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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Did authors get offprints?

In the days before photocopiers, getting hold of an offprint from the author was a useful way of getting a copy of the text, tables, images and formulae of a scientific article without having to copy it by hand from a library volume. The ways in which offprints circulated – whether requested by authors in locations where the journal was not available, or distributed strategically by the author to people s/he wanted to impress – is an intriguing element of the sociology of scientific communication.

The history of offprints also illustrates the long history of out-of-commerce circulation of scientific knowledge. Even when the issues, parts or volumes of the published journal were available for public sale, authors could send their private supply of offprints to colleagues, friends and potential sponsors. This long tradition still holds true in the digital world, when printed copies have been replaced by PDFs, but most publishers will still supply authors with a PDF for circulation through their networks.

As well as providing an out-of-commerce route for circulation, offprints also (in certain historical periods) provided a route for more rapid circulation. They were originally available more quickly than the collated issues or bound volumes of the journal in which the article formally appeared.

In this post, we will discuss what the Royal Society’s archive can reveal about the history of offprints.

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How often was the Philosophical Transactions issued?

Henry Oldenburg’s Transactions (1665-77) were issued monthly, but it was not until the late twentieth century that that periodicity was regained. The editors who followed Oldenburg struggled to maintain any regular periodicity; the early eighteenth-century volumes were sometimes annual, sometimes every two years, and often late.

Once the Royal Society took over the management of the Transactions in 1752, it was usually issued in two ‘parts’ a year, roughly in November and February. Authors received separate copies of their papers as soon as they had been printed, so these separate copies were often available (via private correspondence networks) more rapidly than the published ‘parts’.

Annual volumes were also issued, and this appears to have been the format that was used in the European book trade, and for non-commercial distribution to learned institutions in Europe and beyond.

Proceedings was launched in December 1831, originally to get the abstracts of Transactions papers into print more rapidly; it appeared roughly monthly, but only during the months the Society was in session (October to June). From the 1850s onwards, it was regularly suggested that it would be desirable to issue it at more defined intervals, and over the summer recess – but no changes were made.

The periodicity of Transactions is difficult to define by the late nineteenth century, because its main mode of issue had become separate papers. Whereas each monthly issue of Proceedings contained several papers, the longer papers approved for Transactions were issued as separate pamphlets as and when they became available from the printer. This system had originally been introduced for the free copies issued to fellows in the 1870s, and was extended to the free copies sent to learned institutions in 1902. By the early twentieth century, even the commercial issue of the Transactions seems to have been done as separate copies. Six-monthly parts were no longer issued, and annual volumes do not appear to have been supplied by the Society (though libraries could of course bind them if desired).

The Transactions papers were numbered, and were nominally associated with an annual volume. In some cataloguing systems, and for some periods, each paper is counted as an ‘issue’: thus, from the late 1930s to the 1990s, it can appear that issues of both series A and series B of the Transactions appeared anything from 12 to 30 times a year.

In 2001, both series of Transactions became monthly; and in 2008, they both became fortnightly, with 24 issues each per year.

What did the Philosophical Transactions look like?

If you visit our home page, you can see the visual changes over time. First, the journal was of course black and white, with illustrations inside the journal rather than on the front page. From the 1990s, visual imagery on the cover became important and today glossy images draw the eye to the journal. It is interesting to note that for most of its long history, the Transactions remained visually the same, but since 1990 it changed numerous times. Today, each of the 11 journals have their own visual look, but each carries the Royal Society logo and specific fonts. Similarly, the Royal Society publishing website is becoming increasingly important as more and more readers access the journal online (where a lot of the content is also free). Images online do not always translate well from the printed page, and discussions have been had about using video and more modern tools to illustrate journal articles.

How much money did the Philosophical Transactions make?

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

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

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Who read the Philosophical Transactions?

Throughout its history, mostly Fellows of the Royal Society, other societies or close acquaintances. Fellows and authors receive offprints of their own articles, and can request offprints from other authors. Fellows have also received the journal for most of its history. Today, as the Royal Society has increased its output to 11 journals, Fellows get a choice of what they want to receive for free. Increasingly the Transactions are read in parts or in themed editions online, rather than as a printed collection.

How did the Royal Society cope with increasing specialization?

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

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

The Royal Society made some acknowledgement of more specialised reading habits, when it split the Transactions into two series in 1887. Continue reading “How did the Royal Society cope with increasing specialization?”

Who are the referees?

As a rule, referees had to be Fellows. Only in 1990 (earlier?) did the Society officially allow non-Fellows to referee papers. [If there are earlier examples of non-Fellows could add here.] This meant that there was a finite number of available referees. The number of Fellows changed over time but in the mid nineteenth century, after reforms to reduce the size of the Fellowship, the number of Fellows was around 400 to 500. In reality, a very small proportion of the Fellowship was involved in refereeing. Those who were most active were typically past, current or future Council members. In other words, fellows who were active in one area of the Society’s service tended to be active in other areas too. During his Secretaryship, for example, George Gabriel Stokes was the most active referee, followed by his co-secretary William Sharpey. The Society’s Fellowship in the nineteenth century, when the number of practitioners in science in Britain was growing, represented only an elite group of the scientific community. At the same time, the majority of the papers submitted were from Fellows. Refereeing was thus about judging one’s peers, rather than making judgements on outsiders. Overtime this changed, and increasingly in the early twentieth century more non-Fellows submitted papers to the Society. Refereeing was still conducted by Fellows only but now many authors were not known personally to the Society’s Officers and Council. The Fellowship had grown, and now more Fellows were involved in refereeing: in the 1880s, 8% of the Fellowship were involved in refereeing; this rose to 30% by the 1930s. The workload, however, became even more uneven. The top most active 20% of referees produced just under 40% of referee reports in the nineteenth century, while the same % group in the mid-twentieth century produced 50% of referee reports. Getting a paper through the refereeing process at the Society signified acceptance by representatives of an elite national learned body of judges

How international was the Philosophical Transactions?

The early Transactions under the first secretary and editor, Henry Oldenburg, had a strong international orientation. Oldenburg was a polyglot who relied on his international networks to provide information on scientific developments around the world, which he published in the Transactions. The international nature of Transactions changed considerably in the nineteenth century. The number of submission was growing, but in the mid to late nineteenth century, the majority of these submissions came from British Fellows (rather than non-Fellows). The number of authors who were not Fellows increased as the twentieth century progressed, but authors were still predominantly British. The reason for this was that since the early nineteenth century, the Royal Society and its Transactions was no longer one of a few options for authors of scientific papers. Those conducting research on the continent were now more likely to submit their papers to their national learned societies or to commercial journals published in their native language.

What is the role of refereeing?

Refereeing is a form of gatekeeping, or a way to manage what papers get published. It relies on the voluntary work of individuals who are thought to be knowledgeable in the topic of a paper under consideration. The Royal Society’s gatekeeping practices have not solely relied on refereeing as a way to safeguard against publishing papers thought unworthy of consideration by the Society and its members. From 1752 (?) all papers to be published had to be read before the Society. Only papers received from Fellows were accepted. A non-Fellow could ask a Fellow to communicate a paper for them. Communicators were therefore responsible for ensuring that submitted papers were suitable. All papers that were ‘read’ at a meeting of the Society were mentioned in the report of that meeting in Proceedings. So the Communicators role was very important to ensure appropriate papers got through. Even before reading, the Secretaries, and sometimes the President, decided if a paper was appropriate for reading. The Society’s ‘rejection rate’ – in terms of papers formally received and read, but not subsequently published in either periodical – was, consequently, very low (usually, below 10%). Despite the role of communicators, and the President and Secretaries, and the Committee of Papers, in 1832 the Society added an extra element to the process of choosing papers. Papers were to be sent to at least one, later two, individuals (referees) who were to be Fellows of the Society, in order for them to write reports on their suitability for the Transactions. These reports were then set before the Committee of Papers who decided on the outcome of papers. Papers were either published in Transactions, or not published (thus appearing in Proceedings only). The use of referees was instigated as a result of a series of criticisms the Society was facing over how the Committee of Papers chose papers to be published in Transactions. Referees presented a way for the Society to rely on individuals who were considered knowledgeable in the topic covered by a paper. Refereeing became standard practice, increasingly relying on two individuals. From the mid-nineteenth century, refereeing was increasingly used to allow for revisions to be made to papers, rather than simply as a process to protect the Society from criticism of unfair judgement on papers. Papers for the Society’s publication from 1830, Proceedings, were not systematically referred until much later in the twentieth century. In fact, refereeing was not widespread among many other publishers. It was largely used by learned Societies, commercial publishers relying on the expertise of the named editor(s), or on close acquaintances. On in the 1960s and 70s was refereeing adopted by commercial publishers, eventually becoming “peer review” as we know it today.