Book review: Science in Print

After reviewing Darcy Cullen’s Editors, Scholars, and the Social Text, which offered an insightful introduction to the world of scholarly publishing in the humanities, I found myself wondering which principles and practices within that book also applied to publishing in the sciences. I was hopeful that Science in Print: Essays on the History of Science and the Culture of Print, edited by Rima D. Apple, Gregory J. Downey, and Stephen L. Vaughn (published by the University of Wisconsin Press), might shed some light on the issue.

In 2008 the Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison sponsored an international conference on the culture of print in science, technology, engineering, and medicine; nine of the conference sessions were chosen to be included in Science in Print, released earlier this fall. The essays include

  • Meghan Doherty’s piece on how William Faithorne’s The Art of Graveing and Etching, a manual on the engraver’s craft, reflected standards of accuracy that he also applied to engravings for the Royal Society, which in turn reinforced scientific rigour among Royal Society members;
  • Robin E. Rider’s look at the importance of typography in late-eighteenth-century and early-nineteenth-century mathematical textbooks;
  • Lynn K. Nyhart’s overview of a decades-long series of publications, all arising from a German expedition to sample plankton in the world’s oceans;
  • Bertrum H. MacDonald’s tribute to the Smithsonian Institution’s role in scientific publication and information interchange between Canadian and American scientists in the late 1800s;
  • Jennifer J. Connor’s semi-biographical piece on George M. Gould, who in the late nineteenth century edited several medical journals and advanced ideas of editorial autonomy within medical journal publishing;
  • Kate McDowell’s probe of how evolution was presented in children’s science books between 1892 and 1922;
  • Sally Gregory Kohlstedt’s look at how textbooks and teacher resource books approached the burgeoning interest in nature study in the early twentieth century;
  • Rima D. Apple’s investigation into the influence of various publications, particularly government dietary guidelines, on fostering the primacy of meat in the American diet;
  • Cheryl Knott’s comparison between the reaction to Stewart Udall’s environmental treatise, The Quiet Crisis, published in 1963, and the reception to the book’s twenty-fifth-anniversary edition, published in 1988.

Being a bit of a math and typography nerd, I found resonance in Robin Rider’s essay, in which she says,

The visual culture of mathematics, done well, offers “enormous advantages of seeing,” as Edward Tufte would say. Readers learn much from the way mathematics is presented in type. Good typography highlights and reinforces ideas; indifferent typography (or worse) obscures ideas and stymies the reader. (p. 38)

—particularly since that last sentence applies just as well to non-mathematical texts.

Although not addressed as a specific topic in the book, the issue of the motivation behind academic publishing does rear its head in more than one essay. Both Lynn Nyhart and Jennifer Connor remark that the contributors to scientific and medical journals are generally not paid for their contributions. Writing about medical editor George M. Gould, Connor says,

After [publisher] William Wood of New York refused him permission that same year to reprint articles from its medical journals in his Year-Book—a digest of material that reached, according to Gould, thousands of readers—he distributed a circular about the relations between the medical profession and “lay publishing firms of medical journals.” Publishers do not pay physicians for their contributions, he noted, although they presumably profit from them; and, in this case, no other publisher—even those who do pay contributors—had objected to reprinting extracts. But above all, this publisher’s decision was wrong because it prevented the dissemination of medical knowledge. (p. 116)

Lynn Nyhart argues that publishing itself motivated scientific progress:

Maintaining the commitment to publish, I would suggest, was in fact what made these projects successful and important as science. (Conversely, the lack of a strong commitment to publishing following many voyages often resulted in the collected specimens languishing in boxes for years without ever being analyzed.) (p. 67)

Science in Print also looks beyond the academic realm at trade and popular science publishing, and the closing chapter by Cheryl Knott makes reference to Priscilla Coit Murphy’s book What a Book Can Do: The Publication and Reception of Silent Spring, saying

According to Murphy, it is the book (as opposed to the author) that launches social and political movements as it takes on a life of its own in ways the author and publisher could not have foreseen. (p. 201)

Knott reinforces this concept by showing how the evolution of the environmental movement and a changing political climate affected the success of The Quiet Crisis, an environmental book by former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. It became a best-seller after it was first published in 1963 but saw a tepid reception when it was expanded, updated, and reissued in 1988. Knott discovered that readers often cite and recommend the original edition, even if they’d clearly read the newer one. She notes, “Such mix-ups indicate that many readers do not make the careful distinctions between editions that collectors, bibliographers, and librarians make.” (p. 217) In my experience, although publishers are aware of this reality, they are sometimes in denial about it as they try to find new ways of repackaging and marketing existing content. How do you capitalize on the cachet of a successful original edition while offering readers the new information they need?

***

Although Science in Print did offer me some new perspectives and gave historical context to the development of scientific publishing, particular in North America, I have to say that didn’t enjoy the experience of reading the book as much as I would have wanted, for a variety of reasons. I’ve been struggling for weeks to write a cohesive review of this book (and some may remark that I’ve failed), likely because I found that Science in Print itself lacks cohesion. I’m no stranger to reading and reviewing anthologies; despite being an assembly of contributions from different authors, they must still have an internal rhythm and logic—like a good album put together from a collection of singles. Science in Print takes too much of a scattergun approach, attempting to present numerous topics ostensibly connecting science and print culture that are really quite disparate. Perhaps a more effective approach would have been to select more of the conference sessions to publish but to group them by topic or genre and issue each of these as a separate volume, which would have allowed for more meaningful comparisons among contributors’ viewpoints.

And although I understand that scholarly presses generally don’t do much substantive editing, this is once instance in which a manuscript really could have benefited from a skilled stylistic editor’s hand. Take, for instance, this opening to one of the essays:

Educators in the early twentieth century faced the dilemma of how to build the skills of teachers so that they could teach directly from nature in a new progressive pedagogy emerging in the late nineteenth century known as nature study. (p. 156)

Most stylistic editors would be able to offer at least a couple of suggestions to make that sentence more engaging and approachable while conveying exactly the same information. (I should say that I don’t mean to pick on this one contributor—whose content was otherwise pretty interesting—I just wanted to offer an example.)

Finally, one aspect of the book that may have contributed to my discomfort while reading is the design (ironic, given Robin Rider’s astute analysis of the importance of good typography): the pages are dense, the type is small, and the lines are long. Robert Bringhurst, in The Elements of Typographic Style, writes, “Anything from 45 to 75 characters is widely regarded as a satisfactory length of line for a single-column page set in a serifed text face in a text size… A line that averages more than 75 or 80 characters is likely to be too long for continuous reading.” (v. 2.4, pp. 26–27) Science in Print definitely falls into the latter category. I would suggest that readers try the ebook and reflow the text to a comfortable line length, but it appears that the only available ebook version is a fixed-layout PDF. I haven’t read any other books published by University of Wisconsin Press, but if this book is based on a standard design template, the press may benefit from revisiting that template and revising it for readability.

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