Papers delayed till after the Second World War

The Second World War brought paper and labour shortages to the Royal Society’s publishing efforts. Despite the problems, a handful of dedicated publishing staff managed to keep both the Transactions and the Proceedings going, albeit on a reduced run, throughout the international conflict. Submissions deemed ‘helpful to the enemy’ were stored in the Society’s archives and all referees were asked (via a red-typed note stapled to each Referee Report Form) if the information should be quarantined.

This document shows some of the issues the Society dealt with after the war, and as late as the mid-fifties. The paper shows that the Society’s biological sciences journal Proceedings B was still struggling to increase submissions, whereas other journals like Journal of Physiology had been increasing since 1945. The document spells out some of the possible reasons for these issues, and solutions to the problem. Note also that the Society was aware that their journal covered “too many fields and therefore has no strong appeal to any.” Historians of publishing may recognize this as a turn towards specialization, which would benefit commercial publishers greatly in the coming decades.


Click on images to see more.

The Royal Society Publishing Code from 1963

In the 21st century, academics and publishers have started many conversations about the ethics of commercial and scholarly publishing. Our project has revealed that many of the concerns about money, ideology and dissemination in scholarly publishing started long ago. Take this document outlining the Royal Society’s ‘Code for the publication of scientific journals’ which sets out, as early as 1963, that the ideal body to run a journal is a scientific society, that editorial policy should be in the hands of academics, and that financial concern and copyright should be the remit of scientists. The code was written for the President of the Society, Howard Florey, and other key players in the organisation at the time, in order to prepare them for a larger event that brought together several learned societies with their own publications. At the time, the Society sought to give advice and support to other academies and their journals, and this document thus reveals their wish for the Society to take on a leadership role in the 1960s.

The Society’s code for publishing, 1963

Rosalind Franklin at the Royal Society 1951

Rosalind Elsie Franklin (1920-1958) is becoming more known for her contribution to X-ray crystallography and the discovery of the DNA double helix. Brenda Maddox’ excellent biography, ‘The Dark Lady of DNA’ is key reading for anyone interested in Franklin, women in science, or the DNA-discovery saga. But because Franklin was never made an FRS, her times at the Royal Society have often been overlooked. In fact, she both visited, spoke and published with the Royal Society, as this example of a 1950s referee report shows. Note the questions referees are asked, and that the referees in question are JD Bernal and Dorothy Hodgkin, both huge names in the field by 1951. Franklin’s paper was well received by both, as you can see, and published by the Royal Society. Today, a photograph of a young, smiling Franklin hangs to the right of the main staircase when you walk into the Royal Society. Despite her lack of FRS status, her work was recognized by the Society in the fifties; – and today through the Rosalind Franklin award and lecture.

JD Bernal writes in support as a referee. Click for a larger version.

Dorothy Hodgkin writes in support as a referee. Click for a larger version.

An Art Historian in Philosophical Transactions

Most people who have dabbled in art history, have come across Sir Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich (1909-2001). The OM CBE FBA awarded Austrian-born art historian, who became a naturalised British citizen during the Second World War and spent most of his life in the UK, grew to be one of the most important figures of the field. He did this by being a prolific author, speaker, and influential public intellectual. His most beloved and well-known books include The Story of Art, a beautiful introduction to Western art, and Art and Illusion, a groundbreaking thesis about the psychology of perception and visual culture. There is no denying his importance in the humanities, but why did he choose to publish a paper in the Philosophical Transactions in 1966?

The sixties were a time of immense change for art history, as elsewhere. Sociologists, feminists, and postcolonial theorists reshaped the methodologies, language, concerns, and debates of the discipline. Gombrich, who was born in 1909, was a pioneer in terms of theory. His important contribution to the study of perception in art, Art and Illusion from 1960, would have a profound effect on aesthetics, semiotics and other postmodern fields of study. The book was one of Gombrich’s many journeys into scientific language and interdisciplinary studies. In it he argued for the importance of ‘schemata’ in exploring and analyzing works of art, posing the theory that artists learn to represent the world through their knowledge of previous artists. Thus, Gombrich wrote, representation is always done using stereotyped figures and methods. The book made Gombrich more known than ever before (he was already relatively well known for the popular and best-selling Story of Art), but art historical historiography has generally overlooked how this fame stretched beyond the humanities and into the sciences. What makes the Philosophical Transactions paper so interesting, is that it is not only a theoretical exploration of ritual in art, but also includes political material and thoughts on the Cold War.

By the time Gombrich decided to get involved with the Royal Society, he had been debating and discussing Art and Illusion for six years. His writings had already started to have an effect on art history teaching at universities, introducing the idea of a more ‘scientific’ approach to the study of artworks. Previously, art history had been largely based on the idea of connoisseurship, the canon of masterpieces (by mostly white male artists), and the idea of the ‘zeitgeist‘. Gombrich famously argued in Story of Art: “There is really no such thing as Art. There are only artists.” His ideas were grounded in the theories of the philosopher of science Karl Popper, and were thus also connected to the sciences.

The Philosophical Transactions have, throughout their over 350-year long history, usually been a place for science and natural history. It is therefore odd that Gombrich, however well versed in the philosophy of science, should chose to publish anything with the Royal Society. The paper is written in a relaxed, unpretentious style, with few specialist words and an engaging tone. Gombrich was recognized as a great and popular writer, who strove to make complex theories and concepts readily available for any reader; from child to specialist, from students to professors. The tone is in this instance extra casual, probably because the paper is a transcript of an oral presentation. He starts: “I hope I may dispense with the ritual of an introduction and plunge in medias res…” Little information survives of the meeting, but an educated guess would be that Gombrich read his paper aloud sometime during 1965 or 1966, before publishing an edited version with added bibliography in December of 1966. The Royal Society had many meetings were papers were read out, in fact this was the basis of the historical Philosophical Transactions, and still takes up some space in the modern journal. However, unusually, Gombrich’s paper was either not peer reviewed, or it was sent out to another specialist body during the year. Either way, no peer review report survives in the Royal Society’s archives.

The paper itself, “Ritualized Gesture and Expression in Art” is symptomatic of the type of ideas that interested Gombrich at the time. The idea of ritual, expression and emotion was a large part of his understanding of schemes and styles in art and visual culture. The paper is richly illustrated with black and white images from the history of Western Art, in order to illustrate his arguments about stylized and ritualized expressions in art. His examples include Käthe Kollwitz’ anti-war posters, van Eyck’s “God the Father”, Russian Revolutionary propaganda posters, details of sculptors, Egyptian art, and Rembrandt’s sketches.

This wide variety of art spanning decades all serve to underline the idea that artists copy each other (knowingly or not) and ritualize movements and emotions. He argues that although most viewers understand the emotion of a raised fist in a Russian Revolutionary propaganda poster, few of us would actually use that movement if pressed to act the same way (i.e. lead a revolution, as the figure of Lenin seems to be doing in the example). The illustration of the raised fist is thus both a symbol we understand with empathy, and a unrealistic representation of an imagined reality:

This raises the whole vexed question of the relation between the gestures we see represented in art and those performed in real life. It is a vexed question for two reasons, one because in many cases art is our principal source of information about gestures and secondly because art arrests movement and is therefore restricted in the gestures it can show unambiguously. You cannot paint even the shaking of the head we use in the West for ‘no’.

In his paper, Gombrich thus proposed as his principle hypothesis that as far as gesture is concerned the schema used by artists is generally pre-formed in ritual, and that art and ritual cannot be separated. One might think of the concept of simulacra too; a copy which is not true to the original, or which creates a fake sense of reality. Gombrich used the example of applause (imagine here being in the audience of his lecture at the Royal Society!):

We may be happy in the ritual of applause at the end of a lecture or concert, but when we stand face to face with the performer we are bothered to hear everyone say, ‘thank you for a most interesting lecture’. We are, precisely because it is a ritual and we know that it is performed after good and bad lectures alike. We try as we approach the lecturer to make our voice more charged with symptoms of sincere emotion, we press his hand in raptures, but even these tricks are quickly ritualized and most of us give up and lapse into inarticulacy.

As usual, Gombrich was not only talking about himself here, but making a wider point about the dangers of ritual. The Judas Kiss, he reminds us, looks like a loving embrace, but is in fact an attack. Similarly, the waves and smiles and movements of our politicians make it difficult to spot actual emotion. In art history, such aesthetic problems had usually been treated as theoretical splits between ‘sincere’ versus ‘theatrical’ expressions. But Gombrich argued against this depoliticized view: “Both the rhetorical and the anti-rhetorical, the ritualistic and the anti-ritualistic are in a sense conventions. Indeed what else could they be, if they are to serve communication between human beings?” If we believe too much in ritual, whether in art or politics, Gombrich reminded his readers, we stand in danger of loosing creativity:

It may have been liberating for Jackson Pollock to break all bonds and pour his paint on the canvas, but once everybody does it, it becomes a ritual in the modern sense of the term, a mere trick than can be learned and gone through without emotion. In trying to avoid this dilemma we get anti art and anti-anti-art, till we are all in a spin of ritualistic innovation for its own sake.

Again, Gombrich had a wider, political point to make, which comes across clearly in his conclusion:

The dilemmas that underlie this crisis are real enough, I believe. We cannot return to the anonymous ritual of mass emotion as we are enjoined to do on the other side of the Iron Curtain. But we can, I hope, face these issues and learn from behavior that neither the total sacrifice of convention nor the revival of collective ritual can answer the needs of what we have come to mean by art.

Unfortunately, no records of the debate that followed at the Royal Society survive. But we can perhaps imagine what the attending scientists and fellows would have made of the passionate art critic as he laid out his scientifically inspired theory about emotions, ritual and politics. Whatever may have happened after Gombrich received his ‘ritualistic’ applause, we can at least celebrate with genuine curiosity this interdisciplinary moment in the history of the Philosophical Transactions.


Untangling Academic Publishing: responses

Untangling Academic Publishing was launched on May 25, 2017 (see previous post for a report of the launch).We are using this page to collate the responses and reactions. Please add your comments using the ‘Leave a reply’ function (above), or link to your own blog (etc).

John Elmes, “Academics ‘should not sign over research copyright to publishers“, Times Higher Education (25 May)

Ernesto Priego’s blog (25 May): “A significant contribution of this report is its historical perspective… I hope that everyone interested in scholarly publishing reads the complete report, but I would like to copy and paste below a selection of the recommendations that I believe we should all work harder to communicate (and, of course, actively embrace) within our own professional and disciplinary networks”.

Kat Steiner’s blog (30 May): “The report itself is a really good read, and even as someone with a fair amount of history of science knowledge, and a librarianship degree, there was lots I didn’t know. It’s not too long either.”

A view from the other side of the Atlantic, as Shawn Martin wonders if the history of US academia makes a difference to US attitudes to OA in his ‘History of Scholarly Communication’ blog (31 May)

A non-profit provider of publishing services (Veruscript) finds lots to like in our recommendations… (1 June)

Uta Frith: “Thoughtful analysis of past & future of science publishing. We don’t have to buy the for profit model” (Twitter 2 June)

Anne Nolan reflected on the launch event (2 June) and said ‘My takeaway from the evening was that publishers do have a valuable role to play, but need to keep an eye on what scholars and their institutions value.’

The British Library Science Team summarised our report nicely (8 June), and drew attention to ‘diamond open access’ – something that really should be more talked about! (On diamond OA, see Fuchs & Sandoval, 2013)

Jo VanEvery (12 June) expresses disappointment ‘that it downplays the political shifts that happen over the same period, which are only visible by the traces they leave in higher education policy.’ But she also urges scholars to think about ‘what all this might me for you as a scholarly writer submitting your work for publication’ and to ‘Reflect on your own practices and examine the values embedded in them and their alignment with your own scholarly values.’

Alastair Horne, writing for BookBrunch (20 June), noted that it has been a busy month for reports on academic publishing – with the ‘Academic Book of the Future’ project reporting shortly after Untangling Academic Publishing was launched. He (rightly!) notes that Untangling  ‘may make more concerning reading for publishers’.

Untangling Academic Publishing: Launch

Academics should take back control of the communication of research, according to a briefing paper launched on May 25 by a team led by St Andrews researchers. ‘Untangling Academic Publishing: A history of the relationship between commercial interests, academic prestige and the circulation of research’ examines the recent historical changes in academic publishing, and highlights the disconnect between traditional scholarly ideals of circulation and the current commercially-motivated system. It argues for the importance of considering academic work cultures – particularly the emphasis on publishing in certain prestigious venues – when trying to drive changing practices.

The paper was launched with a talk at the British Academy by Dr Aileen Fyfe, lead author, and reader in History at St Andrews (Untangling Launch slides PDF). Aileen outlined the huge change in models of academic publishing that took place around 1950, and asked why similarly large changes had yet to take place despite known problems such as the constraints on library funding, and the arrival of online publishing.  She argued that learned societies and universities- as organisations representing communities of academics, and with an intrinsic commitment to promoting research and scholarship – ought to take the lead in creating cost-efficient, prestige-bearing venues for online communication of research.

David Sweeney, Executive Chair Designate  of Research England (pictured with Aileen), responded to the talk, saying it had raised many key points about the value of academic publishing and its relationship to academic prestige culture. He welcomed the briefing paper as a ‘constructive and thoughtful’ contribution to the debate about the future of academic publishing. He praised it as ‘pleasingly free – almost! – from polemic’, noting that is all too rare in an area where the strong feelings on both sides often led parties to demonize the other, rather than seeking to work together to a future arrangement that offered value for all.

The report is available at

The launch was accompanied by opinion pieces in the HE media:

Tweets from 25 May have been storifyed. We are collating the responses in a separate post – please do add your comments to it!

Women and the History of Peer Review at the Royal Society


Following the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919, the Royal Society nominated and elected its first female Fellows in 1945. But long before this female authors had published in the Society’s Philosophical Transactions and the Proceedings. There had been a steady, small trickle of female authors since the 1890s. They would often publish with husbands or colleagues, but there was also a noticeable group of solo female authors, often tied to the early women’s right movement.

Until 1990 (there was a brief experiment in 1974), authors needed to go through a fellow in order to have their paper officially communicated, reviewed and published at the Society. The official role of a communicator was thus held only by men for most of the Society’s history. By the 1960s crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale and biochemist Dorothy Hodgkin were the most active female referees and occasional communicators of papers at the Society, having been elected to the Fellowship in 1945 and 1947 respectively, and having since been joined by almost 200 other women.

Despite this expansion, male referees sometimes included their personal opinions about female authors in their referee reports. Some female authors were cautioned against being ‘too ambitious’, or for using ‘emotional’ language. The private lives and marriage status of female authors were sometimes discussed too, not in terms of who they published with, but whether they would stay in the field after starting a family. Comments like these would be cut and pasted by the Secretary and then sent to authors, so that they did not see the original report or such remarks. Although opinions such as these were of their time, comments about female author’s work would sometimes be judged along these lines until the 1980s, when the referee reports became more formalized and professional in tone.

Despite this, sexism in referee reports only occurred in a small number of cases. On a whole, men and women reviewed each other with great respect, often adding pages of extra comments to help the author get their manuscript out. This collegiate tone is reflected in referee reports throughout the twentieth and twenty-first century at the Society. This, along with increasing gender diversity in journal editorial committees, makes the comments about ambition and gender in the past all the more disappointing.

There are still firsts’ happening at the Society in modern decades. Professor Georgina Mace (above, right) and Dame Professor Linda Patridge (above, left) became the first female editors of any Society journal in the 2010s (both of Philosophical Transactions B) and the first female Head of Publishing is on her way in in 2017.

In recent years the Royal Society has started a large and detailed conversation about disability, including producing materials about science and race, disability, caring and parenting work, gender and age.

Follow us on Twitter at @ahrcphiltrans for updates on this topic. We are currently collecting all our gender material for a longer paper about the history of women and publishing at the Royal Society. There’s a lot more to say; – get in touch if you have things to add!

The lesser-spotted physicist

The history of the Royal Society is full of famous men and women of science, but every so often we discover a significant but obscure figure deep in the archives. These are often some of the most interesting people, and were better recognised by their contemporaries than we have remembered.

One such figure is Oliver Heaviside (1850-1925). Who? He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1891, specialising in electrical theory. His interest was sparked – pun intended – when he went to work with his uncle, Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875), co-inventor in 1837 of the first commercial telegraph. Telegraphy involved a code-system which was used to transmit a message between two distant sites, and its commercial expansion led to a series of national projects to lay lines across Britain, as well as attempts to connect Britain with North America and further afield. Communication was transformed, and it was through this new technology that Heaviside developed his passion for electrical physics.



Oliver Heaviside, ca. 1900 (Smithsonian Libraries public domain image)


Heaviside’s life has been of interest to some historians of science, and physicists might recognise his name, but he rarely comes up in a general history of the Royal Society. He was born in London into a modest family; his father was a wood engraver. After grammar school, where Heaviside excelled in natural history, higher education was not financially feasible. The young Oliver was sent to work with his brother in the north of England on the telegraph. In 1873 he sent the Philosophical Magazine a paper that was praised by physicists William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) and James Clerk Maxwell, eminent figures at the Royal Society and experts on electrical physics. After just seven working years, Heaviside decided to quit and devote all of his time to the study of electrical theory, never again seeking full-time employment. He lived with his parents in London, and later in Devon above his brother’s music shop, spending the last few months of his life in a retirement home.

He published many articles throughout his life, mainly in the monthly Philosophical Magazine and the weekly Electrician, and it was through these papers that his work became recognised by other physicists in the Society, leading to his election to the Fellowship. It was only after this date that Heaviside published with the Royal Society – five papers in Proceedings and one in the Philosophical Transactions, all in the 1890s. Before this date he did not have the necessary connections to access the Society: if an author was not a Fellow they had to get the support of a Fellow to even submit a paper.

Even after his election, however, it was far from plain sailing for Heaviside at the Society. In June 1891, now a Fellow, Heaviside submitted a paper on the ‘Force, Stresses, and Fluxes of Energy in the Electromagnetic Field’. An abstract was published in Proceedings on 18 June 1891 on the same day the paper was read to the Society (Proceedings 1891 vol. 50 302-307 126-129), but the full paper was not passed by Council for printing in the Philosophical Transactions until October 1892, a delay of fully sixteen months from its submission. At this point the paper was available as a ‘separate copy’, which Heaviside could circulate among his contemporaries and interested readers could purchase from booksellers; the paper only appeared in the bound Transactions volume in 1892.

A delay between submission and printing was not unusual in the nineteenth century, in fact it was normal for an author to have to wait several months for a paper to pass through the refereeing process at the Society. This was not the cause of the delay to Heaviside’s paper; rather, he held up the printing of his paper himself due to his dissatisfaction with the printer’s typesetting of the copious mathematical formulae in the first copy he received. He was adamant that a better attempt be made, which he related to the Secretary of the Society John William Strutt (Lord Rayleigh): ‘the paper is hard enough to read without the unnecessary difficulty of unsuitable type, and I thought something must be done’ (MM/17/110).

Not only did such revisions to papers cause delay, but they were also expensive for the Society. Despite this, the Assistant Secretary appeased Heaviside, stating that Harrisons, the Society’s printer, ‘must do what they can to meet his wishes about the type’ (NLB/5/1076). Heaviside drew on his experience of publishing in the Philosophical Magazine and the Electrician to suggest the correct type to use. This is significant since the Society’s printing, until the work passed to Harrisons in 1877, had been done by Taylor and Francis, a company known for skilled typesetting of scientific papers. After months of to-ing and fro-ing between the Society, Heaviside and Harrisons, the Assistant Secretary believed an end was in sight: ‘we have got as near as we can to your [Heaviside’s] pattern’ (NLB/5/1166). In reality, Heaviside was still unhappy. The Society was now very anxious to get the paper out, but another four months passed before it was finally approved by Heaviside.

Heaviside never published another paper in the Philosophical Transactions. And even though he published several short papers in the Proceedings, when he attempted to publish here in 1894 he faced opposition from the referee, and was given the option to “withdraw” the paper: ‘I should, with much reluctance, prefer to withdraw it’ (rather than have it fester in the ‘archives’ of the Society where all unpublished papers resided) (RR/12/136).

Heaviside seemed to maintain his eccentricities in his personal life too. Without a job, he was exceedingly poor, only surviving on a small pension acquired for him by some Royal Society Fellows, which he was reluctant to accept. His work, however, was revered by other physicists at the Society, who were all formally educated and most in full-time academic positions. While his skill and intellect conceivably approached the likes of James Clerk Maxwell (whose theories he developed), his fame never did. The Royal Society’s archives may hold no portrait of Heaviside, but they do provide insight into the scientific merits of a Fellow who remained (possibly out of choice) on the margins of the scientific elite.


Politics in academic publishing: past to present

[This post by Anna Gielas first appeared on TheStudentBlog at PLOS on 14 June 2016]

“Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist”. This is the title of a Guardian opinion piece from 2011– and it is hardly the strongest critique of the academic publishing industry. Academic publishing tends to stir up controversy within scholarly and scientific communities. Sometimes it provokes individuals, like graduate student Alexandra Elbakyan, to take matters into their own hands. Elbakyan created Sci-Hub, a database of pirated academic articles, and is now facing charges for copyright infringement.

This lawsuit has fueled more discussion about how to change and improve upon the current publishing system. An example of a common argument from critics is that the current publishing system pressures academics into hastily publishing novel, attention-garnering studies instead of working toward lasting contributions to scientific and scholarly knowledge. Misconduct such as data falsification is but one of the worrying consequences of the ‘publish or perish’ climate in modern research. In turn, universities and libraries face financial barriers that stem from expensive publishing costs and high subscription rates.

Proponents of the status quo maintain that traditional academic publishers such as Elsevier, Springer,Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, and Taylor & Francis shield academics from “predatory” journals whose numbers have increased throughout the last years. The phrase “predatory” refers to publishers that charge the scientists expensive fees to publish their research in a particular journal without providing the usual services such as peer review and extensive editing services, among other things.

Coming together to examine (overlooked) challenges in publishing

Recently, an interdisciplinary group of scholars, publishing executives, and education researchers convened at the Royal Society of London to look beyond the common critiques of academic publishing and also examine lesser-known issues. The group discussed past and present structures of scholarly publishing—as well as their roots and broader implications, and I was able to attend the event.

“The Politics of Academic Publishing, 1950-2016” workshop was organized by the ‘Publishing the Philosophical Transactions’ project at the University of St. Andrews, and was led by Aileen Fyfe, Camilla Mørk Røstvik and Noah Moxham. The workshop’s comprehensive review of the history of academic publishing allowed the group to take a step back and gain a sense of how academic publishing has changed in the last six decades. The present situation became a point of reference for the participants to ask what academic publishing has gained and lost over the last 66 years.

The spread of academic publishing over time

Jack Meadows (Loughborough University) kicked off proceedings by placing the expansion of learned publishing in the 1950s in the context of the scientific race between the East and West. He used thePergamon Press as an example of how the global race for scientific innovation fueled publishing. Twelve years after its commencement in 1948, the Oxford-based publisher hosted 40 academic journals. Ten years later, Pergamon Press had expanded even further to include 150 .

Stefan Collini (Cambridge University) examined academic publishing in the 1960s and 1970s, stating: “Universities were much less in the business of justifying themselves to the self-appointed representatives of the public interest, and scholarship was seen as something that chiefly concerned other scholars.” Collini mentioned well-respected academics from the 1960s and 1970s who published their first monograph years after they were tenured and managed to gain renown despite having less than a handful of journal articles to their name. This presents a stark contrast to today’s situation in which article publications are a crucial means for furthering and sustaining one’s career.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the academic journal still struggled to make a profit. Publishers had to rely on other ways to finance their academic activities—such as the textbook market in former African colonies, as Caroline Davis (Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies) explained. “In the book trade – both in Britain and in many of its former colonies – the structures and hierarchies of imperialism long survived the demise of colonial rule itself,” said Davis. “After decolonization, British academic publishers continued to regard book markets in former colonies as their prerogative.”

Davis pointed out that British publishers have undermined the establishment of African ones. “Some people view this as a reason for today’s South-North-gap in academic publishing,” she concluded. The lack of highly regarded African journals is just one of the current challenges in academic publishing that tends to be overlooked, but was brought up by the interdisciplinary group.

Academics encounter gender-based hurdles to publishing

Kelly Coate (Director of King’s Learning Institute) turned the audience’s attention to another problem, namely the obstacles that female academics face in the academic publishing world. “Women encounter notably more implicit and explicit biases (to publishing),” Coate said. She said male academics, for example, tend to cite each other—and much less their female peers.

Camilla Mørk Røstvik, who studies the editorial archives of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, reported that female researchers in the 1950s faced similar prejudices toward their work. “The first names of male authors were usually initialed. But articles written by female researchers included the women’s full first names, suggesting essential differences in studies conducted by women and men,” Mørk Røstvik said.

Despite facing gender-based prejudices, female scientists acted as peer reviewers throughout the 1950s. While doing so, “they were generally – and knowingly – addressed as “Sir””, Mørk Røstvik added.

Though publishing has improved for female scientists since the 1950s, decades of gender bias and inequality remain deeply ingrained in the infrastructure of academic publishing. “Women themselves are influenced by implicit biases—which make them just as likely as men to make biased judgments that favor their male peers,” Coate said.

How to improve academic publishing

What can be done to address systemic gender disparities in academic publishing? Workshop participants discussed the double- and single-blind models of peer review as one of the means to actively counter the problem. The French sociologist Didier Torny (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique) explained that these reviewing strategies have been discussed and shaped from the 1950s onward. But, Torny added, the terms were adapted from the mid-1980s clinical trials vocabulary.

“If you see peer-review as making an article better, then retractions are terrible and demonstrate considerable problems with the system of reviewing,” Torny said, suggesting that post-publication peer review could be a better, more promising approach. “Readers become a community which works together to steer findings in the right direction—the audience is actively contributing to the production of knowledge.”

Sue Clegg (Higher Education Research at Leeds Metropolitan University) was also highly critical of the current peer review model. “This practice is inclined towards conservatism,” she said. “Criteria for journal inclusion are far from transparent—they are oftentimes very murky.”

Clegg also brought up gender biases and cautioned her audience to pay closer attention to questions of: (1) Who is most likely to become a peer-reviewer? (2) Who is most likely to be admitted to journal boards? Clegg agreed with Torny, and emphasized: “We should consider how we can reconfigure peer-review as a more open-community practice.”

Throughout the workshop one topic resurfaced several times: disciplinary differences. The participants agreed that journals play different roles in different fields. For example, while physicists make intense use of academic journals, scholars of economics more commonly publish working papers. In some fields, journal authors have to pay word-fee, while in others they do not. Therefore, initiatives to improve academic publishing should consider these disciplinary differences.

I felt this workshop was beneficial in that it looked beyond the usual catalogue of grievances and challenges in publishing. By applying a historical lens, the panelists were able to reflect new developments in academic publishing comparatively—and more critically. The lessons from history—as well as the disciplinary differences in academic publishing—will be key elements of the position paper that is currently being developed by the St. Andrews team.

Anna Gielas is a PhD Student in History of Science and Science Communication at the University of St Andrews

Aileen Fyfe was recently interviewed on the PLOScast about the history of scientific publishing.

Mocking your elders

Recently I found myself trawling through the minute-books of the Royal Society’s Committee of Papers. This was the body responsible for screening the papers read to the Society’s meetings and selecting those of suitable quality for publication in the Philosophical Transactions.

I was trying to reconstruct the historical rejection rate between 1780 and 1830 (about 40%, for anyone who’s interested). Working through a long list of papers in this way has an unusually dizzying time-telescoping effect, as fifty years’ worth of scientific activity is catalogued in a single volume, and a remarkable number of famous names in the history of science make their first published appearances without fanfare – Humphry Davy with a paper on Galvanic combinations, for instance, among many others.

One name I wasn’t particularly expecting to encounter in the annals of the Royal Society at this time was that of Henry Brougham. Brougham is known mainly for his legal and literary career – born and educated in Scotland, he helped found the Edinburgh Review, one of the leading literary periodicals of the nineteenth century, and became Lord Chancellor, the head of the legal profession in England. In fact there are several Lord Chancellors who had close associations with the Royal Society: Sir John Somers was President of the Society in the 1690s; William Cowper and Thomas Parker were both eighteenth-century Fellows, and Parker’s son George also became President; and, of course, the Society’s founding inspiration, Francis Bacon. It turns out, however, that Brougham has an unusual claim to distinction with respect to the Society. We think he may have been the youngest person ever to contribute a paper to the Philosophical Transactions.


Engraving of Henry Peter Brougham, Baron Brougham and Vaux, by W Bosley. Published by Claudet, London 1849.


Brougham’s paper was entitled ‘Experiments and Observations on the Inflection, Reflection and Colours of Light’, and was read to the Society on 29 January 1796. At that time Brougham was 17 years and 133 days old (he was born on 19 September 1778). His paper was considered for publication in the Transactions on 10 March 1796 and apparently withdrawn (the meeting at which it was considered also featured a paper by Caroline Herschel, the first woman to have a paper published in Transactions under her own name). Unusually, Brougham’s paper was then brought before the Committee again a couple of months later, and this time it was approved for printing.

The exact significance of the sequence of events is hard to parse – a paper’s being withdrawn usually signalled either the author’s dissatisfaction with some aspect of it, or the exertion of pressure upon the author by the Society, which had no intention of printing the paper but did not wish to have to reject it outright. In either event the matter usually rested there, and the slightly tangled path of Brougham’s paper to print may have had to do with the Society’s consciousness of his extreme youth. We would be very curious to hear if any readers of this blog happen to know of any younger authors finding their way into the Transactions. On the subject of child prodigies, incidentally, the Transactions also contains a paper by Daines Barrington about the young Mozart, whom Barrington saw performing on his visit to London in 1764, then aged 8.

Brougham’s connection with the Society didn’t end there. Though he did not pursue a career in science, he was elected to the Society (with the influence of the President, Joseph Banks, in 1802). This was the same year Brougham helped found the Edinburgh Review, and his letter soliciting Banks’s assistance in his election to the Society enclosed a copy of the first issue.

Banks was not particularly pleased with what he found. The new periodical included a scathing review of the Journal of Friedrich Hornemann’s Travels. Banks was a founding member of the African Association, which encouraged and sponsored several expeditions of exploration in Africa, including those of Mungo Park and Hornemann himself. Hornemann’s journal had been sent back to England from Tripoli in 1799 and he himself set off for a further expedition to the interior; in 1802 his fate was unknown and nothing had been heard from him in three years. Banks was plainly disappointed by the tenor of the review; his letter to Brougham does not survive, but its general import is plainly apparent from Brougham’s reply. Brougham told Banks that he heartily agreed with the substance of Banks’s complaint, and had put the same case to the editors:

I communicated your opinion on the review of Horneman’s Journal to the author and the other Critics who compose our sanguinary tribunal. – I also added my own in the same terms – they all agreed, that, if the slightest disrespect was meant to the celebrated body [the African Association] under whose patronage Mr Horneman pursues his adventures, the article deserved suppression. – The author himself declared that such a thought never entered his head, – and that he levelled his Criticism not at all against the African Association, but against the secretary at whom he has conceived some ill will; I know not upon what grounds for he is perfectly unknown both to that Gentleman and to the other members.

Brougham laid the tone of concerned agreement on thick: ‘I urged the apparent tendency of some passages to evince a disrespect towards the Society’, remarking to the author ‘that the world never draws the distinction between an attack levelled at a public body and one directed against its office-bearers. – I added that any such attack from the E. review must be absurd in the extreme, and tend only to draw the public odium and contempt upon the review.’ He stressed, however, that this had proved futile: the author ‘persisted in his plan of criticism, refusing to modify the article in the 2nd edition’ (the first issue of the Edinburgh Review, he proudly reported, had sold out within five days).

The whole letter was, almost needless to add at this point, an elaborate fiction, since the author was probably Brougham himself. One can’t help feeling a little sorry for Banks in this situation, being made game of by a man who was fishing for his support for election into the Society. At the same time it’s hard not to admire the chutzpah of Brougham, a cocky 24-year-old running rings around a long-serving President of the Royal Society with the same aplomb that had led him to communicate original research in optics to the Society while still a teenager.