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.

1936: LNG Filon on the importance of journal reputation

“Research qualifications are now more and more insisted upon for appointments to academic and other posts, and appointing bodies have often no means of discriminating between important and trivial research, except the particular medium of publication. The publications of the Society have always been recognized as of exceptionally high standard, and special significance has been attached to papers published in them. Should such discrimination between publications become obsolete or even weakened, a spate of trivial papers may easily outweigh, in the minds of lay persons, a few really valuable contributions, with results ultimately detrimental to the best interests of Science.”

So wrote mathematician (and fellow of the Royal Society) Louis Filon, in the summer of 1936.

Closing paragraph of LNG Filon’s memo to the Royal Society, RS CMP/14 9 July 1936

The Royal Society’s Publication Committee had just recommended a series of changes to the arrangements for improving the physical quality of the Society’s journals (including moving to the University Printers at Cambridge), but Filon was expressing  concern about the intellectual quality of the journals. Long before the impact factor or metrics, Filon noted how useful it was for grant and appointment panels to be able to use the reputation of a journal as a proxy for the quality of its contents.

As a former vice-chancellor of University College London, Filon was well-versed in academic politics. He would have chaired plenty of committees scrutinising the CVs and publication lists of hopeful academics, and heard the arguments between academics (most of whom would not be specialists in the candidate’s field) as they tried to distinguish quality from “a spate of trivial papers”.

The context of academic politics and prestige informed the memorandum Filon sent to the Royal Society (considered at a meeting on July 9, 1936). The real point of the memo is his concern that papers published in Society’s Proceedings were no longer reliably high quality (or, as Filon puts it, “of critical importance”).

He blamed the growing amount of “routine research” produced by the growing numbers of postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers, i.e. “young and comparatively untrained men”. According to Filon, much of this work was of “secondary importance”, and would not formerly (before the Great War) have been “either offered or accepted” by the Royal Society.

Filon felt that too much of this apparently “routine research” was now being published by the Royal Society. This was increasing the bulk and cost of the publications, and also risked damaging the reputation of the Society’s journals, and hence their usefulness as markers of quality for appointment panels.

The editorial processes of the Society’s journals at this time relied entirely on the fellows of the Society. Papers had to be submitted via a fellow (a ‘communicator’), and would be refereed by one or more fellows. Filon felt that fellows who were laboratory heads were finding it “difficult to refuse the request by a student or a member of his staff to submit a paper”, and were thus failing in their duty to the Society as communicators.

He also worried that fellows acting as referees might “not unnaturally, hesitate to recommend the rejection” of a paper “vouched for by a Fellow of some reputation”.

The Society’s council presumably agreed with at least some of Filon’s concerns, for they sent a reminder to all fellows about the duties of communicators and referees, and in 1937, revised the guidance on these matters in the Society’s standing orders.

It should be noted that Filon never claimed that the allegedly “routine research” of early-career researchers should not be published. But he felt that work that was “sound so far as it goes”, or involved “the accumulation of data” or “the elaboration of minor details” should be published elsewhere, not by the Royal Society.

In the age of print and paper, this was not an unreasonable stance: the Society could not afford to publish all the “sound” work that was being produced. In the digital age, things are different, and in 2014, the Society launched Royal Society Open Science, which uses objective peer-review” and aims to publish “all articles which are scientifically sound and useful to the community”.

Filon’s 1936 memo is one of the earliest pieces of evidence we have yet found linking editorial processes (including, but not only, the role of referees) explicitly with  intellectual quality. (For an extended discussion of the roles of refereeing at the Royal Society, see Moxham and Fyfe 2017)

It is also the earliest evidence we have yet found of a recognition that journal brand or reputation was being used as a proxy for the quality of the papers published in it. (The Journal Impact Factor was not launched until 1975, see Archambault and Lariviere 2009).

Historical source reference: Royal Society Council Minutes, vol. 14, 9 July 1936.


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.

The unprofitability of scientific journals, 1750-1900

Income/Expenditure on the Transactions, 1750-1900 (adjusted for inflation to 1900£)

This graph shows as much information as we have about the Royal Society’s expenditure on publications, and income from sales of publications, from 1752 (when the Society took on the ownership of the Transactions) until 1920.

The data on sales is incomplete, but the picture is fairly clear: throughout this period, the Transactions cost substantially more to produce than it brought in through sales.

It would, however, be a mistake to consider this as evidence of ‘commercial failure’. The Royal Society was not trying to make money from its journals and, moreover, gave away a substantial fraction of the print run for free.

Rather, this graph illustrates the cost of a mission for scholarship. The gap between costs and sales represents the extent to which the Society was subsidising the production and distribution of its publications.

It also reveals how much more difficult this was becoming by the 1890s, due to the increasing number of papers being submitted.

For the shape of the Society’s finances before and after this graph, see our post, ‘How much money…?

For a fuller discussion of the period covered by this graph, see [open access] Aileen Fyfe, ‘Journals, learned societies and money: Philosophical Transactions, ca. 1750-1900′, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 69 (2015) DOI 10.1098/rsnr.2015.0032

Where do the data come from?

From the 1830s, both the expenditure and income from publications was usually recorded in the Society’s annual accounts (though sometimes sales information is missing). Prior to that, production costs can be found in the Council Minutes, but income from sales is only sporadically recorded.

Submissions in life sciences vs physical sciences, 1927-1989

Submissions to the Royal Society, 1927 to 1989

This graph shows the number of papers submitted to the Royal Society over the course of (roughly) the twentieth century. It includes papers that would ultimately be published in both Transactions and Proceedings, as well as papers that were never published.

Throughout the period from 1927 to 1989, the Society was receiving more submissions from the physical sciences (series A) than from the life sciences (series B). But by the 1970s, the gap was closing (and now, in the early twenty-first century, biological science submissions outweigh those from the physical sciences).

The effect of the Second World War is quite clear.

It is also clear that, although analyses of Web of Science and similar databases suggest that the number of scientific papers published in the world was increasing throughout the twentieth century (and even more rapidly after the war), this expansion was not happening at the Royal Society. (Most likely, it was taking place in the many new journals being created in the 1950s and 1960s.)

The dominance of the physical sciences at the Royal Society is a legacy of the late nineteenth century, when many of the most prominent figures in the Royal Society’s administration were physical scientists (e.g. George Gabriel Stokes, secretary and later president; Lord Rayleigh; William Thomson Lord Kelvin).

Unlike other scientific disciplines, physicists did not have a specialist learned society of their own until 1873 (when the Physical Society was formed). Thus, while geologists, astronomers, botanists, zoologists and chemists had alternative places to meet and to publish, physicists continued to focus on the Royal Society. They were heavily involved in running it, and published lots of papers with it.

The Society was aware of the relative lack of papers being submitted from the biological sciences from at least the early twentieth century. From the 1950s, there were concerted efforts to recruit more papers from the life sciences, and fellows were urged to help. The upwards trend of this graph from the 1970s suggests that it may finally have been working.

Where do the data come from?

From the 1850s until the 1980s, all papers submitted to the Society (regardless of which journal they were intended for) were recorded in a series of ledgers known as the ‘Register of Papers’. From 1927, those ledgers were kept in two series, A=physical sciences; B=biological sciences, reflecting the two series of Transactions (split in 1887) and of Proceedings (splitin 1905).

From 1927, the editorial staff responsible for maintaining the ‘Register of Papers’ recorded the number of submissions per month in a table inside the front cover, along with running totals. So, from this point onwards, it is relatively easy to compare the number of submissions coming from the life sciences and the physical sciences.

How much money did the Philosophical Transactions make?

Although Henry Oldenburg hoped to make money from the Transactions, it was never as lucrative as he had hoped. And he appears to have been the only editor who made any money from it: Hans Sloane claimed to have spent £1,500 of his own money running the Transactions while he was secretary. Like almost all the other pre-1752 editor-secretaries, Sloane was wealthy enough to bankroll a periodical.

From 1752 onwards, the costs of running the journal were borne by the Royal Society. It was part of the Society’s mission to circulate knowledge (and the Society wasn’t doing much else with its income, from membership fees and investments, in the late eighteenth century). Throughout the nineteenth century, it was taken for granted that it was impossible for specialist scientific research journals to be run on a commercial, profitable basis: they were expensive to produce, and had inevitably limited sales. [See the graph]

By the 1890s, the Society’s was publishing more and more papers (with generous wide margins and lots of illustrations), and the increasing cost was becoming a problem for the Society’s finances. Lord Rayleigh, as secretary, successfully convinced the British government in 1895 to award a ‘grant-in-aid’ of scientific publications to the Royal Society (for itself and to aid other learned societies). For the next half century, this underpinned learned society publishing in the UK.

Things changed in the mid-twentieth century, when commercial publishers such as Pergamon Press (Robert Maxwell), discovered a way of making scientific journals profitable. In the 1950s and 1960s, learned societies learned from their commercial competitors: they paid more attention to efficiencies in the office and production side of things; and they paid more attention to sales and marketing, particularly in the USA. The Royal Society significantly cut back its free distribution programme in the mid-1950s: with fewer institutions receiving the Transactions for free, sales went up.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Royal Society’s publishing division was learning how to breakeven. Being able to do this successfully meant that the government grant-in-aid was no longer needed for publications; and that the Society’s finances were freed up for other aspects of the mission.

Since the 1970s, publishing has regularly generated a surplus for the Society. By the 1980s, this had become conscious policy: income-generation had joined the dissemination of knowledge as the ‘twin goals’ of the Royal Society publishing division. The annual surpluses actually fell in the 1990s (partly because of capital investment in new technology), but by the early 2000s, they were rising again.

In 2010, Royal Society publishing made a surplus of about £1.4m. This was about 10% of the Society’s annual income stream and, more importantly, a very high proportion of its unrestricted income stream. As unrestricted income, it offers useful flexibility to the Society.


The story of the eighteenth and nineteenth-century finances is discussed in more detail in:

A. Fyfe, Journals, learned societies and money: Philosophical Transactions, ca. 1750–1900, Notes and Records of the Royal Society (2015) DOI: 10.1098/rsnr.2015.0032

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.

How did the Royal Society cope with increasing specialization?

Throughout the nineteenth century the number of people conducting scientific research, or working in a scientific job, was increasing rapidly. One of the impacts on the Society was the greater volume of papers received for publication in its Transactions (and, by the end the century, Proceedings).

At the same time, scientific research was becoming more specialised and, thus, more fragmented. Researchers were less likely to read widely beyond their own sub-field, and more likely to communicate principally with other researchers within their sub-field. They could do this in the pages of specialist journals, such as those produced by discipline-based learned societies (from the early 19th century), as well as those launched by university professors and research institutes (towards the end of the century). The Royal Society, however, maintained its generalist tradition.

The Royal Society made some acknowledgement of more specialised reading habits, when it split the Transactions into two series in 1887. The expectation was that researchers and institutions in the physical sciences would read series A; while researchers and institutions in the biological sciences would prefer series B. There appear to have been no particular efforts to defend the value of a generalist periodical.

Less than ten years later, the Society was struggling with another effect of specialization. The Council acting as the Committee of Papers was supposed to be able to judge, with the assistance of referees, whether a paper should be published or not. The increased rate of submissions meant that the Committee was already over-burdened; and few of its members could evaluate the significance of specialised papers. The referees could do that, but it was also difficult for the secretaries (one for physical sciences, one for biological sciences) to choose appropriate referees: they were limited by their own networks and knowledge.

In 1895, the Council decided to create individual committees with specialist knowledge to relieve Council of the burden of editorial decision-making, and to ensure specialist knowledge was appropriately involved. These were called Sectional Committees, consisting of the Mathematical, Physics and Chemistry, Botany, Geology, Physiology, and Zoology committees. (The committees were similar to the ‘scientific committees’ that had existed from 1838 to 1848.)

The sectional committees (or, usually, their chairmen) chose the referees, and made recommendations about whether and where to publish (Transactions or Proceedings). These were generally rubber-stamped by the Committee of Papers, which only became directly involved if there was a dispute or a difficulty of some kind.

This marks an important decentralisation of editing at the Society. Working with the Secretary on the A or B side, the chairmen of the Sectional Committees became important figures in publishing at the Society. While meetings were held by the Sectional Committees several times per year, the majority of decisions were made by the chairman and the Secretary, at times seeking members’ opinions via correspondence. In the 1960s, this editorial role was deemed to be so important that it was separated from the other work of the sectional committees (e.g. in fellowship nominations), and allocated to Fellows designated as Associate Editors (from 1969). The sectional committees continued to exist, but were no longer involved in publication decisions.

Meanwhile, the question of generalist journals in an age of specialisation remained fraught. In the early twentieth century, there had been suggestions to split Proceedings along similar lines to Transactions. This had been opposed by some prominent fellows, on the grounds that there was value in a generalist journal which would let researchers see what was going on in nearby fields. The chemist, Henry Armstrong, argued in 1902 that the Society’s generalist stance could make it a uniquely ‘favourable.. platform for the discussion of borderland problems’. But this was not pursued. And Proceedings was indeed split in 1905.

There were abortive discussions about creating a series C at various points in the twentieth century: perhaps for Chemistry; or for Applied Science.

At the start of the twenty-first century, the Royal Society returned to Armstrong’s idea of interdisciplinarity, and launched Interface specifically to deal with research that spanned the A and B series.

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

Workshop: Editors and the Editing of Scientific Periodicals, 1760-1910

Editors and the Editing of Scientific Periodicals:
Constructing Knowledge and Identity, 1760s-1910s

University of St Andrews, January 18th & 19th, 2018
School of History, South Street, St Andrews

Organised by Anna Gielas ( and Aileen Fyfe

Scientific periodicals have been important means for scholars to communicate observations and findings, claim credit, and build communities since the late seventeenth century. From the 1770s in the German-speaking lands and in France, and from the 1790s in Britain, a flood of new periodicals were established. In contrast to the long-running periodicals sponsored by learned institutions, these new periodicals were independent, and had to try to make their way on a commercial footing. This workshop will analyse the rich variety of editorial processes and strategies used in different places, times and contexts.

Speakers include: Jon Topham (Leeds), Sally Frampton (Oxford), Dominik Huenniger (Goettingen), Martin Gierl (Goettingen), Noah Moxham (Kent), Marco Segala (L’Aquila), Adam Dunn and Aileen Fyfe (St Andrews), Matthew Wale (Leicester), Bill Jenkins (Edinburgh), Jenny Beckman (Uppsala), Alrun Schmidtke (Humbold Uni).

The workshop will begin at 13:45 on Thursday 18th, and end at 18:30 on Friday 19th January.  A draft programme is available. There will be an organised dinner on Thursday evening.

Anyone interested in attending should contact Anna Gielas (email above); there will be a modest registration fee to cover catering.

A map showing the location of the School of History’s buildings on South Street (#66) is downloadable as PDF: the Mediaeval History reception is number 71 South Street (with columns and a little portico), but best to enter via number 65 (open archway with iron gate: look for our workshop poster!)