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. The expectation was that researchers and institutions in the physical sciences would read series A; while researchers and institutions in the biological sciences would prefer series B. There appear to have been no particular efforts to defend the value of a generalist periodical.

Less than ten years later, the Society was struggling with another effect of specialization. The Council acting as the Committee of Papers was supposed to be able to judge, with the assistance of referees, whether a paper should be published or not. The increased rate of submissions meant that the Committee was already over-burdened; and few of its members could evaluate the significance of specialised papers. The referees could do that, but it was also difficult for the secretaries (one for physical sciences, one for biological sciences) to choose appropriate referees: they were limited by their own networks and knowledge.

In 1895, the Council decided to create individual committees with specialist knowledge to relieve Council of the burden of editorial decision-making, and to ensure specialist knowledge was appropriately involved. These were called Sectional Committees, consisting of the Mathematical, Physics and Chemistry, Botany, Geology, Physiology, and Zoology committees. (The committees were similar to the ‘scientific committees’ that had existed from 1838 to 1848.)

The sectional committees (or, usually, their chairmen) chose the referees, and made recommendations about whether and where to publish (Transactions or Proceedings). These were generally rubber-stamped by the Committee of Papers, which only became directly involved if there was a dispute or a difficulty of some kind.

This marks an important decentralisation of editing at the Society. Working with the Secretary on the A or B side, the chairmen of the Sectional Committees became important figures in publishing at the Society. While meetings were held by the Sectional Committees several times per year, the majority of decisions were made by the chairman and the Secretary, at times seeking members’ opinions via correspondence. In the 1960s, this editorial role was deemed to be so important that it was separated from the other work of the sectional committees (e.g. in fellowship nominations), and allocated to Fellows designated as Associate Editors (from 1969). The sectional committees continued to exist, but were no longer involved in publication decisions.

Meanwhile, the question of generalist journals in an age of specialisation remained fraught. In the early twentieth century, there had been suggestions to split Proceedings along similar lines to Transactions. This had been opposed by some prominent fellows, on the grounds that there was value in a generalist journal which would let researchers see what was going on in nearby fields. The chemist, Henry Armstrong, argued in 1902 that the Society’s generalist stance could make it a uniquely ‘favourable.. platform for the discussion of borderland problems’. But this was not pursued. And Proceedings was indeed split in 1905.

There were abortive discussions about creating a series C at various points in the twentieth century: perhaps for Chemistry; or for Applied Science.

At the start of the twenty-first century, the Royal Society returned to Armstrong’s idea of interdisciplinarity, and launched Interface specifically to deal with research that spanned the A and B series.

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