The Royal Society is the publisher of the oldest surviving scientific journal in the world: the Philosophical Transactions. The journal celebrated its 350th anniversary in 2015. Our AHRC-funded project runs from 2013 to 2017, and is using the Royal Society’s publishing division to investigate the challenges and opportunities of scholarly publishing over the past 350 years.
In 2015, we ran an academic conference, and curated an exhibition at the Royal Society. A special issue of Notes & Records of the Royal Society features essays on 350 years of scientific periodicals. In 2016, we hosted a fascinating one-day interdisciplinary discussion workshop on ‘The Politics of Academic Publishing, 1950-2016‘, at the Royal Society on 22 April 2016.
NEW Hear Aileen Fyfe interviewed on the PLOScast, about the history of scientific publishing and peer review (April 2016)
In its earliest days, Philosophical Transactions was a private venture of the Royal Society’s secretary; in the eighteenth century, it became an official Society publication; in the nineteenth century, it faced new competition from commercial science journals and from the journals launched by newer, more specialised, learned societies; in the twentieth century, scholarly publishing became increasingly commercialised, and questions were asked about the ownership and reliability of research results.
Neither the continuing vigour of learned society journals in general, nor of the Royal Society’s journals in particular, can be taken for granted: the Royal Society itself, for instance, came under vigorous criticism in the early nineteenth century for failing to support professional scientific experts, while its journal was simultaneously under pressure from a range of new competitors. Both the Society and the Philosophical Transactions survived, but such episodes will enable us to look critically at the contingent development of the processes and practices that are now taken to be essential to the operation of modern scientific research. By the end of the project, we should better understand the origins of the processes we now use, and we may find contemporary options in some of the paths-not-taken. This project is firmly historical, but, by touching on issues at the heart of the knowledge-based economy, it has substantial contemporary relevance to a wide audience of policy makers, educators and campaigners.
Although the origins and function of Philosophical Transactions in the newly-founded Royal Society in Restoration England have been repeatedly discussed by historians of early modern science; and the literary qualities of its articles have been extensively analysed by literary and communications scholars, interested in the rhetoric of science; and its citation patterns have been studied by sociologists of science as evidence of the functioning of past communities of scientists; no one has yet used the Royal Society’s archival materials to investigate the commercial, economic and editorial practices which lie behind the published pages.
No other scholarly journal – or periodical of any type – has an archival record for such a long period of time. Following the fortunes of one periodical through three and a half centuries will offer us structuring narrative for the British book trade from the Restoration, through the development of modern publishing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to the era of electronic publishing.
Our project will write the definitive history of the commercial and editorial practices of the Philosophical Transactions. It will also use the Royal Society’s archive to compile a series of historical economic data series relating to the book trade, which will be freely available online.
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