Length of articles in Royal Society journals

How has the average length of a scientific article changed over time? The answer depends on the purpose of the ‘article’ (a letter, a preliminary announcement, a fully-detailed research monograph); the space available in the printed journals; and the contemporary fashion for scholarly writing. But here, nonetheless, are some insights from the history of Royal Society publishing. [NB see caveats below]

line graph showing rising length of scientific articles, then falling in late 20th century

As the Society’s oldest, longest-running journal, the Transactions gives us the longest view: the length of published items was growing through the 18th and 19th centuries (which helps to explain why publishing costs were so expensive by 1890); falling in the early 20th century (perhaps under pressure from treasurers, but note that there was also a more general shift to using shorter article lengths in more-rapid publication venues – including the Proceedings); and falling most notably around 1970. That final drop looks like a change in formal page limits, though we’ve found no direct evidence. Historically, the Transactions didn’t have page limits (unlike the Proceedings), other than a (very notional) 40 pages.

This second graph shows the different practices between the Society’s two varieties of journal in the 20th century – but less difference in practice between the physical sciences (series A) and life sciences (series B) than one might have expected.

After 1905, the Proceedings specialised in shorter articles (published approximately monthly), while the Transactions remained a venue that would take much longer articles. The majority of Royal Society articles were published in the Proceedings throughout this period. There was a notional limit of 12 pages on Proceedings articles early in the century, later rising to 24 pages. When the journals were relaunched in 1990, Proceedings B introduced a strict page limit – as is very clear in the figure!

Warnings and limitations

The data above are taken from a spreadsheet that is maintained by the Society’s publishing staff. That spreadsheet includes the number of pages per issue, and number of articles per issue, of all RS journals from 1665 to present (but without distinguishing between text or images). With help from the St Andrews research computing team, that data has been turned into counts per year (rather than per issue or per volume) totals, for ease of comparison.

The page counts make no allowance for the occasional change of paper size, margins or text size, nor for the quantity of illustrations.

Average article length was obtained by dividing the number of pages by the number of articles per year. For the reasons stated above, it is a rough approximation, rather than an exact measure, but it does a useful job of giving us a sense of the trends over time.

The Royal Society’s ‘other’ journals

The Proceedings and the Philosophical Transactions may have been the Royal Society’s best-known periodicals in the twentieth century, but they were not its only ones. It also published (and publishes) a number of periodicals aimed largely at an internal audience of Royal Society fellows.

The Year Book was published annually from 1897, combining the role of directory (of people and procedures) for the coming year, with reports on the previous year. Biographical Memoirs began as Obituary Notices in 1932, as a way of providing space for obituaries of deceased fellows to expand beyond the paragraph or so that could be fitted into the president’s annual address. Notes and Records began in 1938, providing an opportunity for conversations about how the Society operated, brief reports on its activities and meetings, and short articles about its history; it was only much later, in the early twenty-first century, that it became a journal aimed at professional historians of science. From 1980, there was also Royal Society News.

These publications were valuable for keeping the fellowship informed and engaged, but from a financial and editorial point of view, they absorbed resources and generated little economic return. When the Society began to focus more on ways of generating income from its journals, in the mid-1950s, its new sales and marketing team tried to increase awareness of the ‘other’ journals, in the hope of making some sales. The graph below shows that they were successful in the short-term, with paid-for subscriptions to all three publications increasing until the early 1970s… but then declining.

line graph showing circulation of Royal Society 'other journals', rising through the 1960s but declining after about 1970

The trend – of growth in the 1950s and 1960s, followed by long decline from the mid-1970s onwards – is similar to that for  subscriptions to Proceedings A and B and the Transactions A and B [see Figure 3 of ‘From philanthropy to business…‘].

The subscriber numbers were published in the Year Book from 1961, then moved to the Annual Report from 1979. They were no longer made public after 1989, but circulation figures were reported in an internal report in 1995. The later figures for N&R were provided by the Publishing team.

Where did the practice of ‘abstracts’ come from?

Academic authors in the twenty-first century have become used to submitting an ‘abstract’ of their paper alongside the full text – but abstracts were originally something written by another person.

Third-party summaries

The practice of ‘abstracts’ arose from a recognition of the value of providing short summaries of a paper, for the benefit of those people who were not able to access the full original. For instance, in the late 18th century, the Royal Society used the term ‘abstract’ to describe the summary of a paper that was written into the minute-books by the secretary after a paper had been read out loud at a meeting. Continue reading “Where did the practice of ‘abstracts’ come from?”

What the history of copyright in academic publishing tells us about Open Research

The protections offered by copyright have enabled authors – and their publishers – to make a living from their works since the first copyright act, for ‘the Encouragement of Learning’, was passed in 1710.

Academic authors, however, do not depend upon copyright for their livelihoods. Instead, for many researchers, copyright has come to seem like a tool used by publishers to pursue commercial, rather than scientific interests. Notably, open access advocates have long argued for changes to the ways researchers use copyright, a position that has recently found support in Plan S’ mandate for the use of Creative Commons licences as an alternative.

Continue reading “What the history of copyright in academic publishing tells us about Open Research”

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.

Continue reading “Did authors get offprints?”

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.

1934: Questioning the quality of paper, printing, and engraving

Printing the Society’s publications fell to a relatively small number of printers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Society tended to stick with a printer for several decades before changing, sometimes in order to get a reduced price, or on some occasions to receive better quality productions; the interplay between cost and quality was never clear cut and was often complicated. It is thus significant that in 1934 the Council of the Society appointed a Publications Committee to enquire into and report on the paper, printing and engraving of the Society’s publications. The Committee’s report was based on considerable research into the production processes and materials used for the Society’s publications by the Committee members. As indicated, this was all based on interviews with printers, paper-merchants, and event visits to the production sites in some cases. The report sent to Council addressed paper quality for text and images; the quality of blocks for printing images; processes used for printing and engraving; types of ink; the quality of wrappers for binding publications; and typographical styles.

As well as suggesting that the portraits for obituaries should now be done by the photo-litho-offset process (cheaper than photogravure process), the Committee suggested better quality paper should be used for the Society’s publications, including for printing images, which would cost an extra £150 per annum for text and 20-25% more for images. In fact the Committee were privy to knowledge that there had been complaints (presumably from authors) that the reproduction of images was unsatisfactory. The problem was partly related to bad printing, for which the Society’s printer of 56 years, Harrison and Sons, was responsible. But bad printing blocks were also to blame, as well as poor quality drawings. Yet, Harrisons ‘frankly admitted that some of the printing has been unsatisfactory, and “would assure us that every care will be taken to maintain a high standard of production”’. With Harrisons’ assurance, and a promised 7-8% reduction in costs for the Society, Harrisons were kept on as printer, but the ‘quality of their work’ was to be reviewed a few months later. The following year saw a permanent Publications Committee formed to meet annually to discuss and report on the text, paper and printing of publications.

The dissatisfaction with Harrisons is perhaps unsurprising when we realize that Harrisons was not particularly skilled in scientific printing. It is known most for the printing of H. M. stamps, and for acting as official printer to a number of government departments [ref to Harrisons biog.]. In this way it contrasted with the Society’s previous printer, Taylor and Francis, which was a major printer-publisher of scientific print throughout much of the nineteenth century. By transferring printing from Taylor to Harrisons in 1877, the Society was compromising quality for the reduced cost that Harrisons, as a much larger printer, could offer. But by 1934, the Society was beginning to question whether the quality of printing offered by Harrisons was sufficient. In fact, despite continued struggles with the rising cost of publishing, the Society adopted the Publications Committee’s somewhat costlier recommendations, showing that quality trumped cost in this case.

Even though the Society had stuck with Harrisons for almost sixty years, by 1937, in fact, the Society had moved printing once again, this time to the Cambridge University Press. Cambridge University Press had considerable experience printing scientific books by its University lecturers, and could meet Harrisons costs.

Source: CMP/14, 5 July 1934, p. 151-153, Royal Society Archives, London.

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”

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.

Politics in academic publishing: past to present

[This post by Anna Gielas first appeared on TheStudentBlog at PLOS on 14 June 2016]

“Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist”. This is the title of a Guardian opinion piece from 2011– and it is hardly the strongest critique of the academic publishing industry. Academic publishing tends to stir up controversy within scholarly and scientific communities. Sometimes it provokes individuals, like graduate student Alexandra Elbakyan, to take matters into their own hands. Elbakyan created Sci-Hub, a database of pirated academic articles, and is now facing charges for copyright infringement.

This lawsuit has fueled more discussion about how to change and improve upon the current publishing system. An example of a common argument from critics is that the current publishing system pressures academics into hastily publishing novel, attention-garnering studies instead of working toward lasting contributions to scientific and scholarly knowledge. Misconduct such as data falsification is but one of the worrying consequences of the ‘publish or perish’ climate in modern research. In turn, universities and libraries face financial barriers that stem from expensive publishing costs and high subscription rates.

Proponents of the status quo maintain that traditional academic publishers such as Elsevier, Springer,Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, and Taylor & Francis shield academics from “predatory” journals whose numbers have increased throughout the last years. The phrase “predatory” refers to publishers that charge the scientists expensive fees to publish their research in a particular journal without providing the usual services such as peer review and extensive editing services, among other things.

Coming together to examine (overlooked) challenges in publishing

Recently, an interdisciplinary group of scholars, publishing executives, and education researchers convened at the Royal Society of London to look beyond the common critiques of academic publishing and also examine lesser-known issues. The group discussed past and present structures of scholarly publishing—as well as their roots and broader implications, and I was able to attend the event.

“The Politics of Academic Publishing, 1950-2016” workshop was organized by the ‘Publishing the Philosophical Transactions’ project at the University of St. Andrews, and was led by Aileen Fyfe, Camilla Mørk Røstvik and Noah Moxham. The workshop’s comprehensive review of the history of academic publishing allowed the group to take a step back and gain a sense of how academic publishing has changed in the last six decades. The present situation became a point of reference for the participants to ask what academic publishing has gained and lost over the last 66 years.

The spread of academic publishing over time

Jack Meadows (Loughborough University) kicked off proceedings by placing the expansion of learned publishing in the 1950s in the context of the scientific race between the East and West. He used thePergamon Press as an example of how the global race for scientific innovation fueled publishing. Twelve years after its commencement in 1948, the Oxford-based publisher hosted 40 academic journals. Ten years later, Pergamon Press had expanded even further to include 150 .

Stefan Collini (Cambridge University) examined academic publishing in the 1960s and 1970s, stating: “Universities were much less in the business of justifying themselves to the self-appointed representatives of the public interest, and scholarship was seen as something that chiefly concerned other scholars.” Collini mentioned well-respected academics from the 1960s and 1970s who published their first monograph years after they were tenured and managed to gain renown despite having less than a handful of journal articles to their name. This presents a stark contrast to today’s situation in which article publications are a crucial means for furthering and sustaining one’s career.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the academic journal still struggled to make a profit. Publishers had to rely on other ways to finance their academic activities—such as the textbook market in former African colonies, as Caroline Davis (Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies) explained. “In the book trade – both in Britain and in many of its former colonies – the structures and hierarchies of imperialism long survived the demise of colonial rule itself,” said Davis. “After decolonization, British academic publishers continued to regard book markets in former colonies as their prerogative.”

Davis pointed out that British publishers have undermined the establishment of African ones. “Some people view this as a reason for today’s South-North-gap in academic publishing,” she concluded. The lack of highly regarded African journals is just one of the current challenges in academic publishing that tends to be overlooked, but was brought up by the interdisciplinary group.

Academics encounter gender-based hurdles to publishing

Kelly Coate (Director of King’s Learning Institute) turned the audience’s attention to another problem, namely the obstacles that female academics face in the academic publishing world. “Women encounter notably more implicit and explicit biases (to publishing),” Coate said. She said male academics, for example, tend to cite each other—and much less their female peers.

Camilla Mørk Røstvik, who studies the editorial archives of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, reported that female researchers in the 1950s faced similar prejudices toward their work. “The first names of male authors were usually initialed. But articles written by female researchers included the women’s full first names, suggesting essential differences in studies conducted by women and men,” Mørk Røstvik said.

Despite facing gender-based prejudices, female scientists acted as peer reviewers throughout the 1950s. While doing so, “they were generally – and knowingly – addressed as “Sir””, Mørk Røstvik added.

Though publishing has improved for female scientists since the 1950s, decades of gender bias and inequality remain deeply ingrained in the infrastructure of academic publishing. “Women themselves are influenced by implicit biases—which make them just as likely as men to make biased judgments that favor their male peers,” Coate said.

How to improve academic publishing

What can be done to address systemic gender disparities in academic publishing? Workshop participants discussed the double- and single-blind models of peer review as one of the means to actively counter the problem. The French sociologist Didier Torny (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique) explained that these reviewing strategies have been discussed and shaped from the 1950s onward. But, Torny added, the terms were adapted from the mid-1980s clinical trials vocabulary.

“If you see peer-review as making an article better, then retractions are terrible and demonstrate considerable problems with the system of reviewing,” Torny said, suggesting that post-publication peer review could be a better, more promising approach. “Readers become a community which works together to steer findings in the right direction—the audience is actively contributing to the production of knowledge.”

Sue Clegg (Higher Education Research at Leeds Metropolitan University) was also highly critical of the current peer review model. “This practice is inclined towards conservatism,” she said. “Criteria for journal inclusion are far from transparent—they are oftentimes very murky.”

Clegg also brought up gender biases and cautioned her audience to pay closer attention to questions of: (1) Who is most likely to become a peer-reviewer? (2) Who is most likely to be admitted to journal boards? Clegg agreed with Torny, and emphasized: “We should consider how we can reconfigure peer-review as a more open-community practice.”

Throughout the workshop one topic resurfaced several times: disciplinary differences. The participants agreed that journals play different roles in different fields. For example, while physicists make intense use of academic journals, scholars of economics more commonly publish working papers. In some fields, journal authors have to pay word-fee, while in others they do not. Therefore, initiatives to improve academic publishing should consider these disciplinary differences.

I felt this workshop was beneficial in that it looked beyond the usual catalogue of grievances and challenges in publishing. By applying a historical lens, the panelists were able to reflect new developments in academic publishing comparatively—and more critically. The lessons from history—as well as the disciplinary differences in academic publishing—will be key elements of the position paper that is currently being developed by the St. Andrews team.

Anna Gielas is a PhD Student in History of Science and Science Communication at the University of St Andrews

Aileen Fyfe was recently interviewed on the PLOScast about the history of scientific publishing.