How often was the Philosophical Transactions issued?

For the nineteenth and the early twentieth century, the Philosophical Transactions was issued annually, and at times bi-annually, but there was never a fixed publishing date. The full volume was available once all the papers received, read, and sent to the printers during the Society’s session (November-November) were available. From 1887, however, separate papers were available for Fellows as soon as they were printed. In the 1930s the Transactions begins to be issued in several parts per year (but not quite monthly). It is not until 1990 [true?] that the Transactions becomes a monthly publication.

What did the Philosophical Transactions look like?

If you visit our home page, you can see the visual changes over time. First, the journal was of course black and white, with illustrations inside the journal rather than on the front page. From the 1990s, visual imagery on the cover became important and today glossy images draw the eye to the journal. It is interesting to note that for most of its long history, the Transactions remained visually the same, but since 1990 it changed numerous times. Today, each of the 11 journals have their own visual look, but each carries the Royal Society logo and specific fonts. Similarly, the Royal Society publishing website is becoming increasingly important as more and more readers access the journal online (where a lot of the content is also free). Images online do not always translate well from the printed page, and discussions have been had about using video and more modern tools to illustrate journal articles.

Who read the Philosophical Transactions?

Throughout its history, mostly Fellows of the Royal Society, other societies or close acquaintances. Fellows and authors receive offprints of their own articles, and can request offprints from other authors. Fellows have also received the journal for most of its history. Today, as the Royal Society has increased its output to 11 journals, Fellows get a choice of what they want to receive for free. Increasingly the Transactions are read in parts or in themed editions online, rather than as a printed collection.

Who are the referees?

As a rule, referees had to be Fellows. Only in 1990 (earlier?) did the Society officially allow non-Fellows to referee papers. [If there are earlier examples of non-Fellows could add here.] This meant that there was a finite number of available referees. The number of Fellows changed over time but in the mid nineteenth century, after reforms to reduce the size of the Fellowship, the number of Fellows was around 400 to 500. In reality, a very small proportion of the Fellowship was involved in refereeing. Those who were most active were typically past, current or future Council members. In other words, fellows who were active in one area of the Society’s service tended to be active in other areas too. During his Secretaryship, for example, George Gabriel Stokes was the most active referee, followed by his co-secretary William Sharpey. The Society’s Fellowship in the nineteenth century, when the number of practitioners in science in Britain was growing, represented only an elite group of the scientific community. At the same time, the majority of the papers submitted were from Fellows. Refereeing was thus about judging one’s peers, rather than making judgements on outsiders. Overtime this changed, and increasingly in the early twentieth century more non-Fellows submitted papers to the Society. Refereeing was still conducted by Fellows only but now many authors were not known personally to the Society’s Officers and Council. The Fellowship had grown, and now more Fellows were involved in refereeing: in the 1880s, 8% of the Fellowship were involved in refereeing; this rose to 30% by the 1930s. The workload, however, became even more uneven. The top most active 20% of referees produced just under 40% of referee reports in the nineteenth century, while the same % group in the mid-twentieth century produced 50% of referee reports. Getting a paper through the refereeing process at the Society signified acceptance by representatives of an elite national learned body of judges

How international was the Philosophical Transactions?

The early Transactions under the first secretary and editor, Henry Oldenburg, had a strong international orientation. Oldenburg was a polyglot who relied on his international networks to provide information on scientific developments around the world, which he published in the Transactions. The international nature of Transactions changed considerably in the nineteenth century. The number of submission was growing, but in the mid to late nineteenth century, the majority of these submissions came from British Fellows (rather than non-Fellows). The number of authors who were not Fellows increased as the twentieth century progressed, but authors were still predominantly British. The reason for this was that since the early nineteenth century, the Royal Society and its Transactions was no longer one of a few options for authors of scientific papers. Those conducting research on the continent were now more likely to submit their papers to their national learned societies or to commercial journals published in their native language.

What is the role of refereeing?

Refereeing is a form of gatekeeping, or a way to manage what papers get published. It relies on the voluntary work of individuals who are thought to be knowledgeable in the topic of a paper under consideration. The Royal Society’s gatekeeping practices have not solely relied on refereeing as a way to safeguard against publishing papers thought unworthy of consideration by the Society and its members. From 1752 (?) all papers to be published had to be read before the Society. Only papers received from Fellows were accepted. A non-Fellow could ask a Fellow to communicate a paper for them. Communicators were therefore responsible for ensuring that submitted papers were suitable. All papers that were ‘read’ at a meeting of the Society were mentioned in the report of that meeting in Proceedings. So the Communicators role was very important to ensure appropriate papers got through. Even before reading, the Secretaries, and sometimes the President, decided if a paper was appropriate for reading. The Society’s ‘rejection rate’ – in terms of papers formally received and read, but not subsequently published in either periodical – was, consequently, very low (usually, below 10%). Despite the role of communicators, and the President and Secretaries, and the Committee of Papers, in 1832 the Society added an extra element to the process of choosing papers. Papers were to be sent to at least one, later two, individuals (referees) who were to be Fellows of the Society, in order for them to write reports on their suitability for the Transactions. These reports were then set before the Committee of Papers who decided on the outcome of papers. Papers were either published in Transactions, or not published (thus appearing in Proceedings only). The use of referees was instigated as a result of a series of criticisms the Society was facing over how the Committee of Papers chose papers to be published in Transactions. Referees presented a way for the Society to rely on individuals who were considered knowledgeable in the topic covered by a paper. Refereeing became standard practice, increasingly relying on two individuals. From the mid-nineteenth century, refereeing was increasingly used to allow for revisions to be made to papers, rather than simply as a process to protect the Society from criticism of unfair judgement on papers. Papers for the Society’s publication from 1830, Proceedings, were not systematically referred until much later in the twentieth century. In fact, refereeing was not widespread among many other publishers. It was largely used by learned Societies, commercial publishers relying on the expertise of the named editor(s), or on close acquaintances. On in the 1960s and 70s was refereeing adopted by commercial publishers, eventually becoming “peer review” as we know it today.

Who edited the Philosophical Transactions?

For most of its 350 years of existence, the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions had no named editor. Only in the late twentieth century were editorial positions assigned. Yet, throughout its long history the Transactions was almost always managed by one or more of the Secretaries to the Society. As the ‘advertisement’ in Transactions for 1752 stated: ‘the printing of them [Transactions] was always, from time to time, the single act of the respective Secretaries’ (Phil Trans 1751, 47, Advertisement, unpagenated). This tradition started with Henry Oldenburg, who was Secretary in 1665 when he produced the first issue of the Transactions. Oldenburg was the proprietor and editor, paying for the Transactions from his own pocket. After him, his successive secretaries carried on the tradition of the running the Transactions, without direct financial support from the Society, although often operating out of the Society’s rooms and receiving an honorarium as Secretary. Only after 1752 did the Society take official responsibility for the Transactions. The Society was facing criticism over its running and contents, despite not being officially associated with it. The decision was made to claim ownership in order to control it more directly. Secretaries continued to take charge of the journal, despite there being little direct instruction to. The definition of the secretaries’ duties in the statutes of the Society focused on arranging and keeping the records for Society meetings, and dealing with its correspondence, with just a brief mention of ‘the charge (under the direction of the Committee of Papers) of printing the Philosophical Transactions and correcting the press’ (Record of the Royal Society, 194?, Statutes for 1847, p.??). One of the most influential, in addition to Oldenburg in the seventeenth century, was Charles Blagden, who worked closely with the President, Joseph Banks, in preparing the Transactions in the eighteenth century. Presidents had varying degrees of involvement, but by the mid nineteenth century they rarely took much interest in publishing, except by default as members of the Committee of Papers. Another important secretary-editor was physicist and mathematician George Gabriel Stokes, who was Secretary for thirty-one years in the mid to late nineteenth century. During this time he moulded refereeing into a process that involved revision, rather than simply using it as a way to protect the Society from claims of unfair practice. Stokes was close to a named editor, calling himself the ‘editor of the Transactions’. Yet, he still operated within the Society’s collective editing model; the Committee of Papers still had to be consulted on publishing decisions.

1934: Questioning the quality of paper, printing, and engraving

Printing the Society’s publications fell to a relatively small number of printers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Society tended to stick with a printer for several decades before changing, sometimes in order to get a reduced price, or on some occasions to receive better quality productions; the interplay between cost and quality was never clear cut and was often complicated. It is thus significant that in 1934 the Council of the Society appointed a Publications Committee to enquire into and report on the paper, printing and engraving of the Society’s publications. The Committee’s report was based on considerable research into the production processes and materials used for the Society’s publications by the Committee members. As indicated, this was all based on interviews with printers, paper-merchants, and event visits to the production sites in some cases. The report sent to Council addressed paper quality for text and images; the quality of blocks for printing images; processes used for printing and engraving; types of ink; the quality of wrappers for binding publications; and typographical styles.

As well as suggesting that the portraits for obituaries should now be done by the photo-litho-offset process (cheaper than photogravure process), the Committee suggested better quality paper should be used for the Society’s publications, including for printing images, which would cost an extra £150 per annum for text and 20-25% more for images. In fact the Committee were privy to knowledge that there had been complaints (presumably from authors) that the reproduction of images was unsatisfactory. The problem was partly related to bad printing, for which the Society’s printer of 56 years, Harrison and Sons, was responsible. But bad printing blocks were also to blame, as well as poor quality drawings. Yet, Harrisons ‘frankly admitted that some of the printing has been unsatisfactory, and “would assure us that every care will be taken to maintain a high standard of production”’. With Harrisons’ assurance, and a promised 7-8% reduction in costs for the Society, Harrisons were kept on as printer, but the ‘quality of their work’ was to be reviewed a few months later. The following year saw a permanent Publications Committee formed to meet annually to discuss and report on the text, paper and printing of publications.

The dissatisfaction with Harrisons is perhaps unsurprising when we realize that Harrisons was not particularly skilled in scientific printing. It is known most for the printing of H. M. stamps, and for acting as official printer to a number of government departments [ref to Harrisons biog.]. In this way it contrasted with the Society’s previous printer, Taylor and Francis, which was a major printer-publisher of scientific print throughout much of the nineteenth century. By transferring printing from Taylor to Harrisons in 1877, the Society was compromising quality for the reduced cost that Harrisons, as a much larger printer, could offer. But by 1934, the Society was beginning to question whether the quality of printing offered by Harrisons was sufficient. In fact, despite continued struggles with the rising cost of publishing, the Society adopted the Publications Committee’s somewhat costlier recommendations, showing that quality trumped cost in this case.

Even though the Society had stuck with Harrisons for almost sixty years, by 1937, in fact, the Society had moved printing once again, this time to the Cambridge University Press. Cambridge University Press had considerable experience printing scientific books by its University lecturers, and could meet Harrisons costs.

Source: CMP/14, 5 July 1934, p. 151-153, Royal Society Archives, London.

What is the role of the Council of the Royal Society?

The earliest statutes (or laws) of the Royal Society in 1663 (just three years after the first meeting of the Society) referred to the election of the ‘Council and Officers’. The Council was to consist of eleven members. These members included an elected President, two Secretaries, Treasurer, and Vice-President, as well as ordinary members. The Council was to oversee the activities of the Society, and to govern according to the statutes. Council meetings were held weekly throughout the Society’s season (November to November), with a long break in the summer months. Before 1752, the Council was not officially associated with the Philosophical Transactions, which was started by its Secretary, Henry Oldenburg, in 1665. It did, however, engage with Oldenburg on the publishing of the journal, even aiding its production inadvertently by honorary payment to Oldenburg as Secretary, who was solely responsible for production costs. Yet, in January 1752 George Parker, the Earl of Macclesfield and one of the Society’s Vice-Presidents, introduced a set of proposals that would formally establish the Transactions as a Royal Society publication, run ‘for the sole use and benefit of this Society’ and under its financial and editorial control (RS JBO/22 pp. 22-3, 23 January 1752). This transformation meant that the Council’s interest and involvement in the Transactions was now official. The editing of the journal was to be done directly by the Council, acting as the new ‘Committee of Papers’: ‘it was thought advisable, that a Committee of their [the Society’s] Members should be appointed to reconsider the papers read before them, and select out of them such, as they should judge most proper for publication in the future Transactions; which was accordingly done upon the 26 of March 1752’ (Phil Trans 1751, 47, Advertisement, unpagenated). The Society was adopting a collective editorship model of editing that meant there was no direct responsibility on the President or Secretaries. These reforms followed the publication of a series of brutal satires on the Society that had flagged the Society’s editorial process as arbitrary and lacking in transparency. The Society was keen to maintain neutrality, and to avoid responsibility for any claims made in its journal.

In the first volume published under the new editorial regime, the Society included an advertisement that would be printed until the late twentieth century. The statement made clear that the Society held no responsibility for facts given in its journal: ‘it is an established rule of the Society, to which they will always adhere, never to give their opinion, as a body, upon any subject, either of nature or art, that comes before them’ (Phil Trans 1751, 47, Advertisement, unpagenated). The Committee of Papers met weekly. They voted on papers by closed ballot. This was to ensure there could be no claims of unfair practice in choosing papers. There was therefore no discussion of papers, at least not officially; but, of course, papers were likely discussed over coffee or dinner among Council members.

Over time, the editorial process changed slightly. By the mid nineteenth century, the Council decided that papers for Transactions should be sent to at least one referee, and later two, who was often on the Committee of Papers (Council), at least initially. In addition, in 1896 the Sectional Committees were established to reduce the burden of the Council by administering papers, selecting referees, collating referee reports, and reporting back to the Committee of Papers with recommendations for publication. The Council rarely questioned Sectional Committees’ decisions on papers. As a result, the Council became less central to the publishing of the Transactions, and the Society’s other journal, the Proceedings. After 1896, the Council was largely rubber stamping decisions made by the Secretary and Chairman of the respective Sectional Committees. By 1868, the Committee of Papers was dismantled, to be replaced by an editorial board. The editorial board was chaired by the named editor of each journal.

1925: Printed referee report forms (used since the 1890s)

In the 1890s, the Royal Society had introduced a set of 7 questions for referees, in the hope of structuring the reports (which were sometimes extremely long-winded!). These were originally hand-written into the covering letter, but were quickly turned into a printed standardised report form, sent to each referee with the manuscript to be evaluated. Referees were encouraged to return their reports within 14 days – a deadline that was routinely breached.

By the early twentieth century, these report forms included clear instructions for referees, including advising them of the confidentiality attached to the papers referred to them (see image). It was routine for the author’s name to be written on the form: refereeing was single-blind, not double-blind. At this time referees were always Fellows of the Society (and their names and reports were kept confidential), but the majority of papers came from those outside the Fellowship.

The report forms made it possible for a referee to present an extremely succinct report, as was the case with Professor H. Lamb’s report on this 1925 paper by ‘Mrs. H. Ayrton’. Hertha Ayrton’s work in electrical engineering had previously been published with and exibited to the Society, but her status as a married woman had prevented the Royal Society accepting a fellowship nomination certificate in her name in 1902. (Her husband was also a well-known electrical engineer, and Fellow of the Royal Society, William Ayrton.)

The printed forms were also an attempt to standardize the refereeing process, or to at least advise referees on how to write an effective report. The Society never officially instructed referees until this date; referees were automatically expected to know how to write a report. Guidance on this continued to develop. By 1926, ‘Instructions to Referees’ was part of the Society’s Standing Orders.

Source: Box RR, 1925-1926, Royal Society Archives, London.