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.

This graph shows that the pattern of rejections may have been broadly similar across all subject fields in the 1950s-60s, but by the later 1970s and 1980s, the Society’s editorial processes were rejecting a higher proportion of papers submitted in the physical sciences than in the biological sciences.

Considered alongside the graph showing papers submitted in those two areas, this raises an interesting set of questions. Throughout the twentieth century, the Society had received and published more papers in physical sciences than biological sciences. Every so often, suggestions would be made that more needed to be done to attract more/better papers in the biological sciences, but the health of the physical science journals seems to have been a less pressing concern – though there was awareness that the Society was not experiencing the postwar growth seen at other physical science journals.

But does this not easily explain why, from the mid-1970s on, the Society was rejecting more of its physical science submissions – and at a time when the number of submissions was falling.

It is possible that a closer look at the rise of ‘discussion meetings’ from the mid-1960s – and the publication of their papers as a thematic issue of Transactions A – might shed some light on this.

Where do the data come from?

The data come from the Society’s annual reports: key performance indicators were regularly published in the Year Book of the Royal Society, and then (in the 1980s) in the Society’s Annual Report. The indicators included the number of papers submitted, and the number rejected. Earlier data on submissions survive, but not (easily) for rejections. They relate to four journals: Philosophical Transactions series A and B; and Proceedings series A and B.

More submissions, more rejections: the Royal Society Journals since the 1950s

I looked at the numbers of submissions to the Royal Society journals in an earlier post. Here, we look at the relationship between the number of submissions, the rejection rate and the sustainability of peer review.

Graph 1: Number of articles submitted vs published in all the Royal Society research journals, 1952-2018

Graph 1 clearly shows two phases: a period when the Royal Society’s Transactions and Proceedings received a modest number of submissions, and published most of them; and a period when its journals received and published much more, but also rejected much more.

The transition point is in the gap in the data (for an explanation, see below): in 1990, significant changes were made to the organisation and scope of the Royal Society’s journals. Among them, and almost silently, the traditional requirement that papers could only be communicated via a fellow was finally dropped, and direct submissions became the norm. It meant that the Society’s journals were now open to a much wider pool of authors: no longer limited to those personal or professional networks intersected with those of one of the Society’s mostly UK-based fellows. The number of submissions rose; and would rise further in the early twenty-first century when the Society made a concerted effort to reach a global pool of authors.

The requirement for communication via a fellow had been experimentally (and briefly) removed in the mid-1970s. At that time, the editorial office reported that the result was more articles, but few worth publishing, and this was taken as evidence that the communication requirement was not a significant obstacle to the submission of publishable papers; and remained a valuable way of saving editorial effort by filtering out unpublishable papers.

The post-1990 experience suggests that the Society did manage to find significantly more papers worth publishing, but it is interesting that the biggest growth in submissions came in the early 2000s, rather than immediately after the removal of ‘communication’, i.e. it came after the Society made more effort at author-marketing. This suggests that, if you want to attract more papers from a wider diversity of people, simply removing an obstacle is not enough: you have to actively reach out to potential new groups of authors. By 2010, over 60% of authors in Royal Society journals were from outside the UK; it had only been 10% in 1950.

Increased submissions means an increase of editorial and reviewing work, to assess, select and improve the papers for publication. We have written elsewhere (Fyfe et al, 2020) about the challenges that faced the Royal Society’s editorial and review system in the early twentieth century, when the Society relied entirely on its own fellowship for reviewers. The problem of a limited pool of reviewers trying to cope with an expanding pool of submissions had been partly solved in 1969 when the Society began asking non-fellows to act as reviewers.

Graph 1 shows that the early-mid twentieth-century strains on peer review pale in comparison to those of the post-1990 period. It is also clear that the ‘cost/benefit’ ratio of editorial and reviewing work (in time and money) must be considerably higher in an era of high rejection rates, than it had been in the pre-1990 era.

Graph 2: the effective rejection rate for Royal Society research journals, 1952-2018

Graph 2 shows the ‘effective rejection rate’: it includes all articles not published, though that may include articles withdrawn by their authors, or never resubmitted after revisions. Historically, the Royal Society’s rejection rate had been only about 10-15%, thanks to the filtering-out performed by the requirement that papers be communicated via a fellow. The post-1990 rejection rates certainly mark a different phase.

I remain intrigued, however, that rejection-rate graph is not as clearly divided into two phases as Graph 1: the rejection rate had already climbed to around 20% by the 1980s. Closer inspection suggests that this was due to changes in the Society’s A-side (i.e. physical sciences): in those fields, submission rates had been slowly declining since the 1950s, but from the mid-1970s, the rejection rate became higher than for the biological sciences. 

Incidentally, the notion that a high rejection rate could be seen as a proxy for quality was definitely not present at the Royal Society before 1990, and nor was it apparent during the 1990s, when editorial staff regarded the newly increased rejection rate of 30% as a real worry, and a threat to the sustainability of the Society’s editorial and review processes.

Where do the data come from?

The data for 1952-1984 come from the Society’s annual reports: key performance indicators were regularly published in the Year Book of the Royal Society, and then (in the 1980s) in the Society’s Annual Report. The indicators included the number of papers submitted, and the number rejected. Earlier data on submissions survive, but not (easily) for rejections. The submissions/rejections in this first batch are for four journals: Philosophical Transactions series A and B; and Proceedings series A and B.

The data for 1994 onwards come from the Society’s current electronic database courtesy of Publishing Director Stuart Taylor. Re-submissions have been excluded for the period after 2000. The submissions/rejections in this batch relate only to the journals then defined as ‘research journals’. Thus, both Transactions are excluded (because they now carry invitation-only thematic review issues); but the new research journals (such as Open Biology and Interface are included).

The gap in the data arises from the fact that the Royal Society stopped publishing details of its number of rejections in the mid-1980s; and the electronic archive only goes back to the mid-1990s. The missing data probably survives in paper form, somewhere in the archive.

For more details on the earlier part of the story, see Fyfe, A., Squazzoni, F., Torny, D., & Dondio, P. (2020). Managing the Growth of Peer Review at the Royal Society Journals, 1865-1965. Science, Technology, & Human Values45(3), 405–429.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Ownership and control of scientific journals: the view from 1963

On 13 June 1963, the president of the Royal Society Howard Florey presented a ‘Code for the Publication of New Scientific Journals’ to a meeting of officers representing 55 British scientific societies.

In the light of subsequent developments in the management and ownership of scientific journals, the Code’s insistence upon scholarly control of academic journals is notable. It was written at a time when the growing involvement of commercial publishers in academic publishing was becoming visible.

“The present tendency for commercial publishers to initiate new scientific journals in great numbers is causing concern to many people. With the expansion of established sciences and advances into new fields and disciplines it is evident that new journals are necessary.”

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What history tells us about diversity in the peer review process

With this year’s Peer Review Week focusing on diversity, there has been a lot of discussion of the changes that could or should be made to ensure that peer review is not being done by people who all think the same, or who all share the same implicit biases. Our historical data has some rather striking things to say about the effectiveness of certain kinds of intervention (On why diversity matters to peer review, see ‘Then and now’).
We have been able to count the number of women who were invited to act as reviewers of papers submitted to the Royal Society from the 1920s onwards. We can compare these figures with those for women authors, and women Fellows of the Society.
The number of women fellows steadily increased after 1945 (when women were first admitted to the Royal Society), and continued – very slowly – climbing. It had only reached 3.5% in the 1980s, and was still only 8% in 2017.
The participation rates of women as authors and as reviewers do not follow the same trend.

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Did authors get offprints?

In the days before photocopiers, getting hold of an offprint from the author was a useful way of getting a copy of the text, tables, images and formulae of a scientific article without having to copy it by hand from a library volume. The ways in which offprints circulated – whether requested by authors in locations where the journal was not available, or distributed strategically by the author to people s/he wanted to impress – is an intriguing element of the sociology of scientific communication.

The history of offprints also illustrates the long history of out-of-commerce circulation of scientific knowledge. Even when the issues, parts or volumes of the published journal were available for public sale, authors could send their private supply of offprints to colleagues, friends and potential sponsors. This long tradition still holds true in the digital world, when printed copies have been replaced by PDFs, but most publishers will still supply authors with a PDF for circulation through their networks.

As well as providing an out-of-commerce route for circulation, offprints also (in certain historical periods) provided a route for more rapid circulation. They were originally available more quickly than the collated issues or bound volumes of the journal in which the article formally appeared.

In this post, we will discuss what the Royal Society’s archive can reveal about the history of offprints.

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How often was the Philosophical Transactions issued?

Henry Oldenburg’s Transactions (1665-77) were issued monthly, but it was not until the late twentieth century that that periodicity was regained. The editors who followed Oldenburg struggled to maintain any regular periodicity; the early eighteenth-century volumes were sometimes annual, sometimes every two years, and often late.

Once the Royal Society took over the management of the Transactions in 1752, it was usually issued in two ‘parts’ a year, roughly in November and February. Authors received separate copies of their papers as soon as they had been printed, so these separate copies were often available (via private correspondence networks) more rapidly than the published ‘parts’.

Annual volumes were also issued, and this appears to have been the format that was used in the European book trade, and for non-commercial distribution to learned institutions in Europe and beyond.

Proceedings was launched in December 1831, originally to get the abstracts of Transactions papers into print more rapidly; it appeared roughly monthly, but only during the months the Society was in session (October to June). From the 1850s onwards, it was regularly suggested that it would be desirable to issue it at more defined intervals, and over the summer recess – but no changes were made.

The periodicity of Transactions is difficult to define by the late nineteenth century, because its main mode of issue had become separate papers. Whereas each monthly issue of Proceedings contained several papers, the longer papers approved for Transactions were issued as separate pamphlets as and when they became available from the printer. This system had originally been introduced for the free copies issued to fellows in the 1870s, and was extended to the free copies sent to learned institutions in 1902. By the early twentieth century, even the commercial issue of the Transactions seems to have been done as separate copies. Six-monthly parts were no longer issued, and annual volumes do not appear to have been supplied by the Society (though libraries could of course bind them if desired).

The Transactions papers were numbered, and were nominally associated with an annual volume. In some cataloguing systems, and for some periods, each paper is counted as an ‘issue’: thus, from the late 1930s to the 1990s, it can appear that issues of both series A and series B of the Transactions appeared anything from 12 to 30 times a year.

In 2001, both series of Transactions became monthly; and in 2008, they both became fortnightly, with 24 issues each per year.