Savants, Peer Review, and Self-Publishing in 18th-century France

In her invited contribution to the theme of Publication, Marie-Claude Felton offers thoughts about the history of peer review and self-publishing. She recently completed a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University, where she studied the publishing activities of marginal scientists. Her book, Maîtres de leurs ouvrages. Édition à compte d’auteur à Paris au XVIIIe siècle, was released in March 2014 by Voltaire Foundation-Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment.  —bM

It is with much interest that I have followed the IPRH posts on Publication and on peer review. As a junior scholar, I am no stranger to the anxieties that the academic publishing system can provoke. Not only must we

publish lest we perish,

but the mode of publication that we use must convey its own intrinsic credibility, namely through peer review. As has been discussed in previous posts, there are ways scholars can reshape the traditional publication system, for example with the help of ‘open access’. With the advent of digital publishing in the last decade, questions of access to publication, of credibility, of peer review, and of authority (both individual and institutional) are relevant more than ever. When we take a look at the world of scientific publishing in 18th-century France, we actually realize how the anxieties linked to peer review and publication are rooted in a long past.

In 18th-century France, the fact that anything printed had to get a censor’s approval meant that every writer had to go through some kind of review process. Naturally, censorship was first established in order to avoid the publication of subversive works that compromised the king, the church or society’s morals. But in their written reviews, censors usually had to justify why, in their opinion, the work was also digne d’impression, or

worthy of being published.

When it was particularly favorable, a censor’s report could then serve as proof of external approval and credibility, and excerpts were sometimes reproduced in the book itself, not unlike the selected praises we now find on the back cover of monographs. In the example illustrated below, for instance, the censor points out how the additions made to the new edition of this Almanach were “executed with care” and would “contribute to satisfy the needs of the public.”


As Maria Bonn mentioned in her post “The Anxiety of Peer Review and Its Discontents,” peer review has long been well organized within the Royal Society of London, especially since the creation of a ‘Committee on Papers’ in 1752. In Paris, the Académie Royale des Sciences, whose mandate was to promote and publish promising scientific works and discoveries since 1666, had a similar process of review. Getting the Académie’s approval and, better yet, getting published through their exclusive printing licence—or

privilège d’impression

—was any savant’s dream (see the example below). Naturally, not every writer benefited from this elitist system in which who you were and what sphere you belonged to could make a real difference.


Censors were not nameless government agents, but known members of the literary and scientific community, often members of the privileged academies more prone to look down on the poor scribblers who would never enter their ranks.

Getting a bad review from academicians was one thing, but when these men also had the power as royal censors to deny someone a printing licence, and for any reason, matters could get complicated for “misunderstood” men of science. For instance, Le Roberger de Vausenville was denied the required permission to publish his mathematical book for seven years! Although in this case the censors were probably right to look unfavorably upon Vausenville’s formulas for squaring the circle, it also shows the kind of power that they held.

Interestingly, nearing the end of the Old Regime, more authors dared to defy and denounce this system. For example, Pierre-Joseph Buc’hoz compared the academicians to ‘pompous aristocrats’ who relished in crushing those whom they deemed unworthy. He commissioned an engraving that depicted such a relationship:


An alternative that these scorned writers and savants—including Vausenville and Buc’hoz—employed to bypass the “usual” publishing system however was to self-publish and look for another source of legitimacy: that of the reading public. To reflect this way of thinking, one of them wrote: “There are ten of you who wish that I am wrong, but ten thousand who wish that I am right. . . . Do you still disapprove my ideas and say they are false? So be it! Don’t read me!”

As I mentioned, forms of ‘peer review’ did exist in 18th-century France, whether through academies, censorship, or published literary reviews. But at a time when having a work published by this or that bookseller-printer did not make much of a difference,

what really mattered was who the author was,

his social and professional identity, and what group he belonged to. In that context, if self-publishing afforded a new opportunity for rejected writers to be heard, many well-established savants could also self-publish without being marginalized for it.

Indeed, as I bring forth in my book, many writers—including academicians—benefited from the new French bookselling code of 1777 that allowed authors to sell their own books (a prerogative hitherto reserved to licensed booksellers), making the practice of self-publishing a viable enterprise. As long as authors detailed their credentials on the title page (as they would in any case), the fact that a book was published and sold “by the author” actually did not affect how it was perceived.

In the twenty-first century, when getting something published online is easier than ever, for example through university websites or platforms such as, could most scholars consider self-publishing a sensible option today? Probably not, or at least not yet.


As we all know, the credibility of a scholarly work has been for a long time tightly associated with its publication mode: not only do we judge who wrote it and what institution that person belongs to, but the publisher and the system of peer review it went through are also meant to add intrinsic value.

My aim here is not necessarily to question this modus operandi, but simply to point out that it has not always been the only prevalent one. Could we defy the academic publishing system today the way some did a few centuries ago? Time will tell, perhaps. . . .


Marie-Claude Felton is currently a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at McGill University, where she is conducting a comparative study of self-publishing in Paris, London, and Leipzig from 1750 to 1850. She completed her dissertation on the subject of self-publishing in Paris in the 18th century under the direction of Roger Chartier at the École des Hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris and Pascal Bastien at the Université du Québec à Montréal. 

The IPRH blog always welcomes your thoughts and comments! Contributions on the theme of Publication may be sent to Bonnie Mak, bmak at illinois dot edu.

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1 Response to Savants, Peer Review, and Self-Publishing in 18th-century France

  1. Pingback: Where are the revolutionary self-published authors? « Artsy Fartsy Copyediting

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