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The 1987-1988 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)).

Royal Society and Cambridge University Press in 1936

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.

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1963 ‘Self-help for Learned Societies’ pamphlet

In 1963 the Royal Society and the Nuffield Foundation, alongside several smaller and larger learned societies, decided to meet in order to improve connections and network. But what should the first meeting, planned for the Royal Society with tea and coffee, be about? Publishing was chosen as a good and topical issue, at a time when post-war publishing rates and commercial publishing competition was on most society publishers minds. The Nuffield Foundation engaged Dr Frank V Morley, a scientists with experience in publishing and interviewing, to ‘sit at the bed sides’ of various learned societies and write down what ‘ailed’ them. The Society’s President Howard Florey, the officers, and the very active Assistant Secretary David Christie Martin were also involved in the preparations. Morley’s pamphlet, ‘Self-help for Learned Societies’ gathered everything he had learned about the state of publishing in Britain, and suggested plenty of changes. It was circulated as a draft in advance of the meeting at the Royal Society, and later also published as a pamphlet. ‘Self-help…’ provides an entertaining (Morley was famously charismatic and funny) and informative snapshot of learned societies in postwar and 1960s Britain. Below are some snaps from the booklet, but for more you’ll have to read our book about the history of Philosophical Transactions; – or get in touch in the comment section or via @ahrcphiltrans.

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A 1990 note on copyright and licensing

The Royal Society had historically taken a relaxed attitude to copyright, encouraging the reprinting (with attribution!) of its articles throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the 1950s, it had led the organisation of a voluntary code of conduct among learned publishers, to permit educational photocopying of articles. But this 1990 document shows a new attention to copyright, licensing and royalties, in the wake of the 1988 Copyright Act.

This document was led by the Society’s Publications Management Committee (PMC), a relatively new committee with unusual freedom from Council to make decisions about the journals and future of publications. We might see the PMC as a part of late-eighties ‘New Management’ culture, and also a beginning of a more independent publishing operation within the Royal Society. The document reveals typical attitudes towards copyright at the time, including thoughts on photocopying and the Patent Act of 1988. It includes an expectation of transfer of copyright from author to Society (whereas previously, the copyright had been held jointly by author and Society).

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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.


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The Royal Society Publishing Code from 1963

In the 21st century, academics and publishers have started many conversations about the ethics of commercial and scholarly publishing. Our project has revealed that many of the concerns about money, ideology and dissemination in scholarly publishing started long ago. Take this document outlining the Royal Society’s ‘Code for the publication of scientific journals’ which sets out, as early as 1963, that the ideal body to run a journal is a scientific society, that editorial policy should be in the hands of academics, and that financial concern and copyright should be the remit of scientists. The code was written for the President of the Society, Howard Florey, and other key players in the organisation at the time, in order to prepare them for a larger event that brought together several learned societies with their own publications. At the time, the Society sought to give advice and support to other academies and their journals, and this document thus reveals their wish for the Society to take on a leadership role in the 1960s.

The Society’s code for publishing, 1963

Rosalind Franklin at the Royal Society 1951

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.

An Art Historian in Philosophical Transactions

Most people who have dabbled in art history, have come across Sir Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich (1909-2001). The OM CBE FBA awarded Austrian-born art historian, who became a naturalised British citizen during the Second World War and spent most of his life in the UK, grew to be one of the most important figures of the field. He did this by being a prolific author, speaker, and influential public intellectual. His most beloved and well-known books include The Story of Art, a beautiful introduction to Western art, and Art and Illusion, a groundbreaking thesis about the psychology of perception and visual culture. There is no denying his importance in the humanities, but why did he choose to publish a paper in the Philosophical Transactions in 1966?

The sixties were a time of immense change for art history, as elsewhere. Sociologists, feminists, and postcolonial theorists reshaped the methodologies, language, concerns, and debates of the discipline. Gombrich, who was born in 1909, was a pioneer in terms of theory. His important contribution to the study of perception in art, Art and Illusion from 1960, would have a profound effect on aesthetics, semiotics and other postmodern fields of study. The book was one of Gombrich’s many journeys into scientific language and interdisciplinary studies. In it he argued for the importance of ‘schemata’ in exploring and analyzing works of art, posing the theory that artists learn to represent the world through their knowledge of previous artists. Thus, Gombrich wrote, representation is always done using stereotyped figures and methods. The book made Gombrich more known than ever before (he was already relatively well known for the popular and best-selling Story of Art), but art historical historiography has generally overlooked how this fame stretched beyond the humanities and into the sciences. What makes the Philosophical Transactions paper so interesting, is that it is not only a theoretical exploration of ritual in art, but also includes political material and thoughts on the Cold War.

By the time Gombrich decided to get involved with the Royal Society, he had been debating and discussing Art and Illusion for six years. His writings had already started to have an effect on art history teaching at universities, introducing the idea of a more ‘scientific’ approach to the study of artworks. Previously, art history had been largely based on the idea of connoisseurship, the canon of masterpieces (by mostly white male artists), and the idea of the ‘zeitgeist‘. Gombrich famously argued in Story of Art: “There is really no such thing as Art. There are only artists.” His ideas were grounded in the theories of the philosopher of science Karl Popper, and were thus also connected to the sciences.

The Philosophical Transactions have, throughout their over 350-year long history, usually been a place for science and natural history. It is therefore odd that Gombrich, however well versed in the philosophy of science, should chose to publish anything with the Royal Society. The paper is written in a relaxed, unpretentious style, with few specialist words and an engaging tone. Gombrich was recognized as a great and popular writer, who strove to make complex theories and concepts readily available for any reader; from child to specialist, from students to professors. The tone is in this instance extra casual, probably because the paper is a transcript of an oral presentation. He starts: “I hope I may dispense with the ritual of an introduction and plunge in medias res…” Little information survives of the meeting, but an educated guess would be that Gombrich read his paper aloud sometime during 1965 or 1966, before publishing an edited version with added bibliography in December of 1966. The Royal Society had many meetings were papers were read out, in fact this was the basis of the historical Philosophical Transactions, and still takes up some space in the modern journal. However, unusually, Gombrich’s paper was either not peer reviewed, or it was sent out to another specialist body during the year. Either way, no peer review report survives in the Royal Society’s archives.

The paper itself, “Ritualized Gesture and Expression in Art” is symptomatic of the type of ideas that interested Gombrich at the time. The idea of ritual, expression and emotion was a large part of his understanding of schemes and styles in art and visual culture. The paper is richly illustrated with black and white images from the history of Western Art, in order to illustrate his arguments about stylized and ritualized expressions in art. His examples include Käthe Kollwitz’ anti-war posters, van Eyck’s “God the Father”, Russian Revolutionary propaganda posters, details of sculptors, Egyptian art, and Rembrandt’s sketches.

This wide variety of art spanning decades all serve to underline the idea that artists copy each other (knowingly or not) and ritualize movements and emotions. He argues that although most viewers understand the emotion of a raised fist in a Russian Revolutionary propaganda poster, few of us would actually use that movement if pressed to act the same way (i.e. lead a revolution, as the figure of Lenin seems to be doing in the example). The illustration of the raised fist is thus both a symbol we understand with empathy, and a unrealistic representation of an imagined reality:

This raises the whole vexed question of the relation between the gestures we see represented in art and those performed in real life. It is a vexed question for two reasons, one because in many cases art is our principal source of information about gestures and secondly because art arrests movement and is therefore restricted in the gestures it can show unambiguously. You cannot paint even the shaking of the head we use in the West for ‘no’.

In his paper, Gombrich thus proposed as his principle hypothesis that as far as gesture is concerned the schema used by artists is generally pre-formed in ritual, and that art and ritual cannot be separated. One might think of the concept of simulacra too; a copy which is not true to the original, or which creates a fake sense of reality. Gombrich used the example of applause (imagine here being in the audience of his lecture at the Royal Society!):

We may be happy in the ritual of applause at the end of a lecture or concert, but when we stand face to face with the performer we are bothered to hear everyone say, ‘thank you for a most interesting lecture’. We are, precisely because it is a ritual and we know that it is performed after good and bad lectures alike. We try as we approach the lecturer to make our voice more charged with symptoms of sincere emotion, we press his hand in raptures, but even these tricks are quickly ritualized and most of us give up and lapse into inarticulacy.

As usual, Gombrich was not only talking about himself here, but making a wider point about the dangers of ritual. The Judas Kiss, he reminds us, looks like a loving embrace, but is in fact an attack. Similarly, the waves and smiles and movements of our politicians make it difficult to spot actual emotion. In art history, such aesthetic problems had usually been treated as theoretical splits between ‘sincere’ versus ‘theatrical’ expressions. But Gombrich argued against this depoliticized view: “Both the rhetorical and the anti-rhetorical, the ritualistic and the anti-ritualistic are in a sense conventions. Indeed what else could they be, if they are to serve communication between human beings?” If we believe too much in ritual, whether in art or politics, Gombrich reminded his readers, we stand in danger of loosing creativity:

It may have been liberating for Jackson Pollock to break all bonds and pour his paint on the canvas, but once everybody does it, it becomes a ritual in the modern sense of the term, a mere trick than can be learned and gone through without emotion. In trying to avoid this dilemma we get anti art and anti-anti-art, till we are all in a spin of ritualistic innovation for its own sake.

Again, Gombrich had a wider, political point to make, which comes across clearly in his conclusion:

The dilemmas that underlie this crisis are real enough, I believe. We cannot return to the anonymous ritual of mass emotion as we are enjoined to do on the other side of the Iron Curtain. But we can, I hope, face these issues and learn from behavior that neither the total sacrifice of convention nor the revival of collective ritual can answer the needs of what we have come to mean by art.

Unfortunately, no records of the debate that followed at the Royal Society survive. But we can perhaps imagine what the attending scientists and fellows would have made of the passionate art critic as he laid out his scientifically inspired theory about emotions, ritual and politics. Whatever may have happened after Gombrich received his ‘ritualistic’ applause, we can at least celebrate with genuine curiosity this interdisciplinary moment in the history of the Philosophical Transactions.


Women and the History of Peer Review at the Royal Society


Following the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919, the Royal Society nominated and elected its first female Fellows in 1945. But long before this female authors had published in the Society’s Philosophical Transactions and the Proceedings. There had been a steady, small trickle of female authors since the 1890s. They would often publish with husbands or colleagues, but there was also a noticeable group of solo female authors, often tied to the early women’s right movement.

Until 1990 (there was a brief experiment in 1974), authors needed to go through a fellow in order to have their paper officially communicated, reviewed and published at the Society. The official role of a communicator was thus held only by men for most of the Society’s history. By the 1960s crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale and biochemist Dorothy Hodgkin were the most active female referees and occasional communicators of papers at the Society, having been elected to the Fellowship in 1945 and 1947 respectively, and having since been joined by almost 200 other women.

Despite this expansion, male referees sometimes included their personal opinions about female authors in their referee reports. Some female authors were cautioned against being ‘too ambitious’, or for using ‘emotional’ language. The private lives and marriage status of female authors were sometimes discussed too, not in terms of who they published with, but whether they would stay in the field after starting a family. Comments like these would be cut and pasted by the Secretary and then sent to authors, so that they did not see the original report or such remarks. Although opinions such as these were of their time, comments about female author’s work would sometimes be judged along these lines until the 1980s, when the referee reports became more formalized and professional in tone.

Despite this, sexism in referee reports only occurred in a small number of cases. On a whole, men and women reviewed each other with great respect, often adding pages of extra comments to help the author get their manuscript out. This collegiate tone is reflected in referee reports throughout the twentieth and twenty-first century at the Society. This, along with increasing gender diversity in journal editorial committees, makes the comments about ambition and gender in the past all the more disappointing.

There are still firsts’ happening at the Society in modern decades. Professor Georgina Mace (above, right) and Dame Professor Linda Patridge (above, left) became the first female editors of any Society journal in the 2010s (both of Philosophical Transactions B) and the first female Head of Publishing is on her way in in 2017.

In recent years the Royal Society has started a large and detailed conversation about disability, including producing materials about science and race, disability, caring and parenting work, gender and age.

Follow us on Twitter at @ahrcphiltrans for updates on this topic. We are currently collecting all our gender material for a longer paper about the history of women and publishing at the Royal Society. There’s a lot more to say; – get in touch if you have things to add!