).  We first observe that while authors from about 70 different countries publish papers in the selected 25 journals of history of science, the distribution is very skewed and only eleven countries account for 85% of the total number of papers over that decade. American institutions come first (accounting for 27%), followed by England (15%), Germany (10%) and France (7%), Italy (6%), Spain (5%), Australia (4%) and Canada (4). It is worth noting that this ranking (except for the absence of China) essentially corresponds to the ranking obtained using the proportion of world scientific papers produced by these countries over the period 2011-2015[2].

A closer analysis shows that the relative presence of these countries varies with journals and topics. For instance, we observe that Isis and Osiris are populated by a majority of authors from American institutions: about half for Isis (49%) and Osiris (57%). By comparison, the British Journal for the History of Science contains only about a third of its authors from the UK and another third from the USA. By contrast, Archives for the History of Exact Sciences is much more internationally diverse with only 27% of its papers from the USA, 16% each from France and Italy, and 7% from Germany.  In several other journals, authors from US institutions do not represent the largest part of the contributions. This is the case for example in Ambix, Archives of Natural History andBritish Journal for the History of Science, where England comes first, or Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte, where Germany largely dominates orthe Bollettino Di Storia Delle Scienze Matematiche, where Italy dominates, etc. Of course, one could expect strictly national journals to publish essentially local authors as is the case, for example, in Historical Records of Australian Science with 93% of the papers coming from Australian institutions.

We also observe that some countries are more focused on some topics. For instance, historians of science in France are quite active in history of mathematics compared to other countries. Physics in Perspective for example is more attractive to historians of science from the USA than from any other country.

I could multiply the examples, but the trend is clear: the discipline is globally quite diverse in terms of topics, geography and time-period studied, but it is obviously dominated by the “usual suspects”, namely the major OECD countries. Also, while we find more than 1400 different institutional addresses associated with the 3755 papers in these 25 history of science journals, only about 80 such institutions contribute at least 10 papers over the period studied. Not surprisingly, the “top 3” contributors are Cambridge University, the Max-Planck Institute (MPI) and Harvard University, closely followed by Princeton. If we look only at Isis, the first two (over the period covered) are Harvard and the MPI with more than 10 papers each, followed by Yale and Utrecht with 8 or 9 papers. For Osiris, we find that U. Penn, MPI, Princeton and Harvard contributed the most with four or five papers each.

The authors of the conversation do not discuss the thematic diversity; however, the changing focus of topics in the discipline has been analyzed by Paul Forman as well as by David Kaiser.[3] They clearly show, for example, that over the last twenty years the trend has been moving toward the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and to more social and cultural approaches, which demand less technical knowledge of dead languages like Greek and Latin or arcane mathematical methods.

Gender diversity

When we look at gender diversity in the history of science journals, we observe a relative stability over the period 2010-2018 in the proportion of female and male authors: about one third (33%) of authors are women. That proportion is higher in the group of 10 journals covering history of medicine and technology, where the average is 38%.[4] About 17% of all papers in these 35 journals have more than one author, and among those papers about 36% are the product of a female/male collaboration. That means that overall only about 7% of all papers show a collaboration between men and women. Thus, there are more authors than papers, and I calculate the proportion of women on the total number of authors, not papers, the difference being small and not affecting the interpretation. For example, women constitute 34.8% of authors in the 35 journals and are present in 38.2% of papers. This is normal, since few papers in history of science or medicine have many co-authors, so that authors and papers do not differ greatly.

It is interesting to observe that the mean proportion of one-third varies significantly with countries of origins of authors. As Table 2 shows, among the countries contributing the most to the discipline, we see that Italy (44%), Germany (41%) and Switzerland (39%) are well above the average while Canada (27%), England (26%), Australia (24%) and Scotland (20%) are significantly below the average of 33% of women authors. Interestingly, Table 3 shows that the variation by country is much smaller in the 10 journals of history of medicine and technology.

As could be expected, the gender proportion also varies significantly according to the specialty of historians. While about 35% of authors in generalist journals like Isis and History of Science—venues that cover a variety of topics in the sciences, technology and even medicine—are women, that proportion is much lower in technical and more internalist journals. Archives for the History of Exact Sciences for instance has only 22% women authors, which is similar to journals of history of physics and astronomy as well as earth and space science. History of mathematics is a bit higher, but also below the average with Historia Mathematica at 30%, while its French counterpart is higher at about 35%, and Technology and Culture is not far from the average at 34%. The highest proportion of women authors is found in the field of history of medicine. They contribute the majority of the papers in Social History of Medicine with 56%, as well as in the Bulletin for the History of Medicine with 54%. Nuncius (47%), Berichte zur Wissenchaftsgeschichte (45%) and Osiris (44%) have near-parity in gender.

It should be noted that over a comparable period (2008-2018), we observe that women contributed to about 31% of all scientific publications included in the Web of Science, which is not far from the 33% found in history of science broadly defined. Moreover, Table 4 shows that there are significantly more women contributing to papers in the medical fields than in physics and engineering, a trend analogous to the one we observe in history between medical history and history of physics for instance.

Conclusion

While not being exhaustive, this brief quantitative analysis of the production of papers in a large array of history of science, technology and medicine journals covers a representative sample of the existing publication practices in the field. Arguably, it can contribute to the conversation on the many kinds of diversity that exist in the field.  The results suggest for instance that there is a near parity of gender in history of medicine and a largely male presence in history of physics. Also, countries from what is often called “the Global North” largely dominate the production of papers in the field, as is also the case of a small number of central institutions. Topic and gender diversity are thus uneven across journals. Mainstream and general publications are dominated by a few “elite” institutions. We also find that the practices of historians of science cover a quite diverse array of methodologies and approaches to different objects and cultures, though geographic diversity essentially plays out in the “Global North”. All this seems sufficient to suggest that any too general and abstract conversation about “diversity” is unproductive.

Adding other kinds of sociodemographic information to these global bibliometric data could also enrich the portrait of the discipline. For instance, it would be useful to have data on the degree-granting institutions of authors. Taken together, all these informations would contribute to a better understanding of the real situation and thus help determine what specific actions could be taken by journals and scientific societies in order to increase even more the many diversities of the field.


Yves Gingras is professor of history and sociology of Science at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). His research focuses on the transformation of scientific research on a global scale. Among his recent books are Histoire des sciences (Paris, PUF, 2021), Sociologie des sciences (Paris, PUF, 2020), and Science and Religion. An Impossible Dialogue (London, Polity Press, 2017).

Journalnumber of papersnumber of authors% female authors
Bollettino di Storia delle Scienze Matematiche576263.0%
Dynamis15020653.4%
Gesnerus — Swiss Journal of the History of Medicine…9011347.4%
Nuncius — Journal of the History of Science14116046.9%
Berichte Zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte17620944.6%
Osiris12113343.9%
Galilaeana — Journal of Galilean Studies596440.3%
Centaurus13215237.0%
Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences16018735.4%
History of Science16619035.2%
Isis31736635.1%
Revue D Histoire Des Mathematiques525634.6%
Annals of Science15517731.4%
Historical Records of Australian Science8413130.8%
Historia Mathematica13317030.3%
Journal of the History of Biology19222530.2%
British Journal for the History of Science20423229.0%
Ambix13014427.8%
History of the Human Sciences30435627.3%
Earth Sciences History14119026.9%
Physics in Perspective11915822.4%
Archive for History of Exact Sciences15420422.4%
Journal for the History of Astronomy18829320.8%
Archives of Natural History24636818.9%
History of Geo- and Space Sciences8416713.3%
Sub-Total History of Science3755471332.8%
Social History of Medicine32237256.3%
Bulletin of the History of Medicine17118654.0%
Medical History21925741.9%
Early Science and Medicine17518941.0%
Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences15518239.1%
Technology and Culture30836933.5%
History and Technology16919332.3%
Social Science History22533731.9%
History of Psychiatry28640230.5%
History of the Human Sciences30435628.2%
Sub-Total History of  Medicine and Technology2334284338.1%
All Journals6089755634.8%
Table 1. List of journals analyzed over the period 2010-2018
Country papers % papers % female authors 
USA1016 27.130.4
England 581 15.526.2
Germany 377 10.040.8
France263 7.029.4
Italy240 6.443.7
Spain 193 5.136.8
Canada151 4.026.5
Australia151 4.024.5
Netherlands112 3.030.9
Switzerland83 2.239.4
Scotland76 2.020.0
Table 2: Main countries producing papers in 25 history of science journals (2010-2018)
Country papers % papers % female authors 
USA72431.037.3
England51121.940.7
Germany1456.233.5
Canada1134.834.5
Scotland793.433.8
France793.441.1
Australia733.146.9
Netherlands703.040.7
Spain441.936.4
Italy401.740.9
Ireland291.241.9
Table 3: Main countries producing papers in 10 history of medicine and technology journals (2010-2018)
Discipline% female
Physics17.3%
Engineering and technology19.5%
Mathematics19.6%
Earth and space25.4%
Chemistry27.1%
Biology33.4%
Botany33.5%
Social sciences33.8%
Clinical medicine34.7%
Biomedical research35.1%
Health55.7%
All disciplines31.1%
Table 4: percentage of female authors in on papers in different scientific disciplines (2010-2018)

1 The author would like to thank Mahdi Khelfaoui for producing the data, Jean-Pierre Robitaille for having double-checked all the data, Elian Carsenat from NamSor for giving him access to his algorithm to test his results on gender identification and Vincent Larivière for producing the data used in Table 4. Thanks also to Jutta Schickore for her comments and suggestions on previous versions of this essay.

2 See Table 2 in Yves Gingras, Histoire des sciences (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 2018), p. 123.

3 D. Kaiser, “Training and the generalist Vision in the History of Science”, Isis, 2005, 96:244-251, https://doi.org/10.1086/431536; Paul Forman, “From Social to moral to the Moral to the Spiritual: The Postmodern Exaltation of the history of Science”, in K. Gavroglu and J. Renn (eds.), Positioning the History of Science (Dordrecht: Springer, 2007) p. 49-55.

4 For the methodology used here to identify the gender of authors using their first names, see Vincent Larivière, Chaoqun Ni, Yves Gingras, Blaise Cronin & Cassidy R. Sugimoto, “Bibliometrics: Global gender disparities in science”, Nature, 504: 12 December 2013, p. 211-213, https://doi:10.1038/504211a. We are of course aware that analyses based on first names cannot account for the cases of individuals defining themselves otherwise, but it should be obvious that such cases do not affect the order of magnitude of the numbers presented here. Moreover, we have tested the method used by Larivière et al against another, the NamSor algorithm (namsor.com), and found an overlap of 95% in their common identification of gender. About 80% of the names have been identified and calculations of gender are based on this sample. Some papers only used initials making gender identification impossible.  Moreover, both methods give the same proportion of female authors, though the exact proportion for each journal may differ by 1 or 2%. Among the 25 history of science journals for example, only 4 show a difference between 4 and 5%. Finally, I made a manual verification of a sample of about 50 unknown first names that confirm that these unknowns do not change the proportion of gender calculated on the basis of the 80% that are identified. That could be expected on the basis that unknowns are randomly distributed and not concentrated in one gender. All these tests confirm that the data presented are robust and provide a realistic portrait of the field at the global level.