1886-1887: Changing the way the Philosophical Transactions is published

The publishing of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions underwent considerable transformation in 1886 when a Publications Committee was appointed ‘to consider and report to the Council upon the mode and regulations of publication at present adopted by the Society, and what changes, if any, may be advantageously introduced’. The Society was facing increasing specialization in science and continued growth in submissions. The Committee consisted of the Officers of the Society (President, Secretaries, and Treasurer), as well as several past presidents. Advice was also garnered from the Presidents of the Linnean, Geological, Zoological, and Chemical Societies.

Three months later, the Committee returned with recommendations. After months of discussion by the Council, they adopted several of its changes. The most significant was that the Transactions was to be split into two separate series, one physical (A) and one biological (B). The motivation was not stated, but it seemed that the Society was struggling to keep on top of the growth in submissions, and the increasing specialization of science. Splitting the journal made sense if the Society hoped to attract authors who were eager to publish in a more specialized journal. Yet, splitting in two still meant the Transactions maintained its relatively unique attraction as a general research journal. It also meant that Fellows could now receive one series of the journal depending on their research and interests. In fact, papers were from this date published separately (and only later in volumes), meaning that by the late nineteenth century the separate paper had surpassed the published volume to become the main mode of scientific communication.

Source: Council Minute Papers/6: 2 February 1887, p123-124, Royal Society Archives, London.

Printed referee report form (used since the 1890s)

In the 1890s, the Royal Society had introduced a set of 7 questions for referees, in the hope of structuring the reports (which were sometimes extremely long-winded!). These were originally hand-written into the covering letter, but were quickly turned into a printed standardised report form, sent to each referee with the manuscript to be evaluated. Referees were encouraged to return their reports within 14 days – a deadline that was routinely breached.

By the early twentieth century, these report forms included clear instructions for referees, including advising them of the confidentiality attached to the papers referred to them (see image). It was routine for the author’s name to be written on the form: refereeing was single-blind, not double-blind. At this time referees were always Fellows of the Society (and their names and reports were kept confidential), but the majority of papers came from those outside the Fellowship.

The report forms made it possible for a referee to present an extremely succinct report, as was the case with Professor H. Lamb’s report on this 1925 paper by ‘Mrs. H. Ayrton’. Hertha Ayrton’s work in electrical engineering had previously been published with and exibited to the Society, but her status as a married woman had prevented the Royal Society accepting a fellowship nomination certificate in her name in 1902. (Her husband was also a well-known electrical engineer, and Fellow of the Royal Society, William Ayrton.)

The printed forms were also an attempt to standardize the refereeing process, or to at least advise referees on how to write an effective report. The Society never officially instructed referees until this date; referees were automatically expected to know how to write a report. Guidance on this continued to develop. By 1926, ‘Instructions to Referees’ was part of the Society’s Standing Orders.


1925-1926: Standardised letter to referees
1925-1926: Report on Ayrton
Ayrton report by H. Lamb

1987-1988: The Royal Society ad hoc Publications Policy Committee

In 1987 the Royal Society recognized that the journal publishing journal was changing, predominantly due to new technologies and new commercial structures competing to milk profit from academic writing. The Society, as has been the case for most of its history, decided to discuss these topics and more by forming an ad hoc committee; the Publications Policy Committee, or PPC (not to be confused with PPC2 in the 1990s!)

The purpose of the PPC, chaired by Sir Roger Elliott (and consisting of 17 other men), was to concentrate primarily on the Proceeding and Transactions, and to address the way in which the journals could best serve the needs of the scientific community but also to consider their important financial contribution to the Society. Thus, it is in the ad hoc PPC meetings that we find the first references to potential profit making through the journal’s in modern Royal Society history.

The PPC discussed the poblems with the Royal Society’s journals’ structure in the 1970s and 80s:

  • “Despite their theoretically interdisciplinary nature, Proc And Trans concentrated on certain subject areas and omitted others entirely, and risked covering too few popular areas of science to remain viable.
  • And Trans were not automatically chosen for people’s best work, and were low on ‘impact factor’ lists
  • Long papers restricted breath of subject coverage
  • The philosophy and role of the journals was not clear to Fellows, readers or subscribers: Trans B., for example, contained very detailed reports of an archival nature on single organisms.”

These were big problems, and the PPC tried various methods for improving the journals. One was to compare the journals with others, especially the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and Comptes Rendues.

They went on to discuss possible avenues for change, including publishing more and quicker. However, some members of the committee had “concerns about the relation of very rapid publication to quality of refereeing, and about the value of such papers as properly recognizable scientific papers.”

Large parts of the PPC meetings were set aside to discuss matters of finance, journal production, distribution and marketing. It was found that: “The net income to the Society from the journals was not high by current standards, but it could not be increased by raising the prices”. The solution was to be found in revamping the editorial structure of the journals, introducing a editor for each publication:

Outline of the new model (came into effect in 1990):

  • Proceedings A would continue at its present issue size and frequency, with a section given to ‘rapidly-published short papers’ (4–6 pages) in defined subject areas.
  • Proceedings B would be changed to publish only substantive papers of up to 12 pages in length (present average 18 pages). Aim to publish all papers within three months of receipt. Streamline refereeing procedure required.
  • Transactions A would become a specialist themes journal, comprising A-side discussion meeting reports, review lectures and groups of (review) papers on specific topics.
  • Transactions B would consist of longer original papers together with the B-side discussion meeting reports and review lectures.

The case for the model was that the PPC considered the Council’s concern “over the vulnerability of the income from traditional broad-coverage journals in a market place increasingly oriented to specialist journals”, and the Society’s objective of disseminating scientific knowledge. Thus, at the heart of the changes were concerned both of the Society’s first publication-related goal; dissemination; – and finances. These became the “twin goals” of Royal Society publishing henceforth.

(From CMB/328b, Ad hoc Publishing Policy Committee 1987-1988, Royal Society Archives).



1875: A new scheme of selling separate copies [CMB/47/3 1 June 1875]

Before 1875, if one wanted to buy the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, it was available as bound volumes, but only when all papers for the current volume were printed – which took several months. Authors received separate copies of their papers that were available shortly after a paper was passed for printing by the Committee of Papers. These copies, however, were generally circulated amongst authors’ close acquaintances only, thus meaning anyone else who wanted to read a Transactions paper had to wait for the full volume to be published, which could take several months. In 1875, the Society trialled a new scheme with the London based bookseller, Trübner. Separate copies of the Transactions would be sold through the book trade. The significance of the trial was that it marked a change in the dissemination of scientific papers. The bound volume was no longer the main product. In reality, however, the financial results were not exceptional; in fact, Trübner reported in 1883 that no more than ten copies would be needed of future papers. This was not a great surprise or concern to the Society, which at this time valued the free circulation of scientific papers over generating income from sales.

(On Trübner (later part of Kegan Paul), see L. Howsam, Kegan Paul, a Victorian Imprint: publishers, books and cultural history (Toronto: University of Toronto Press and Kegan Paul International, 1999)).

1936: Royal Society and Cambridge University Press

The Royal Society have used a number of printers since the beginning of its journals. In the early 1930s the Society had started exploring new printers again, after years with Harrisons. After a tender competition in 1935, the Society hires Cambridge University Press (CUP). The fellowship had many links with CUP, including FRS and Biological Secretary Archibald V. Hill. Our research shows that Hill was very involved in the decision to move printers, and that he took control and showed interest in publishing at a time when other officers did not. The documents below show the Publications Committee’s decision to hire CUP.

Click on the images to enlarge.

1963: ‘Self-help for Learned Societies’ pamphlet

In 1963 the Royal Society coordinated a meeting of representatives from 55 British scientific societies. The topic for discussion was ‘Scientific Publications’, and to stimulate the discussion, there was some pre-circulated reading material: Dr Frank V Morley’s pamphlet Self-Help for Learned Societies (Nuffield Foundation, 1963).

The pamphlet was commissioned by the Nuffield Foundation at a time when those involved in learned society publishing were worrying about the state of their own finances, and wondering about the apparent competition from commercial publishers. Following a 1955 report by an experienced publisher, the Nuffield Foundation and the Royal Society set up an advisory committee to further investigate the challenges facing learned societies. The Nuffield provided funding to hire a publishing consultant to visit individual societies.

From 1957, Dr Frank V Morley was that ‘liaison officer’. He was a Pennsylvanian-born Rhodes scholar, with a DPhil in mathematics from Oxford; but he was also an author and an experienced publisher, having been a director of Faber & Faber in the decade before the war (alongside T.S. Eliot) and then heading Harcourt Bruce in New York during the war. Back in Britain in the 1950s, he seemed to have the ideal combination of experience in science and publishing.

In 1963, he wrote up his experiences of visiting ‘individual bedsides’ of ailing patients. The language of illness reflects the premise that learned society publishing was in seriously ill-health in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Morley described 1955-63 as having been ‘lean years’ for learned society publishing.

Due to the social and economic changes in the postwar world, the old relationship between societies and their printer-publishers could not continue. There had been a lot of goodwill and generosity, but ‘there was no possibility of avoiding some change of habits’.

Morley saw the problem as ‘the general problem of production and distribution of those periodical publications which were essential for the encouragement and communication of original research, which nobody wished to go out of existence, but which without some kind of help were on the way to extinction’ (p.1)

As the contents page reveals, he investigated the practicalities of editorial practices and production processes, the challenges of circulation (referred to as ‘promotion’ of the journal), and the long-term challenge of financial sustainability. His key message was that societies needed to pay more attention to sales income, so that they could make their journals self-supporting. (It’s worth remembering that learned society publishing before the war had usually been supported by a mixture of society funds and external grants, some from government, some from industry, others from private donors).

Morley urged societies to pay more attention to ‘practical publishing matters – some of them trivial and some by no means trivial’. As his title said, he was convinced that societies could do a lot to improve the state of their publication finances without needing to look to outside help, whether from government, private donors or arrangements with commercial publishers. David Christie Martin, executive secretary of the Royal Society, had made the same point in a lecture in 1957.

Morley was famously charismatic and funny, though some of the delegates at the June 1963 meeting found him pompous in person. We are still investigating the responses to the pamphlet: some found it patronising, but others found it helpful. (Do get in touch if you can help with this!)

Self-Help urged societies to learn how to run their journals more along the lines of commercial publishers; but it did not help with the question of the involvement of commercial publishers in setting up and owning their own journals. With regard to this question, the Royal Society proposed a Code for the Publication of New Scientific Journals at the same 1963 meeting.

[Images come from the copy of the pamphlet in the Howard Florey papers at the Royal Society, 98HF.160.2.8 ]

1990: A note on copyright and licensing

In 1990, the Royal Society reacted to the 1988 Copyright Act by changing its approach to copyright: rather than holding copyright jointly between author and Society, it would begin to require authors to transfer copyright to the Society.

Given the nature of the Society as an organisation, this should not be understood as the Society pioneering a shift towards copyright transfer. Rather, the Society was following wider trends in academic publishing.

Continue reading “1990: A note on copyright and licensing”

1945+: 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.

1963: The Royal Society Publishing Code

Questions about the ethics, governance and profitability of academic publishing are widespread in 21st-century academia and beyond (even reaching the mainstream print media) It turns out that these concerns are not as new as we thought…

This 1963 document outlines the Royal Society’s proposed ‘Code for the publication of new scientific journals’.

The Society’s code for publishing, 1963

It was created by the Royal Society’s committee on ‘scientific information’, and presented by the Society’s president, Howard Florey, to a meeting of officers of 55 British scientific societies in June 1963. (This meeting also discussed advance copies of Morley’s Self-Help for Learned Societies, which discussed the organisation and financing of society journals.)

The Code was written at a time when the presence of commercial publishers was becoming more apparent in the world of scientific journals, and concerns were being raised over ownership and control.

The Code insists that the ideal body to run a journal is a scientific society, but if that is not possible, then editorial and financial policy should be in the hands of academics, and that copyright should be retained by authors.

It is not (yet) entirely clear to us what happened to the Code after 1963. The Royal Society was trying to provide leadership to other societies, in publishing and other matters. The meetings with other societies continued for at least a few years; and meetings of journal editors were emerging in the USA around the same time.

1951: Rosalind Franklin at the Royal Society

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.