Time Taken to Publish

The time taken from receipt of a submission to publication is today frequently used as a ‘key performance indicator’ by academic journals. It is a (partial) measure of the speed or efficiency of the journal’s editorial and production processes (though also highly dependent on the author’s approach to revisions and proofs). The Royal Society has been recording and reporting this metric since the early 1950s, which allows us to produce the graph below:

For the period 1949 to 1986, we have data separately for the Society’s four journals. Articles in the two series of theTransactions typically took longer than those in the Proceedings, presumably because articles for the Transactions were longer than those for the Proceedings, and usually went through a stricter refereeing process (potentially involving more referees, and more author revisions).

Although the Royal Society’s staff claimed to care about speed of publication, the strong impression from the archive is that they were relatively powerless to do anything about it in the pre-1990 period. Referees were often blamed for being slow. Authors were sometimes blamed for being slow to make revisions. The printers and publishers (Cambridge University Press) were often blamed; in return, the Press pointed out that, if the Society would only commit to a regular publication day (on the same day each month), then the Press could plan the Society’s work into the printing schedule, rather than having to fit it in around other scheduled work. The move to a regular schedule for the Proceedings journals in 1982 did help in the short-term.

The improvement in editorial and production times since 2000 reflects the dramatic change in workflows in academic publishing. These include the use of author-generated electronic text (since the mid-1990s), which could feed into computerised typesetting processes (which had existed since the late 1970s, but had initially required re-keying); the introduction of editorial management software, and a close attention to staff efficiency (a new KPI); and digital printing technologies and online publishing.

Where do the data come from?

From 1951 to 1979, the average ‘time taken from receipt to publication’  for the previous two years was printed in the Society’s Year Books (and in the 1960s, the quickest and slowest times were also recorded, as well as the average times for various parts of the process). From 1979-81, these data appeared instead in the Annual Report. The data continued to be gathered until 1986, but were no longer made public.

The more modern data series begins in 1997. It comes from a spreadsheet maintained by Stuart Taylor, Director of Publishing. This data differs from the historic series because it relates only to the journals that are now defined as ‘research journals’ (and therefore, it excludes Transactions A and Transactions B). The modern data should be treated as a continuation of the data for Proceedings A and Proceedings B, but it does also include the new journals founded after 2003.

The Proceedings in the 20th Century

The Proceedings of the Royal Society has been printed since early 1831, when it reported the activities (or ‘proceedings’) of the weekly meetings of the Royal Society. The first meeting reported was that for DATE 1830. For the rest of the nineteenth century, it carried a mix of content: reports of meetings; annual accounts; summaries of papers presented to meetings of the Societies (similar to abstracts); short stand-alone papers; and occasional longer papers full of data, deemed insufficiently ‘significant’ for publication in the Transactions.

In the early twentieth century, after many decades of calls for reform to the Proceedings, some changes were made. From 1905, the Proceedings was divided into two series: Proceedings A, for physical and mathematical sciences; and Proceedings B, for biological sciences. From 1914, it focused on independent papers (not abstracts), of up to 24-pages; and these were now papers of ‘approved merit’, equivalent to those in the Transactions but shorter. The vast majority of content published by the Royal Society in the twentieth century appeared in the Proceedings, not in the Transactions.

Here, we present some overviews of the twentieth-century Proceedings.

The enforcement of the page limit for the Proceedings meant that its total page output per year was closely linked to the number of articles published. (This contrasts with the Transactions, where exceptions to the nominal limit of 40pages were far from infrequent.)

Prior to the Great War, Proceedings A and Proceedings B carried similar numbers of articles, but after the war, Proceedings A grew dramatically. It was edited by Arthur Schuster, and then James Jeans; and this was the period when the Royal Society was closely associated with the latest developments in modern physics (such as the research undertaken by Ernest Rutherford, who became president of the Society in the late 1920s).

Physical sciences continued to attract far more submissions than biological sciences (and to print more) through until the late 1970s. Since the re-launch of all the Society’s journals in 1990, Proceedings B has come to carry far more material than Proceedings A. The flood of submissions from researchers in molecular biology, genetics, and biomedical sciences enabled the Society to move Proceedings B from a monthly to a fortnightly schedule in DATE; and to launch new bioscience journals: Biology Letters in 2003; and Open Biology in DATE.

The Transactions in the early eighteenth century

How much difference does the identity of the editor make to the content of a journal? In the early eighteenth century, the answer was ‘quite a bit!’. The first editor of the Philosophical Transactions, Henry Oldenburg had died in 1677, and subsequent editors had a tendency to reinvent the periodical (consciously or not) to suit their own interests or editorial abilities. Here, we present a series of charts to illustrate how the Transactions changed under the various editorial regimes of the early eighteenth century.

The editors of the period were: Hans Sloane, c1695-1714; Edmond Halley, 1714-1720; James Jurin, 1720-1727; William Rutty, 1727-1729; and Cromwell Mortimer, 1729-51.

Source of material – from the fellowship of the Royal Society, or not?

During Sloane’s editorship, the proportion of material contributed by fellows of the Royal Society increased significantly – and this trend continued under the subsequent editors.

Source of material – British or overseas?

The Transaction was more strongly British (with less overseas material) during Halley’s editorship .

Topic of material – broad disciplinary breakdowns

Sloane included far less material from astronomy and mathematics than did his successors

Where do the data come from?

This analysis is based on a manual count of sample volumes of the Transactions, carried out by Noah Moxham in 2019. It extends to 1738 because after that, the form/genre/remit of the Transactions had stabilised.


Where did the practice of ‘abstracts’ come from?

Academic authors in the twenty-first century have become used to submitting an ‘abstract’ of their paper alongside the full text – but abstracts were originally something written by another person.

Third-party summaries

The practice of ‘abstracts’ arose from a recognition of the value of providing short summaries of a paper, for the benefit of those people who were not able to access the full original. For instance, in the late 18th century, the Royal Society used the term ‘abstract’ to describe the summary of a paper that was written into the minute-books by the secretary after a paper had been read out loud at a meeting. Continue reading “Where did the practice of ‘abstracts’ come from?”

Rejection rates in life sciences vs physical sciences, 1950s-1980s

Effective rejection rate for physical science vs biological science journals at the Royal Society, 1952-86

This graph offers additional detail on the overall rejection rates at the Royal Society’s Transactions and Proceedings in the second half of the twentieth century. As I discussed in that earlier post, the Royal Society historically had a low rejection rate (around 10-15%), due to the filtering-out of papers that was done pre-submission, since papers had to be submitted via a fellow. Continue reading “Rejection rates in life sciences vs physical sciences, 1950s-1980s”

Quality in peer review: a view through the lens of time

The Royal Society has been asking for expert advice on papers submitted for publication since the 1830s, and quality (or something like it) has always been one of the elements under consideration. Here, I investigate how the definition of ‘quality in peer review’ has changed over time.

Continue reading “Quality in peer review: a view through the lens of time”

What the history of copyright in academic publishing tells us about Open Research

The protections offered by copyright have enabled authors – and their publishers – to make a living from their works since the first copyright act, for ‘the Encouragement of Learning’, was passed in 1710.

Academic authors, however, do not depend upon copyright for their livelihoods. Instead, for many researchers, copyright has come to seem like a tool used by publishers to pursue commercial, rather than scientific interests. Notably, open access advocates have long argued for changes to the ways researchers use copyright, a position that has recently found support in Plan S’ mandate for the use of Creative Commons licences as an alternative.

Continue reading “What the history of copyright in academic publishing tells us about Open Research”

What was the function of early peer review?

What does peer review do? Every academic author nowadays is used to the process of receiving reports on their submitted manuscripts from independent experts consulted by the editor of the journal. Refereeing undoubtedly delays the publication of research, but it is widely believed to add significant value as a means of accrediting ‘proper’ research and researchers.

Amidst all the current discussions of the future of academic publishing, there lurks a strangely ahistorical view of the academic journal. It is not uncommon to hear that the peer-reviewed research journal has been at the heart of the scientific (and, by implication, scholarly) enterprise since the beginnings of modern science. But our research reveals that there is nothing natural, inevitable or timeless about the way academic research is published.

Continue reading “What was the function of early peer review?”

Then and now – exploring diversity in peer review at the Royal Society

This piece on the history of peer review at the Royal Society and the problem of unconscious bias originally appeared on the RS Publishing Blog, 10 Sept. 2018, as part of Peer Review Week 2018. 

Peer review cannot be done by everyone. It can only be done by people who share certain levels of training and subject-expertise, and have a shared sense of what rigorous experimentation, observation and analysis should look like. That shared expertise and understanding is what should enable alert peer reviewers to reject shoddy experimental methods, flawed analysis and plans for perpetual motion machines.

But as we have increasingly come to realise, any group of people with shared characteristics may display unconscious bias against outsiders, whether that means women, ethnic minorities, or those with unusual methods. While peer review should exclude poor science, it should not exclude good research on the basis of the individual traits or institutional affiliation of the researchers, nor should it dismiss innovative approaches to old problems.

However, it seems socio-cultural and intellectual criteria have often been mixed together in the peer review process, and history can help us to understand why.

Continue reading “Then and now – exploring diversity in peer review at the Royal Society”