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Comments and Corrigenda in Scientific Literature

How self-correcting is the written record of scientific and engineering endeavors?

Joseph Grcar

Because human knowledge is by definition fallible, correction remains a necessity. An understanding of how error correction works in the scientific literature helps rebut fears that the veracity of the literature is declining and may suggest changes to enhance the correcting process.

2013-01MargGrcarFB.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageScholarly publishing has a relatively short history in its present form. It is interesting to note that journal articles have explicitly referenced other articles only since the mid-19th century, thereby enabling citation impact factors—lamentably, some might say. The first large tranche of about 400 journals were founded in the latter part of the 18th century around the time of the American Revolution. Many early journals published articles on any subject, but they restricted submissions to members of a royal academy (which served as a kind of peer review) or to faculty of a university (which traded its journal gratis with other schools, a continuing practice). The modern research university with a comprehensive library of current publications developed in the 19th century. As these universities employed growing numbers of increasingly specialized researchers, they created audiences for the journals that predominate today: addressing a single discipline and drawing submissions from authors not affiliated with the publisher. About 2 million articles were published in the whole 19th century, while roughly that number have been published annually in recent years (see the top graph at right).

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