Peer Review

 

"If they would expose any Errors in my own Discoveries, I'd esteem it a Service."

- December 25, 1700

Four hundred years ago, when the world of science was so new, it was quite possible for learned societies and the "virtuosi" who belonged to them to keep up with everything. In other words, there was so little depth in the 1600's that breadth was still possible.

From Birch's History, we can see the breadth. During the November 1677 meetings when Hooke struggled with replicating van Leeuwenhoek's results, the members of the Society also discussed

  • sulfur water
  • imitation leather from salad oil and wax
  • comparing weights of liquids to the hundred thousandth part
  • preserving wine
  • reproduction in carp, lobsters, silkworms, and chickens
  • the structure of palmetto trees

Volume 12 of their journal had articles on an equally broad variety of topics, as shown on the list below left. Van Leeuwenhoek's contributions to volume 12 are listed below right.

Volume 12 also included an "Extract of a Letter form Mr. Butterfield Mathematique Instrument-maker to the French King, about the making of Microscopes with very small and single Glasses" (.pdf) giving instructions for making a microscope just like van Leeuwenhoek's. See excerpt below left.

In today's world of hyper-specialization, competitive public funding, and thousands of journals, peer review differs from peer review in the world of the Royal Society four hundred years ago. Only France had similar institutions, the Academie Francais and its Journal des Scavans. Each of these journals translated and re-printed articles from the other.

Where now a journal editor spreads the risk by asking experts to make anonymous and independent assessments of all submitted articles, back then the editor of Philosophical Transactions made those decisions himself.

Halfway through his career, as it turned out, he wrote to his editor Hans Sloane on Christmas Day, 1700 (Dobell translation):

As I aim at nothing but Truth, and, so far as in me lieth, to point out Mistakes that may have crept into certain Matters; I hope that in so doing those I chance to censure will not take it ill: and if they would expose any Errors in my own Discoveries, I'd esteem it a Service; all the more, because 'twould thereby give me encouragement towards the attaining of a nicer Accuracy.

In van Leeuwenhoek's time, peer review was a new idea, developing toward what it is today. But van Leeuwenhoek recognized its value and was an eager participant.