Who edited the Philosophical Transactions?

For most of its 350 years of existence, the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions had no named editor. Only in the late twentieth century were editorial positions assigned. Yet, throughout its long history the Transactions was almost always managed by one or more of the Secretaries to the Society. As the ‘advertisement’ in Transactions for 1752 stated: ‘the printing of them [Transactions] was always, from time to time, the single act of the respective Secretaries’ (Phil Trans 1751, 47, Advertisement, unpagenated). This tradition started with Henry Oldenburg, who was Secretary in 1665 when he produced the first issue of the Transactions. Oldenburg was the proprietor and editor, paying for the Transactions from his own pocket. After him, his successive secretaries carried on the tradition of the running the Transactions, without direct financial support from the Society, although often operating out of the Society’s rooms and receiving an honorarium as Secretary. Only after 1752 did the Society take official responsibility for the Transactions. The Society was facing criticism over its running and contents, despite not being officially associated with it. The decision was made to claim ownership in order to control it more directly. Secretaries continued to take charge of the journal, despite there being little direct instruction to. The definition of the secretaries’ duties in the statutes of the Society focused on arranging and keeping the records for Society meetings, and dealing with its correspondence, with just a brief mention of ‘the charge (under the direction of the Committee of Papers) of printing the Philosophical Transactions and correcting the press’ (Record of the Royal Society, 194?, Statutes for 1847, p.??). One of the most influential, in addition to Oldenburg in the seventeenth century, was Charles Blagden, who worked closely with the President, Joseph Banks, in preparing the Transactions in the eighteenth century. Presidents had varying degrees of involvement, but by the mid nineteenth century they rarely took much interest in publishing, except by default as members of the Committee of Papers. Another important secretary-editor was physicist and mathematician George Gabriel Stokes, who was Secretary for thirty-one years in the mid to late nineteenth century. During this time he moulded refereeing into a process that involved revision, rather than simply using it as a way to protect the Society from claims of unfair practice. Stokes was close to a named editor, calling himself the ‘editor of the Transactions’. Yet, he still operated within the Society’s collective editing model; the Committee of Papers still had to be consulted on publishing decisions.

What is the role of the Council of the Royal Society?

The earliest statutes (or laws) of the Royal Society in 1663 (just three years after the first meeting of the Society) referred to the election of the ‘Council and Officers’. The Council was to consist of eleven members. These members included an elected President, two Secretaries, Treasurer, and Vice-President, as well as ordinary members. The Council was to oversee the activities of the Society, and to govern according to the statutes. Council meetings were held weekly throughout the Society’s season (November to November), with a long break in the summer months. Before 1752, the Council was not officially associated with the Philosophical Transactions, which was started by its Secretary, Henry Oldenburg, in 1665. It did, however, engage with Oldenburg on the publishing of the journal, even aiding its production inadvertently by honorary payment to Oldenburg as Secretary, who was solely responsible for production costs. Yet, in January 1752 George Parker, the Earl of Macclesfield and one of the Society’s Vice-Presidents, introduced a set of proposals that would formally establish the Transactions as a Royal Society publication, run ‘for the sole use and benefit of this Society’ and under its financial and editorial control (RS JBO/22 pp. 22-3, 23 January 1752). This transformation meant that the Council’s interest and involvement in the Transactions was now official. The editing of the journal was to be done directly by the Council, acting as the new ‘Committee of Papers’: ‘it was thought advisable, that a Committee of their [the Society’s] Members should be appointed to reconsider the papers read before them, and select out of them such, as they should judge most proper for publication in the future Transactions; which was accordingly done upon the 26 of March 1752’ (Phil Trans 1751, 47, Advertisement, unpagenated). The Society was adopting a collective editorship model of editing that meant there was no direct responsibility on the President or Secretaries. These reforms followed the publication of a series of brutal satires on the Society that had flagged the Society’s editorial process as arbitrary and lacking in transparency. The Society was keen to maintain neutrality, and to avoid responsibility for any claims made in its journal.

In the first volume published under the new editorial regime, the Society included an advertisement that would be printed until the late twentieth century. The statement made clear that the Society held no responsibility for facts given in its journal: ‘it is an established rule of the Society, to which they will always adhere, never to give their opinion, as a body, upon any subject, either of nature or art, that comes before them’ (Phil Trans 1751, 47, Advertisement, unpagenated). The Committee of Papers met weekly. They voted on papers by closed ballot. This was to ensure there could be no claims of unfair practice in choosing papers. There was therefore no discussion of papers, at least not officially; but, of course, papers were likely discussed over coffee or dinner among Council members.

Over time, the editorial process changed slightly. By the mid nineteenth century, the Council decided that papers for Transactions should be sent to at least one referee, and later two, who was often on the Committee of Papers (Council), at least initially. In addition, in 1896 the Sectional Committees were established to reduce the burden of the Council by administering papers, selecting referees, collating referee reports, and reporting back to the Committee of Papers with recommendations for publication. The Council rarely questioned Sectional Committees’ decisions on papers. As a result, the Council became less central to the publishing of the Transactions, and the Society’s other journal, the Proceedings. After 1896, the Council was largely rubber stamping decisions made by the Secretary and Chairman of the respective Sectional Committees. By 1868, the Committee of Papers was dismantled, to be replaced by an editorial board. The editorial board was chaired by the named editor of each journal.

Who could submit a paper to the Society?

Until 1990, to submit a paper to the Society one had to be a Fellow or be acquainted with a Fellow who was willing to communicate a paper on your behalf. The communicators’ role was therefore the first check whether a paper was appropriate for the Society, both to be read and potentially to be published. The Society was therefore not accessible to everyone.

Potential authors who were not (yet) Fellows needed to find a sponsor or patron among those who were Fellows. Prior to the 1847 reforms, such patronage links were often social or familial, and communicating a paper implied vouching for the social credentials of the author. After the reforms, with an increased emphasis on active scientific research, Fellows tended to communicate papers for other people in their fields – junior colleagues or, latterly, PhD students and research fellows – and the act of ‘communicating’ a paper came to imply approval of its contents.  By 1900, over half of the papers submitted to the Royal Society were authored by non-Fellows, all of whom had managed to find a contact at the Society to submit it.

This system was clearly easier to navigate for those who were well-networked in British scientific circles, but some international authors (especially colonial authors) and some women certainly did manage to submit papers to the Society.

The earliest paper by a woman is a short letter in 1787 from Caroline Herschel to Charles Blagden describing her observations of a comet. Herschel was acquainted with Blagden, then the Society’s secretary, through her astronomer brother William (FRS). The mathematician Mary Somerville also had a paper published in the Transactions in 1826, but it was not until the 1880s that a small but steady trickle of papers by women were submitted. These women were mostly either related to Fellows, or else graduates of the Cambridge women’s colleges (and thus connected to Cambridge’s scientific networks).

No woman was able to act as a communicator for other authors’ papers until the first female fellows were elected in 1945 (the biochemist Marjory Stevenson, and the crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale).

How many copies of Transactions circulated out-of-commerce?

Since 1752, payment of the membership fee entitled fellows to claim a free copy of every volume of the Transactions, though they had to do this in person and within five years of publication. The copies for fellows accounted for a large fraction of the print run. For instance, in the 1840s, there were over 700 fellows, and the print run was just 1000. Thus, even though only two-thirds of fellows actually claimed their copies, several hundred copies of the Transactions – maybe even half the print run – were free to read (though an indirect contribution to the cost had been made via membership fee).

The most striking way in which the Royal Society supported the free circulation of knowledge was by using copies of the Transactions as tokens in gift exchange with other bodies.

By the 1840s, the Society was giving around 60 copies each year to learned societies, observatories, academies, and universities, as well as another 20 or 30 copies as gifts to individuals. And by the early twentieth century, there were 465 institutions receiving the Royal Society’s publications for free (Year-book of the Royal Society (1908), 125-142). Within Britain alone, the number of institutions benefitting had quadrupled, and included virtually all the universities and university colleges, as well as national scientific organisations (the National Physical Laboratory), metropolitan scientific societies, provincial societies (the Essex Field Club, Glasgow Natural History Society) and public libraries in Birmingham, Manchester, and Cardiff.

By 1908, over 70% of the gifts were going overseas. The majority of these went to European universities and scientific societies, but significant numbers also went to similar institutions in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa, and to the USA. A handful were sent even further afield, to the observatory at Rio de Janeiro, the university library at Caracas, the imperial university in Tokyo, and the bureau of science in Manila. In the 1930s and 1940s was participating in an international system of exchanges amongst those scholarly institutions that both published research and hosted research libraries.

In addition, there was a substantial list of universities, research institutions, observatories, and public libraries which did not publish their own research journals but did have members or staff seeking access to research from elsewhere. By the 1930s, this was known as the ‘free list’, and an analysis of its cost to the Society led to the removal of most foreign universities, research institutions and libraries. All universities in the British Empire were entitled to a place on the free list, which still ran to 276 institutions in 1954 (RS OM/14(54)).

After a review that year, universities were expected in future to buy the Society’s publications, and only the Queen continued to get the Transactions for free (OM/16(54)).

With the development in the late twentieth century of ‘deeply-discounted’ and similar schemes to assist institutions in the developing world, the Royal Society could be said to have returned to its roots in the philanthropic, non-commercial circulation of knowledge.

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.