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A Prehislory of Peer Review· Religious Blueprinls from lhe Harllib

Author(s): Brenl Ranalli
Source: Spontaneous Generations: A Journal for the History and Philosophy of
Science, Vol. ¯, No. ! (2u!!) !2!8.
Published by: 1he Universily of 1oronlo
DOI: !u.424¯/sponge.v¯i!.!49¯3
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Fottsrr Dtsttssto·
A Prehislory of Peer Review· Religious
Blueprinls from lhe Harllib Circle

Brenl Ranalli

1he convenlional hislory of modern scienlific peer review begins wilh
lhe censorship praclices of lhe Royal Sociely of London in lhe !66us. 1his
arlicle lraces one slrand of lhe “prehislory” of peer reviewin lhe wrilings
of John Amos Comenius and olher members of lhe Harllib circle, a
precursor group lo lhe Royal Sociely of London. 1hese reformers appear
lo have firsl envisioned peer review as a lechnique for lheologians,
only laler proposing lo apply il lo philosophy. 1he imporlance of peer
reviewwas as a lechnique lhal would permil a communily of lheologians
or philosophers lo resolve dispules inlernally ralher lhan publicly,
since public dispulalion would (lhey believed) sow doubl, error, and
confusion, and disrupl lhe social order.
1he hislory of modern scienlific peer review has yel lo be wriuen
aulhorilalively, bul il is beginning lo lake shape (Zuckerman and Merlon !9¯!,
Kronick !99u, Burnham !99u, Spier 2uu2, Biagioli 2uu2, 2uu3, Rennie 2uu3).
According lo lhe besl recenl scholarship, mosl nolably lhe work of Mario Biagioli
(2uu2, 2uu3), lhal hislory slarls in !663, when lhe recenlly formed Royal Sociely
of London passed a resolulion aulhorizing lhe publicalion of books under ils
imprimalur, as permiued under ils Royal Charler. 1he resolulion required lhal
every book be reviewed by al leasl lwo members of lhe council of lhe Sociely.
1he purpose of lhis review was lo ensure lhal “nolhing bul whal is suilable lo
lhe design and work of lhe sociely” was published (Birch ¦!¯¯6| !968, 34¯)—in
olher words, lhal nolhing was published oulside lhe scope of whal lhe Charler
permiued and lhe Crown would consider innocuous. 1he French Academie
Royale des Sciences adopled similar licensing review procedures in !699.
Such is our currenl underslanding of lhe origins of modern scienlific peer
Bul lhe exislence of a hislory suggesls a prehislory. We expecl lo find
a greal deal more conlinuily of praclices, ideas, and social nelworks lhan lhe

Received 24 February 2u!!. Accepled !u Augusl 2u!!.

Brenl Ranalli, M.Sc., praclices environmenlal and science policy consulling al 1he Cadmus
Group and coedils Environment: An Interdisciplinary Anthology for Yale Universily Press.
Research inleresls include lhe roles of norms, values, and virlues in human ecology, in
inlelleclual hislory, and in currenl debales aboul science and science policy.
1wo imporlanl shiùs occurred before peer review look lhe form we know loday. Firsl, as lhe
imporlance of slalemandaled censorship declined, academies developed policies for reviewing
journal submissions specifically for qualily. 1he Royal Sociely of Fdinburgh pioneered lhis
Spontaneous Generations 5·1 (2u!!) ISSN !9!3u46¯. Universily of 1oronlo.
Copyrighl 2u!! by lhe HAPSA1 Sociely. Some righls reserved.
B. Ranalli A Prehistory of Peer Review
convenlional mylh of lhe “scienlific revolulion” implies (Shapin !996). So where
lo look for a prehislory of scienlific peer review`
Biagioli (2uu2) poinls oul a couple of examples from lhe Calholic world. He
noles lhal in lhe !62us members of lhe Accademia dei Lincei reviewed Galileo’s
Assayer before he submiued il lo censors, and lhal from lhe lale sixleenlh
cenlury lhe Jesuils had a rigorous review syslem lo ensure nol only orlhodoxy
bul also qualily. Reaching back even furlher, Spier (2uu2) poinls lo proposals
for somelhing akin lo physician peer review in lhe wriling of Ishaq bin Ali
alRahwi (CF 8¯493!). I wish lo draw auenlion lo evidence of a “prehislory” of
peer review much closer lo lhe early Royal Sociely, specifically in lhe socalled
Harllib circle, a group of reformminded scholars and divines lhal galhered
around London philanlhropisl Samuel Harllib in lhe midsevenleenlh cenlury.
1his group conlribuled several prominenl members lo lhe early Royal Sociely,
including Roberl Boyle and Henry Oldenburg (Websler !9¯6).
1he mosl celebraled member of lhe Harllib circle was lhe Czech priesl,
pedagogue, and “pansophic” reformer of lhe sciences Jan Amos Komenský (John
Amos Comenius). Lale in life, Comenius published his lrealise Via Lucis wilh
a dedicalion lo lhe Royal Sociely, lhe only lime he ever addressed lhal body
in wriling. In lhe !668 dedicalion Comenius exhorled lhe members of lhe new
scienlific sociely lo publish lheir lrulhclaims in a manner lhal is open lo crilical
scruliny, reproduclion, and verificalion by peers (indeed, by any reader)·
Lel your researches inlo Nalural objecls be so well eslablished,
lel lhem bear upon lheir face so complele an assurance of
lruslworlhiness, lhal if a man desires nol merely lo conlemplale
your work as long as he likes wilh his unaided eyes, bul even lo lry
ils accuracy by lhe mosl exacling lesls of his own device, he shall
be cerlain lo find lhal lhe facls are precisely whal you have shown
lhem lo be. Il will be an admirable precedenl· and will encourage
lhose who are al lhe helm of human sociely in lhe Slale, or of lhe
consciences of men in lhe Church lo acl in lhe same way, following
indeed lhe example of lhe Aposlles who did nol fear lo submil all
lheir doclrines lo lhe scruliny and judgmenl of lhe world (!. Cor. iv.
3, 4). (Comenius ¦!668| !938, dedicalion 2223)
Il is characlerislic of Comenius lo lreal religious mauers and scienlific mauers
(and even, as here, polilical mauers) in parallel. In lhis passage Comenius
praclice in !¯3!. 1he Royal Sociely of London followed suil when il look over edilorial
responsibilily for lhe Philosophical Transactions in !¯¯2 (Kronick !99u). Second, due in parl
lo increased scienlific specializalion, edilors of scienlific journals began delegaling review lo
oulside experls ralher lhan reviewing submissions inhouse. 1his lransilion was more or less
complele by lhe middle of lhe lwenlielh cenlury (Burnham !99u).
Spontaneous Generations ¯·!(2u!!) !3
B. Ranalli A Prehistory of Peer Review
encourages lhe scienlisls in London lo sel an example for religious leaders
by welcoming crilical scruliny. Bul lhere is no reason lo assume lhal lhis
clergyman who dabbled in scienlific mauers derived his own ideas aboul
religious reformfromscienlific precedenls—ralher, we should expecl lhe reverse.
Given Comenius’s abiding inleresl in irenic religious reform (an inleresl shared
wilh olher members of lhe Harllib circle), is lhere any indicalion lhal his
commilmenl lo scienlific peer scruliny has precedenls in lhe religious sphere`
As il lurns oul, Comenius did have such religious precedenls al hand—nol
only lhe allusion lo ! Corinlhians (which is of doublful relevance, as lhe Aposlle
Paul inviles judgmenl only lo dismiss il), bul, more germanely, in his own wriling
and experience and lhe wriling of Gabriel Plaues, anolher member of lhe Harllib
circle. 1hese precedenls add an addilional layer of inleresl by limiling lhe review
of new lrulhclaims, al leasl inilially, lo professional peers.
Lel us begin wilh Plaues. His Macaria, a shorl ulopian work wriuen in
lhe form of a dialogue, was published in London in !64!.
In lhis work Plaues
addresses lhe queslion cenlral lo lhe reformers’ irenic concerns· how lo resolve
religious dispules. In lhe ficlional land of Macaria, we learn, lhe clergy are of
one mind· “1here are no diversilie of opinions amongsl lhem.” He explains how
lhis unanimily is achieved and mainlained·
1hey have a law, lhal if any Divine shall publish a new opinion lo
lhe Common people, he shall be accounled a dislurber of lhe publick
peace, and shall suffer dealh for il.… If any one halh conceived a
new opinion, he is allowed everie yeere freely lo dispule il before
lhe Greal Councell, if he overcome his Adversaries, or such as are
appoinled lo be Opponenls, lhen il is generally received for lrulh, if
he be overcome, lhen il is declared lo be false. (¦Plaues`| !64!, ¯)
1he religious doclrines in Macaria, Plaues suggesls, are superior because
lhey have been shown lo wilhsland “lhe grand lesl of exlreme dispule”
(¦Plaues`| !64!, ¯). Bul lhe exlremily of lhe dispule is really a secondary mauer.
Sevenleenlhcenlury Furope, wilh ils biuer seclarian rivalries, had dispules in
plenly lo lesl any conlroversial doclrine. Whal was significanl aboul Macaria is
lhal lhe lheological dispules were resolved inlernally, in lhe privale, professional
space of lhe lheological communily. 1hey were nol allowed lo become public
conlroversies lhal could lhrealen lhe social order.
In Panorthosia, wriuen during Comenius’s laler years and nol published
during his lifelime, Comenius echoed lhis idea of lheological peer review·
1hey ¦members of a proposed Fcumenical Consislory| will pay
careful auenlion lo lhe canons of parlicular churches lo ensure
Charles Websler (!9¯2) demonslraled lhal lhis anonymous work, lradilionally auribuled lo
Harllib, was mosl likely wriuen by Plaues wilh Harllib’s inpul and encouragemenl.
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B. Ranalli A Prehistory of Peer Review
lhal lhey are nol inconsislenl wilh nor conlrary lo lhe Universal
Canons· for lhis would give rise lo disagreemenls and secessions. If
any Church or any learned Churchman has any useful observalion
lo make, lhey should submil il for consideralion in lhe firsl inslance
lo lhe local Consislory of lhe whole Kingdom, and finally, if il
presenls a really difficull problem, lo lhe Fcumenical Consislory. If
il is wellreceived, il will be approved· and lhus il will carry more
weighl and serve a more useful purpose lhan if ils lrial and adoplion
were sanclioned only by an individual decision. (Comenius ¦!966|
!99¯, 242)
Again, lhere is room for debale aboul doclrine, bul lhe debale will be
conducled behind closed doors, where il will nol inflame public passions.
1his line of reasoning is supporled by lhe dislinclion lhal sixleenlh and
sevenleenlhcenlury irenicisls made belween “essenlial” and “nonessenlial”
arlicles of failh.
On lhe assumplion lhal Lulherans and Calvinisls (for example)
agreed on all poinls of doclrine necessary lo salvalion, and differed only on
nonessenlial poinls, irenicisls argued lhal lheologians should refrain from
publicly dispuling lhe nonessenlial poinls, reserving lhem for privale scholarly
discussions (e.g., Zachman 2uu4, 9!, see also lhe chaplers by Frika Rummel and
Howard Holson in lhe same volume).
Comenius incorporaled lhese ideas direclly inlo his philosophical reform
program in lhe body of Via Lucis, composed in London during Comenius’s visil
lo Harllib in !64!42, shorlly aùer lhe publicalion of Macaria.
In Via Lucis
Comenius proposes lhal elile scholars of every nalion should join in eslablishing
a Universal College dedicaled lo perfecling scholarship for lhe benefil of lhe
human race.
1hey musl nol neglecl lo advise one anolher and by common counsel
lo sel righl whalever in lhose books ¦a lrio of “pansophic” books
inlended lo reform human knowledge| is found lo need supplemenl
or correclion. And beyond lhis, whenever il is granled lo any man lo
perceive any parl of a more inlimale myslery, he will nol al his own
discrelion bruil il abroad, bul will communicale il lo his brelhren so
lhal lhe lrulh of whal he has discovered may be eslablished by fil
and proper lesls, and so whalever God has given may be carried inlo
lhe common lreasures of common knowledge for lhe profilable and
1he dislinclion was nol new in lhe sixleenlh cenlury. For a good brief hislorical overview of
lhe idea of adiaphora (lhings cuslomary bul inessenlial lo salvalion) in lhe Chrislian lradilion,
see Verkamp (!9¯¯, ¯¯ff).
Allhough il was nol published unlil !668, Via Lucis presumably circulaled in manuscripl. A
copy was in lhe hands of his London friends in !642 (Comenius ¦!668| !938, dedicalion ¯,
1urnbull !94¯, 36¯).
Spontaneous Generations ¯·!(2u!!) !¯
B. Ranalli A Prehistory of Peer Review
wholesome use of mankind. And care musl be laken lhal only lhose
lhings which are lruly mysleries ¦i.e., valid insighls| shall be held or
proclaimed lo be such. (Comenius ¦!668| !938, !¯4¯¯)
We see again lhe familiar concern lo keep error and dissension from spilling
over inlo lhe public sphere. 1hough Comenius is lalking here aboul universal
scholarship, nol jusl lheology, lhe overlly religious language and reference lo
scienlific or philosophical insighls as “mysleries” reinforces lhe idea lhal he
borrowed lhe sense of lhis passage from a religious conlexl, quile possibly
Il is worlh noling lhal Comenius had olher sources lo draw on besides
Macaria for lhe idea of “peer review” in religion. Doclrinal issues wilhin his
Hussile secl, lhe Unily of Brelhren, had long been decided on lhe basis of
consensus (Brock !9¯¯, Alwood 2uu9). Fven in secular mauers, dispules belween
members of lhe secl were supposed lo be resolved inlernally, by a panel of
peers (“a panel of arbilralors appoinled from among fellow members”), ralher
lhan in lhe law courls (Brock !9¯¯, 2!6).
For lhe minorily secl, resolving
inlernal dispules quielly and direclly was a religious commilmenl—caritas in
aclion—and il was also a means of communal selfpreservalion in an oùen hoslile
polilicalreligious environmenl.
1he relalion belween public religious dissension and social slrife is obvious,
and was langibly so in lhe era of lhe 1hirly Years’ War and lhe Fnglish Civil
War. A similar relalion belween public scienlific dissension and social slrife
is less obvious lo us, bul il was clear lo Comenius.
Fellows of lhe early
Royal Sociely appear lo have been sensilive lo il as well. Sleven Shapin and
Simon Schaeffer (!98¯, 33233) suggesl lhal Roberl Boyle and his colleagues
were aculely aware lhal problems of knowledge are inlimalely bound up wilh
problems of social order, and lhal lhis impelled lhem lo conducl lheir dispules
behind closed doors, away from lhe eye of lhe public. Bolh lhe privacy of lheir
deliberalions and lheir exercise of peer review visàvis lhe wriuen word can
be underslood as forms of selfcensorship, designed lo shield from public view
ledious lechnical argumenls, ungenllemanly disagreemenls, and inchoale or
imprudenl lheses—“dirly laundry”
lhal, if exposed lo view, had lhe polenlial
lo prejudice lhe public or lhe royal palron againsl lhe fledgling inslilulion.
An example from Comenius’s own experience· Aùer a Polish coreligionisl denounced his
pansophic proposals as impious, Comenius was obliged lo explain his ideas before a synod
of lhe assembled clergy of lhe secl in !639 (Comenius ¦!669| !9¯¯, par 49). 1he oulcome,
Comenius reporls, was lhal his pansophic calling was given lhe Church’s blessing and lhe
dispule was pul lo resl.
See, for example, his descriplion of lhe learned class in his allegorical Labyrinth of the
World (Comenius ¦!63!| !942) and his prescriplions for peace and concord lhrough reform
of inlelleclual life (e.g., Comenius ¦!668| !938, dedicalion 4).
1his expression is climalologisl Michael Mann’s. Sending an old dala file lo an inquiring
Spontaneous Generations ¯·!(2u!!) !6
B. Ranalli A Prehistory of Peer Review
1o sum up· 1he hislory of modern scienlific peer review begins wilh lhe
censorship praclices of lhe Royal Sociely of London in lhe !66us. A “prehislory”
of lhe idea of scienlific peer scruliny and censorship can be lraced in lhe wrilings
of lhe Harllib circle of reformers who were prominenl in London a generalion
earlier, in parlicular lo lhe pansophic wrilings of Comenius. Comenius, in
lurn, look his cue from proposals and praclices in lhe religious sphere, where
peer scruliny and corporale selfcensorship among lheologians was inlended lo
reduce public conlroversy. Comparison of lhe Harllib circle’s prescriplions and
lhe Royal Sociely’s praclices suggesls lhal lhe prevenlion of unnecessary public
conlroversy was a common molivalion, and indeed il is one lhal slill resonales
Bar·+ Rt·tttt
1he Cadmus Group
¯¯ Waler Slreel
Walerlown, MA u24¯2
brenl ranalli¡
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Universily Park, PA· Pennsylvania Slale Universily Press.
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colleague in 2uu3 as an email auachmenl, he noled lhal lhe file was unpolished and
incomplele, and requesled lhal il nol be dislribuled furlher. “1his is lhe sorl of ‘dirly
laundry’ one doesn’l wanl lo fall inlo lhe hands of lhose who mighl polenlially lry lo dislorl
lhings.” 1he dala file was secure, bul lhe email ilself (daled July 3!, 2uu3, and assigned
lhe number !u¯9664¯u4) was one of lhe !,u¯3 lhal were slolen from lhe Universily of Fasl
Anglia’s Climalic Research Unil in 2uu9 and released lo lhe public, leading lo jusl lhe sorl of
dislorlion Mann feared. 1he “Climalegale” scandal has reinvigoraled scholarly inleresl in lhe
inslilulion of peer review (see, for example, lhe appendices lo lhe official Muir Russell reporl·
hup·//¨ 2uRFPOR1.pdf). Arguably, lhe scandal demonslraled
bolh lhe necessily of a safe and privale space in which scienlisls can do lheir work, as discussed
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B. Ranalli A Prehistory of Peer Review
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Spontaneous Generations ¯·!(2u!!) !8