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)

Thanks to Beth Hall, for letting us know that Danny Kingsley (Cambridge, @dannykay68) was recommending our report to the delegates at the CONUL conference of librarians in Ireland (30-31 May)!

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 UntanglingAcademic Publishing was launched. He (rightly!) notes that Untangling  ‘may make more concerning reading for publishers’.

Herman Rucic brought our comments about copyright to the attention of those campaigning for copyright reform, at (22 June). He noted our recommendation that academics should retain copyright, and not transfer it to profit-oriented third-parties, but curiously didn’t comment on the UK-SCL proposal.

Delighted to see the Oxford OA team (26 June) using our report as recommended reading for training researchers about OA and copyright!

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!

Was every paper read at the Society’s weekly meetings?

Since 1752, the rule was that every paper submitted to the Royal Society should be read at the Society’s weekly meetings before it could be considered for publication in the Transactions. In the second half of the nineteenth century, due to the volume of papers received, it became the practice to just read the title or maybe the abstract of most papers. In 1892, however, a new set of Standing Orders formally acknowledged that, due to the press of papers submitted and the limited time available in meetings, papers could be considered for publication even if all that was read of them in the meetings was the title (Approved 18 February 1892, RS Council Minutes Printed [hereafter RS CMP] vol. 6 (first discussed in December 1891)). These standing orders publicly articulated for the first time the criteria that would be used for choosing papers for meetings (papers which ‘the author is prepared to illustrate by experiments, diagrams &c., or which is likely to give rise to discussion’); but in doing so, the Society, also for the first time, relaxed the condition that tied publication to meetings. Henceforth a subset of papers accepted for publication would be read at a meeting, rather than a subset of the papers read at the meeting being published. This was a symbolic moment, representing a tacit acknowledgement of the subordination of meetings and the primacy of print publication.

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.


A bad break in the Lakes

If you’re a keen climber or mountaineer, you have something in common with several Fellows of the Royal Society.

I’m more of a stroll-up-a-hill type, but my interest in the history of climbing in Britain was piqued recently when I found a series of letters in the Society’s archives. The letters concerned one Fellow’s 1942 climbing adventure in the Lake District, and the catastrophic events that ensued for him and his wife.

Climbing was a pursuit of earlier Fellows of the Society too. The physicist John Tyndall (1820-93) became a pioneering mountaineer after he first visited the Alps in 1856 to research glacial motion. The growing popularity of mountaineering at this time has been attributed to a number of factors, including transport innovations across Europe that allowed freer movement between town and countryside, and romantic sensibilities about masculinity and exploration. But for Tyndall and many of his contemporaries in the physical sciences, it was also a way to observe in the field the extremes of nature that informed their research in the laboratory. Tyndall went on to conquer the Weisshorn in the Swiss Alps in 1861, and led one of the early teams to the summit of the Matterhorn in 1868. He was able to combine his love of climbing with his study of the origin and continued existence of glaciers; during his lifetime he published around twenty papers in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions on this and other topics.


Portrait of John Tyndall, by John McClure Hamilton, 1893-94 © The Royal Society


As climbing became popular in the mid to late nineteenth century, private clubs formed to allow climbers to socialise and pursue their hobby together. The Alpine Club was the first mountaineering club in the world, formed in 1857 in London; Tyndall became a member in 1858. Climbing clubs in the nineteenth century were attended mainly by middle- and upper-class men who had sufficient money and leisure time on their hands. Women were generally not admitted: the Alpine Club was strictly for men, at least until 1975. This did not inhibit keen female climbers, however, and the Ladies’ Alpine Club was established in 1907 by Elizabeth Hawkins-Whitshed.


The Weisshorn (photo by Jeff Pang,, via Wikimedia Commons)


It was after World War II that climbing became more accessible as a working-class pastime, with clubs proliferating as more and more people took up the challenge, helped by higher wages and shorter working hours. The equipment and clothing available included more waterproof and comfortable alternatives, informed by developments in science such as the commercialisation of nylon.

It was around this time that physiologist Edgar Douglas Adrian FRS (1899-1977; President 1950-55), together with his wife Hester (1899-1966), frequented the Lake District to indulge their passion for climbing. This was slightly less ambitious than the mountaineering Tyndall had undertaken in the Alps, but although Edgar was not pursuing research during the trip, the Adrians’ leisurely climb took a turn that made it more pertinent to Edgar’s work than he could have anticipated.


Portrait of Edgar Adrian, by Middleton Todd, 1955 © The Royal Society


Edgar and Hester had met at Cambridge, where Hester was pursuing a career in psychiatry and Edgar was studying nerve impulses at Trinity College, having gained a natural history degree at Cambridge and later a medical degree in London. He is renowned most for his Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1932, which he shared with Charles Scott Sherrington for their work on the function of neurons.

The interest that both Edgar and Hester Adrian had in nerve behaviour and health care, respectively, makes the story of their climbing experience in 1942 all the more poignant. The couple were enjoying a climbing and walking break in the Lake District in September, and as Edgar later recounted to his friend, the Finnish-Swedish physiologist Ragnar Granit, they were coming down from an ‘extremely easy climb’ with ‘no difficulty of any kind’ when disaster struck: ‘a large rock, about 5 ft. high, suddenly broke away when I took hold of it. It fell some way but landed on a slope of grass & rocks & came to a standstill after rolling down the slope’ (MM/18/107). The worst of Edgar’s story was yet to come: ‘Hester, though not directly below me, was in the way of the falling rock which crushed her leg both above and below the knee’.

Edgar Adrian does not reveal exactly how they arrived at the nearest hospital, but it is likely they made their way to the bottom of the slope, rather than wait for any rescue operation; he goes on to state that they reached Keswick Hospital with ‘not too long a delay (about 10 hours from the accident)’. Edgar’s recall of the story is thus surprisingly positive. He reported to his friend Granit how Hester had very little shock despite the fact that ‘they could only amputate for the bone was too badly crushed to be saved’. ‘There is even a chance that she will be able to walk well with an artificial leg.’ His optimism may well have been a tactful way to avoid reflecting on the fact that the amputation was caused by a rock he loosened. As he reported to Granit, ‘Hester insists that I must not think of it as my fault and I am trying to obey her’.

To make things worse, as a result of his ongoing research into nerve behaviour, Edgar would have been highly aware of the nerve damage and referred pain that Hester would face, but in January 1943 he again wrote to Granit and informed him that ‘all the doctors and limb fitters who see it admire the stump as just the right length and shape’ (MM/18/108). By October 1943, it seems Hester was able to walk effectively with a prosthetic leg, even as far as eight miles during a summer holiday in Yorkshire (MM/18/109). Hester’s ordeal seemed to hinder her little, and much that she achieved in her career in health and penal work she completed after the amputation. As for Edgar, the accident must have led to a more experiential (albeit by proxy) understanding of nerve impulses pertaining to pain.


Making the first scientific journal

Today the Royal Society opens an exhibition to celebrate the earliest and longest-running scientific journal in the world. Entitled ‘The Philosophical Transactions: 350 years of Publishing at the Royal Society (1665-2015)’, the display highlights episodes in the history of the Philosophical Transactions, from its beginnings in 1665 when the ‘journal’ was yet to be defined as a genre of scientific publishing, to its continued production in today’s electronic age. Aptly, just yesterday the Society also celebrated its own anniversary, with Fellows gathering together to mark the foundation of the Society on 28 November 1660.


Front covers of the Philosophical Transactions from 1665 and 2010.


The exhibition has been curated by researchers working on a project based at the University of St Andrews, ‘Publishing the Philosophical Transactions: the economic, social and cultural history of a learned journal, 1665-2015’, and by staff at the Royal Society. It marks the start of a series of events at the Society to celebrate the journal turning 350 on 6 March 2015; other activities will include a conference on the history of science periodical publishing – ‘Publish or Perish? The past, present and future of the scientific journal’  – to be held in March 2015, and a special issue of the Society’s history of science journal, Notes and Records, which will include selected papers from the conference.


Manuscript of James Clerk Maxwell’s ‘A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field’ (Royal Society PT/72/7)


Other noteworthy aspects of the 350th year of the Transactions are special issues of the Philosophical Transactions with comments from working scientists on the impact of some of the most important papers published in the journal throughout its existence. One highlight will be James Clerk Maxwell’s 1865 work on electromagnetism, in which he first proposed that light is an electromagnetic wave – the manuscript of this paper is featured in the exhibition. The Society is also producing several short films that take a more sidelong look at the history of the journal, focusing on papers whose importance might not have been recognised in their own time but which gave rise to questions or to new fields of enquiry that are still critical today.


Portrait of Henry Oldenburg, 1668, by Jan van Cleve © The Royal Society


The exhibition begins with the early history of the Transactions, framed by the activities of Henry Oldenburg, polyglot and secretary to the Royal Society from 1663 to 1677, who spent a brief period in the Tower of London in 1667 for suspected treason, as a result of his receipt and translation of foreign correspondence during the Anglo-Dutch War. It was Oldenburg’s skill as translator, however, and his connections to men of science across Europe that provided the content for his nascent journal, the Transactions, in 1665, and created a form of print whose flexibility, diversity of content and speed of transmission immediately captured the imagination of seventeenth century ‘natural philosophers’ and sparked a revolution in science communication. The Transactions continued to be a prestigious publication into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and was particularly important as practitioners of science became increasingly eager in the nineteenth century to see their discoveries published rapidly and to secure the credit for their inventions.

In addition to documenting the notable successes of the journal, the exhibition also brings to light its survival in the face of criticism in the eighteenth century from a disenfranchised few outside the Society, and reform in the nineteenth century as a result of unrest among the Fellowship. Interwoven with the social, political and cultural circumstances of the journal’s development are the stories of men and women of science who sought publication in the journal. Their experiences reveal how the editorial and reviewing processes evolved from Oldenburg’s sole editorial power, through decision-making by committee, to the use of written referees’ reports and discipline-based advisory editors. For example, the display tells how Charles Darwin faced criticism in 1839 from his referee, Adam Sedgwick, for the unnecessary wordiness in his paper on the parallel roads of Glen Roy; the paper was passed by the Council of the Society and was in fact the only paper Darwin ever published in the Transactions (though he later acted as a referee). The exhibition raises the question of how peer review as we know it today developed from the reviewing practices in place in science periodicals in the nineteenth century.

The exhibition also shows how the Transactions’ contribution to scientific communication long ran at a loss. It was only in the late 1940s that the journal’s income consistently exceeded expenditure. The Society’s Publishing section, which now hosts ten journals in total, has grown to include academic editors, commissioning editors and other professional members of a production team of twenty. While today the journal is delivered largely electronically, the display recalls the manual printing techniques on which the journal relied in the pre-electronic age.

The exhibition ultimately discusses how the Royal Society and its Publishing division, including Philosophical Transactions, continue to be at the forefront of debates about science publishing in an ongoing communication and information revolution. It will run until June 2015.