Alchemists Don’t Share?

I’ve been following some of Cory Doctorow’s talks about open access lately (eg. or YouTube video (, great stuff.  I’m wondering as a historian, however, about this origin story that “science” is born when practitioners openly disclose their results.

In principle I agree with Doctorow (at least in saying that we should openly disclose results, otherwise I wouldn’t be blogging about this openly on the web), but I wonder where the story came from and when we started telling it.  More importantly, as a scholar interested in the institutionalization of academic publishing, I’m interested in seeing how alchemists  did (or did not share) as compared to early scientists.  If every alchemist drank mercury for instance, you would think alchemy would die off as a profession rather quickly.  Also, modern scientists don’t share everything, particularly if the results of their work can be commercialized.

Pamela Long for instance talks about how authors thought about disclosing their results between the Classical age and the Renaissance.  I’m more interested in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but I wonder if the story may be more complicated.


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