Alex Csiszar, “The Invention of Peer Review”

Alex Csiszar

Alex Csiszar

On April 17, 2014, Alex Csiszar, the John C. Haas Fellow in CHF’s  Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry, presented “The Invention of Peer Review.”

The referee of scientific papers has been called the linchpin of modern science. So important has this personage sometimes seemed that threats to the system of peer review have been called threats to scientific knowledge itself. But just who is the scientific referee? Where did the referee come from? What is the referee really for? And how have the functions of the referee system changed over time?

This talk uncovered the forgotten origins of the referee in the early 19th century, when British natural philosophers cobbled together the customs and practices that served as a blueprint for the emergence of widespread peer review in the later 20th century. But the impulse that led to the birth of the referee had less to do with researchers’ desire to build a more trustworthy scientific literature than it did with a desire to enhance public perceptions of science in an era of great political and social change. Today, as the media of scientific communication undergo massive transformation, it may be useful to recollect that the referee has stood from the beginning at the intersection of science and politics.

About the speaker

Alex Csiszar researches the history of scientific authorship, publishing, and information-management practices during the 19th century, with a focus on France and Britain. He is an assistant professor in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University, where he teaches on topics ranging from early modern natural philosophy to digital media practices in contemporary science. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard in 2010 and an M.A. from Stanford University in 2004. In 2012 Csiszar was a fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. Csiszar is also active in the book history community and is cochair of the Mahindra Humanities Center Seminar in the History of the Book at Harvard. While at CHF he is completing his first book, a study of the rise of the scientific journal in 19th-century Britain and France.

CHF gratefully acknowledges June Felley and David W. Haas for their generous support of the Rohm and Haas Fellow in Focus lecture series.

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