Philosophical Transactions in the 21st Century

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By 2010, Phil Trans was operating in the age of electronic publishing, and had been since 1996. Following an important review of the Society (the ‘Bide’ review) in the 1980s, the Society also explored how to update and better manage its publications. In 1990 a huge overhaul of editorial structures, including dropping the communicator system and altering the appearance of the journals, was undertaken.

Navigator and the web

The Royal Society first launched an electronic platform in the mid-nineties, in line with most large organisations. Relying on electronic tools also meant soliciting advice and help from experts on new technology. For example, in 1997 the Society started using B.H. Blackwell’s ‘Navigator’ system for electronic editing and dissemination. In the early 2000s, each journal got its own web page, and submissions started arriving through email rather than by post. Today, all of the Society’s eleven journal have electronic platforms and some form of Open Access through an Article Processing Charge system. In the late 1990s, the Society also worked with JSTOR to digitise older articles, and today there is another digitization project afoot.

More email, less paper

Other developments in the workings of the Publishing Section at the Royal Society since 1973 included the transformation of the in-house administration of the journal into a Microsoft Windows-based computer system with personal email (operating since 1997). Indeed, the exchange of letters upon which early peer review depended was replaced with the electronic system that continues today, through which the author submits his or her paper, the reviewer makes comments, editors can implement changes, and typesetting and printing can be distributed to respective firms, with little or no need for paper copies. The system, ScholarOne, is a service and outsourced in that way like many of the editorial processes which used to be done in-house. The intricacies of this model of publishing are no less intriguing than the manuscript based system that was sustained into the late twentieth century.

A handsome surplus

In 2010, a subscription (print and electronic) to Phil Trans A cost £1801, and for series B in 2010, £2,145. The following year, in 2011, readers were given the option of receiving the journal (A and B) in an online-only version for a reduced price. The increased prices meant that subscription flows continued being institutional, and that the Royal Society overall continued to receive a handsome annual surplus from the Publishing department. Part of the reason for this was also in cost saving. Since 2006, the printing of Phil Trans had been transferred from Cambridge University Press, and was in 2010 carried out by Techset Composition Ltd., Oxfordshire (for series A) and Latimer Trend & Co., Plymouth (for series B). The typesetting of the journals was sourced overseas in India with Techset.

Front cover of Phil Trans A, 2010, vol. 368, Num. 1914, representing chaos at the heart of Orion.
Front cover of Phil Trans A, 2010, vol. 368, Num. 1914, representing chaos at the heart of Orion.

The communicator role is dropped

There had also been a significant change to the submission of papers. From 1990, authors were no longer required to have their paper communicated by a Fellow of the Society. The principle of submission was transformed so that papers could be received (i) through a Fellow (as hitherto) (ii) through a member of the Editorial Board or (iii) directly to the society’s editorial office.

Dedicated editors arrive

Another noteworthy change from 1973 was in the editing of Phil Trans’ A and B series. In 1990, the Society commissioned two Editors, based in external institutions (often universities), each of whom took responsibility for one of the Phil Trans journals.  In 2010, these Editors were Michael Pepper, who had expertise in physics and who was responsible for series A (physical sciences); and Georgina Mace, biologist at Imperial College London, with responsibility for series B (biological sciences). The two Editors act as advisors over the content of the journal and they are assisted by the Editorial Board. These individuals are Fellows of the Society with research activities in specific areas of science.

Phil Trans B, 2010, vol 365, Num. 1547, displaying a rare ‘mixed’ pair of a ‘gold’ female and a ‘dark’ male of the same species, providing evidence of natural selection.
Phil Trans B, 2010, vol 365, Num. 1547, displaying a rare ‘mixed’ pair of a ‘gold’ female and a ‘dark’ male of the same species, providing evidence of natural selection.

Professionalization through the Publishing Board

Allied with contributions from the two Editors and the Editorial Board, who have influence over knowledge content, the second significant development in the publishing practices of the Society marks a professionalization of the publishing and editorial side of the journal. This was the establishment of the Publishing Board in 1997. The Publishing Board reports to Council on the status of the Society’s publishing activities. It is responsible for the production of the journal, including advising the two academic Editors and their Editorial Board. The head of Publishing in 2010 was Stuart Taylor, who acts as chair of the publishing Board and thus overseer of the Society’s publishing activities. Next in line, per se, is Phil Hurst, who is, like Taylor, on the Publishing Board, and is responsible for managing the production of the journal.

Publishing editors and in-house management

In addition, both Phil Trans A and Phil Trans B have been (since 1990) managed in-house by Publishing Editors and office staff. The arrival of new dedicated office staff had been happening throughout the twentieth century, and by the 1990s, another change in the structure of staff meant that a visual presentation was needed (see below). The staff, especially the copy-editors, at the Royal Society received such good training and experience that they were in high demand from other, usually commercial, publishers. Nature in particular, welcomed a lot of former Royal Society office staff into their open (and higher paying!) arms. But staff also had a lot of affection for their work in the learned society. Many of the people we have spoken to say there was no place like it.

In 2010, the Publishing Editors were Suzanne Abbott (series A) and Claire Rawlinson (series B). The Publishing Editors, essentially, co-ordinate the editing of the journal’s content by the two Editors (in 2010, Pepper and Mace) and the Editorial Board, whilst being supervised by Phil Hurst and Stuart Taylor and subject to direction from the Publishing Board. The compilation of the journal, its physical formatting, is also managed by specialist individuals (in 2010, the Manager of Journals Production, the Senior Production Editor and the Production Editors), illustrating the substantial size of the professional editorial and publishing team now employed on Philosophical Transactions. 

More output and new journals

The content of Phil Trans has also been transformed since 1973. By 2010 Phil Trans A and B contained invited papers on specific themes, papers from discussion meetings on a single topic, and reviews of scientific subjects, no longer printing individual papers. By 2010 (and beginning in 2008), both journals were transformed from monthly to bi-monthly publications. Today, the Society produces eleven journals, and has in this way succeeded in diversifying and expanding its portfolio.

Open access and the future

A development still to be played out in full, in terms of its influence on Phil Trans, is the question of Open Access i.e. whether papers should be freely available to all. By 2010, for authors conscious of the open access issue, the options available in Phil Trans include the ‘Gold Open Access’ scheme, which requires the author to pay ‘an article processing charge’ so that their article is freely available to readers. An alternative is ‘Green Open Access’, providing the choice for authors to ‘deposit’ a pre-print or a final manuscript version (post-print) of their article in a repository at any time. The Royal Society also follows the ‘delayed open access’ strategy, which means papers in series A are available freely twelve months after publication, and papers in series B can be accessed without charge after twenty four months. How this issue of access plays out in science publishing, and publishing generally, will become clearer in the coming months and years. It is worth noting, however, that questions of reaching a broad audience had been on the minds of those coordinating the publication of the Royal Society’s journals long before this most contemporary and rather more public discussion.

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