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“Nullius in Verba”
16 September 2016 (online)
Now that the British have voted for the Brexit, a lot of changes are bound to happen in the not too distant future, afflicting both islanders and Continentals (and I do not mean the distinctive sports car by that). Be that as it may, there will be one institution outliving all the turmoil at which the then outside scientific world will have to keep looking: The Royal Society—as it calls itself in all brevity. Not only is it “the independent scientific academy of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, dedicated to promoting excellence in science”, it also claims to be the founder of scientific publication as such. In 1665, Henry Oldenburg, its first Secretary, paved the way for the “Philosophical Transactions,” which are commonly regarded to be the world's first scientific journal and are still published today. Henry was born as Heinrich Oldenburg in Bremen, Germany, in 1618. A true European (!), much travelled and well-educated, he finally settled in London in 1653. His outspoken publications earned him not only recognition but also a brief spell in the Tower in 1667 for suspected dangerous liaisons during the Second Anglo-Dutch War.
The motto of the society “Nullius in Verba” should be understood as “Take nobody's word for it” and is meant to express the “determination of the Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment”. Accordingly, in what may be considered the first ever Editorial, Oldenburg already outlined the essentials of a scientific publication including peer review. In the humility so characteristic for those feudal times he wrote: “And no small number are at present engaged for those weighty productions, which require both time and assistance, for their due maturity… And thus have I made the best use of some of them, that I could devise; to spread abroad encouragements, inquiries, directions, and patterns that may animate, and draw on universal assistances.”
To commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Philosophical Transactions, The Royal Society organized a conference called “The future of scholarly scientific communication” which was held in two parts: April 20 to 21 and May 5 to 6, 2015. During the course of these four days the following key issues were debated in a very open manner, sometimes in a pro-and-contra format: potential future (technical) developments, the role and future of peer review, quality assurance, measuring science, reproducibility, scientific fraud (aptly titled “Breaking Bad”), mending the system, the future of the journal article, and economics of publishing and sustainability. Thankfully the proceedings have been published and make fascinating reading. For instance, there is a memorable quote about the current environment of scientific publishing: “We live in a world where a tweet from a celebrity can lead to parents not inoculating their children”, or voting Leave for that matter, one may add now.
Should you ever want to visit The Royal Society in London you must trace your steps to 6–9 Carlton House Terrace, St James's, an impressive Regency ensemble designed by John Nash, erected between 1827 and 1833. A German visitor may wish to look out for the small gravestone protected by a wooden framework underneath the impressive plane tree between the garage ramp and the Duke of York Column. It reads: “Ciro – Ein treuer Begleiter – London im Februar 1934–Hoesch.” This is because the building then served as the German embassy with Leopold von Hoesch, whose faithful dog is buried on the premises, being ambassador from 1932 to 1936. After him the infamous Joachim von Ribbentrop moved in, greeting King George VI with a hearty “Heil Hitler.” This earned him the nickname “Brickendrop.” What would London be without such truly European stories? No wonder all its boroughs markedly voted Remain.
- 1 The Royal Society Web site. Available online at https://royalsociety.org/ . Accessed August 5, 2016
- 2 Oldenburg H. Epistle Dedicatory. Phil Trans 1665; 1: 1-2
- 3 The future of scholarly scientific communication: conference 2015. Available online at https://royalsociety.org/~/media/events/2015/04/FSSC1/FSSC-Report.pdf . Accessed August 5, 2016