Time Taken to Publish

The time taken from receipt of a submission to publication is today frequently used as a ‘key performance indicator’ by academic journals. It is a (partial) measure of the speed or efficiency of the journal’s editorial and production processes (though also highly dependent on the author’s approach to revisions and proofs). The Royal Society has been recording and reporting this metric since the early 1950s, which allows us to produce the graph below:

For the period 1949 to 1986, we have data separately for the Society’s four journals. Articles in the two series of theTransactions typically took longer than those in the Proceedings, presumably because articles for the Transactions were longer than those for the Proceedings, and usually went through a stricter refereeing process (potentially involving more referees, and more author revisions).

Although the Royal Society’s staff claimed to care about speed of publication, the strong impression from the archive is that they were relatively powerless to do anything about it in the pre-1990 period. Referees were often blamed for being slow. Authors were sometimes blamed for being slow to make revisions. The printers and publishers (Cambridge University Press) were often blamed; in return, the Press pointed out that, if the Society would only commit to a regular publication day (on the same day each month), then the Press could plan the Society’s work into the printing schedule, rather than having to fit it in around other scheduled work. The move to a regular schedule for the Proceedings journals in 1982 did help in the short-term.

The improvement in editorial and production times since 2000 reflects the dramatic change in workflows in academic publishing. These include the use of author-generated electronic text (since the mid-1990s), which could feed into computerised typesetting processes (which had existed since the late 1970s, but had initially required re-keying); the introduction of editorial management software, and a close attention to staff efficiency (a new KPI); and digital printing technologies and online publishing.

Where do the data come from?

From 1951 to 1979, the average ‘time taken from receipt to publication’  for the previous two years was printed in the Society’s Year Books (and in the 1960s, the quickest and slowest times were also recorded, as well as the average times for various parts of the process). From 1979-81, these data appeared instead in the Annual Report. The data continued to be gathered until 1986, but were no longer made public.

The more modern data series begins in 1997. It comes from a spreadsheet maintained by Stuart Taylor, Director of Publishing. This data differs from the historic series because it relates only to the journals that are now defined as ‘research journals’ (and therefore, it excludes Transactions A and Transactions B). The modern data should be treated as a continuation of the data for Proceedings A and Proceedings B, but it does also include the new journals founded after 2003.

The Proceedings in the 20th Century

The Proceedings of the Royal Society has been printed since early 1831, when it reported the activities (or ‘proceedings’) of the weekly meetings of the Royal Society. The first meeting reported was that for DATE 1830. For the rest of the nineteenth century, it carried a mix of content: reports of meetings; annual accounts; summaries of papers presented to meetings of the Societies (similar to abstracts); short stand-alone papers; and occasional longer papers full of data, deemed insufficiently ‘significant’ for publication in the Transactions.

In the early twentieth century, after many decades of calls for reform to the Proceedings, some changes were made. From 1905, the Proceedings was divided into two series: Proceedings A, for physical and mathematical sciences; and Proceedings B, for biological sciences. From 1914, it focused on independent papers (not abstracts), of up to 24-pages; and these were now papers of ‘approved merit’, equivalent to those in the Transactions but shorter. The vast majority of content published by the Royal Society in the twentieth century appeared in the Proceedings, not in the Transactions.

Here, we present some overviews of the twentieth-century Proceedings.

The enforcement of the page limit for the Proceedings meant that its total page output per year was closely linked to the number of articles published. (This contrasts with the Transactions, where exceptions to the nominal limit of 40pages were far from infrequent.)

Prior to the Great War, Proceedings A and Proceedings B carried similar numbers of articles, but after the war, Proceedings A grew dramatically. It was edited by Arthur Schuster, and then James Jeans; and this was the period when the Royal Society was closely associated with the latest developments in modern physics (such as the research undertaken by Ernest Rutherford, who became president of the Society in the late 1920s).

Physical sciences continued to attract far more submissions than biological sciences (and to print more) through until the late 1970s. Since the re-launch of all the Society’s journals in 1990, Proceedings B has come to carry far more material than Proceedings A. The flood of submissions from researchers in molecular biology, genetics, and biomedical sciences enabled the Society to move Proceedings B from a monthly to a fortnightly schedule in DATE; and to launch new bioscience journals: Biology Letters in 2003; and Open Biology in DATE.

Rejection rates in life sciences vs physical sciences, 1950s-1980s

Effective rejection rate for physical science vs biological science journals at the Royal Society, 1952-86

This graph offers additional detail on the overall rejection rates at the Royal Society’s Transactions and Proceedings in the second half of the twentieth century. As I discussed in that earlier post, the Royal Society historically had a low rejection rate (around 10-15%), due to the filtering-out of papers that was done pre-submission, since papers had to be submitted via a fellow. Continue reading “Rejection rates in life sciences vs physical sciences, 1950s-1980s”

Quality in peer review: a view through the lens of time

The Royal Society has been asking for expert advice on papers submitted for publication since the 1830s, and quality (or something like it) has always been one of the elements under consideration. Here, I investigate how the definition of ‘quality in peer review’ has changed over time.

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What was the function of early peer review?

What does peer review do? Every academic author nowadays is used to the process of receiving reports on their submitted manuscripts from independent experts consulted by the editor of the journal. Refereeing undoubtedly delays the publication of research, but it is widely believed to add significant value as a means of accrediting ‘proper’ research and researchers.

Amidst all the current discussions of the future of academic publishing, there lurks a strangely ahistorical view of the academic journal. It is not uncommon to hear that the peer-reviewed research journal has been at the heart of the scientific (and, by implication, scholarly) enterprise since the beginnings of modern science. But our research reveals that there is nothing natural, inevitable or timeless about the way academic research is published.

Continue reading “What was the function of early peer review?”

Then and now – exploring diversity in peer review at the Royal Society

This piece on the history of peer review at the Royal Society and the problem of unconscious bias originally appeared on the RS Publishing Blog, 10 Sept. 2018, as part of Peer Review Week 2018. 

Peer review cannot be done by everyone. It can only be done by people who share certain levels of training and subject-expertise, and have a shared sense of what rigorous experimentation, observation and analysis should look like. That shared expertise and understanding is what should enable alert peer reviewers to reject shoddy experimental methods, flawed analysis and plans for perpetual motion machines.

But as we have increasingly come to realise, any group of people with shared characteristics may display unconscious bias against outsiders, whether that means women, ethnic minorities, or those with unusual methods. While peer review should exclude poor science, it should not exclude good research on the basis of the individual traits or institutional affiliation of the researchers, nor should it dismiss innovative approaches to old problems.

However, it seems socio-cultural and intellectual criteria have often been mixed together in the peer review process, and history can help us to understand why.

Continue reading “Then and now – exploring diversity in peer review at the Royal Society”

Ownership and control of scientific journals: the view from 1963

On 13 June 1963, the president of the Royal Society Howard Florey presented a ‘Code for the Publication of New Scientific Journals’ to a meeting of officers representing 55 British scientific societies.

In the light of subsequent developments in the management and ownership of scientific journals, the Code’s insistence upon scholarly control of academic journals is notable. It was written at a time when the growing involvement of commercial publishers in academic publishing was becoming visible.

“The present tendency for commercial publishers to initiate new scientific journals in great numbers is causing concern to many people. With the expansion of established sciences and advances into new fields and disciplines it is evident that new journals are necessary.”

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What history tells us about diversity in the peer review process

With this year’s Peer Review Week focusing on diversity, there has been a lot of discussion of the changes that could or should be made to ensure that peer review is not being done by people who all think the same, or who all share the same implicit biases. Our historical data has some rather striking things to say about the effectiveness of certain kinds of intervention (On why diversity matters to peer review, see ‘Then and now’).
We have been able to count the number of women who were invited to act as reviewers of papers submitted to the Royal Society from the 1920s onwards. We can compare these figures with those for women authors, and women Fellows of the Society.
The number of women fellows steadily increased after 1945 (when women were first admitted to the Royal Society), and continued – very slowly – climbing. It had only reached 3.5% in the 1980s, and was still only 8% in 2017.
The participation rates of women as authors and as reviewers do not follow the same trend.

Continue reading “What history tells us about diversity in the peer review process”

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.

Continue reading “Submissions in life sciences vs physical sciences, 1927-1989”