I read on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academic_publishing :

One of the earliest research journals is the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, created in the 17th century. At that time, the act of publishing academic inquiry was controversial, and widely ridiculed. It was not at all unusual for a new discovery to be announced as an anagram, reserving priority for the discoverer, but indecipherable for anyone not in on the secret: both Isaac Newton and Leibniz used this approach. However, this method did not work well. Robert K. Merton, a sociologist, found that 92% of cases of simultaneous discovery in the 17th century ended in dispute. The number of disputes dropped to 72% in the 18th century, 59% by the latter half of the 19th century, and 33% by the first half of the 20th century. The decline in contested claims for priority in research discoveries can be credited to the increasing acceptance of the publication of papers in modern academic journals, with estimates suggesting that around 50 million journal articles (see Reference 1) have been published since the first appearance of the Philosophical Transactions.

Reference 1: Jinha, A. E. (2010). "Article 50 million: An estimate of the number of scholarly articles in existence". Learned Publishing 23 (3): 258–263. doi:10.1087/20100308. Archived from the original on 2012-05-23

How comes 92% of cases of simultaneous discovery in the 17th century ended in dispute, whereas authors had often "encrypted" their results to be able to claim paternity later on?

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    $\begingroup$ I think it is precisely for that reason that there were no scientific journals, and publishing papers was not a normal practice. The main mean of communication was personal correspondence. $\endgroup$ – Alexandre Eremenko Oct 29 '14 at 2:16

Looking at a brief history of communication and your post it seems that there were disputes because who originally published the discovery was easily disputable. The fact that there was a steady decline in such disputes was due to improving communication technology AND standard publishing practices.

As to the point of using an anagram while publishing. Many scientific discoveries have been stolen. This article states that the discovery of the structure of DNA and the AIDS virus was controversial, and both of those topic were quite significant. Its fairly well known that people steal ideas, even Family Guy pokes fun at Einstein for working at a patent office before becoming a significant person in his field. (The joke being that someone else was patenting The Theory of Relativity and he stole it.)

I'de conjecture that intelligent people were (unintentionally?) using a shared secret to communicate their ideas in order to prevent such an occurrence. This way by the time thieves would be able to decipher the information, there would already be widespread knowledge of who originally created the idea.

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  • $\begingroup$ "The joke being that someone else was patenting The Theory of Relativity and he stole it." - Einstein himself half-joked that "creativity is about hiding your sources". $\endgroup$ – Steve Jul 9 at 0:23

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