About our project

‘Publishing the Philosophical Transactions’ is funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, from 2013 to 2017. We started work in May 2013. We organized a variety of events within the Royal Society’s ‘Publishing 350’ campaign, including an academic conference and a public exhibition. We are currently finishing our research and writing stages, and working on our book proposal (for delivery December 2017). Learn more about our project, our many different outputs, our goals for the research, our contribution to knowledge, and our varied source materials here.

Our project

The Royal Society is the publisher of the oldest surviving scientific journal in the world: the Philosophical Transactions. The journal celebrated its 350th anniversary in 2015. Our AHRC-funded project runs from 2013 to 2017, and is using the Royal Society’s publishing division to investigate the challenges and opportunities of scholarly publishing over the past 350 years. We have already published several academic papers and essays for wider audiences, and created a series of diverse public engagement events and outputs, and we are finalising our book manuscript for submission to the publishers later this year.

Our outputs

On May 25, 2017, launched a policy briefing paper using our historical perspective to reflect on the current challenges facing academic publishing; “Untangling Academic Publishing”. The lecture was live-tweeted and you can find the live tweet here: https://storify.com/AHRCPhilTrans/getting-started You can find the entire report free here: https://zenodo.org/record/546100#.WSvrNcm1uRu

In 2015, we ran an academic conference, and curated an exhibition at the Royal Society.  A special issue of Notes & Records of the Royal Society features essays on 350 years of scientific periodicals. In 2016, we hosted a fascinating one-day interdisciplinary discussion workshop on ‘The Politics of Academic Publishing, 1950-2016‘, at the Royal Society on 22 April 2016. You can hear Aileen Fyfe interviewed on the PLOScast, about the history of scientific publishing and peer review (April 2016). Follow us on Twitter at @AHRCPhilTrans.

Our project will write the definitive history of the commercial and editorial practices of the Philosophical Transactions. It will also use the Royal Society’s archive to compile a series of historical economic data series relating to the book trade, which will be freely available online.

Our goal

Understanding Phil Trans – from 17th century till now


Studying the world’s oldest scientific publication raises a host of fascinating, cross-disciplinary questions. Our project is exploring it all, including the varying stages of publication of the Philosophical Transactions, which can be roughly divided into four periods:

  • In its earliest days, the journal was a private venture of the Royal Society’s secretary
  • In the eighteenth century, it became an official Society publication
  • In the nineteenth century, it faced new competition from commercial science journals and from the journals launched by newer, more specialised, learned societies
  • In the twentieth century, scholarly publishing became increasingly commercialised, and questions were asked about the ownership and reliability of research results.

But neither the continuing vigour of learned society journals in general, nor of the Royal Society’s journals in particular, can be taken for granted: the Royal Society itself, for instance, came under vigorous criticism in the early nineteenth century for failing to support professional scientific experts, while its journal was simultaneously under pressure from a range of new competitors. Both the Society and the Philosophical Transactions survived, but such episodes enabled us to look critically at the contingent development of the processes and practices that are now taken to be essential to the operation of modern scientific research. This project is firmly historical, but, by touching on issues at the heart of the knowledge-based economy, it has substantial contemporary relevance to a wide audience of policy makers, educators and campaigners (explore our public engagement work in the ‘About our project’ section of this website!)

Our contribution

Celebrating 350 years of Philosophical Transactions at the Royal Society in 2015.

The origins and function of Philosophical Transactions in the newly-founded Royal Society in Restoration England have been repeatedly discussed by historians of early modern science. The literary qualities of its articles have been extensively analysed by literary and communications scholars, interested in the rhetoric of science. Its citation patterns have been studied by sociologists of science as evidence of the functioning of past communities of scientists. But no one has yet used the Royal Society’s archival materials to investigate the commercial, economic and editorial practices which lie behind the published pages, and no one has tried to take a longer historical view. We are uniquely placed to do this, because we are an interdisciplinary team focusing on different periods and subjects in history, and because the available material is so vast and exciting!

Our materials

It’s not always easy to read the handwriting of our sources

The Royal Society has an extensive and fantastic archive. In fact, it is so big that many of their more modern sources are kept off-site, in a salt-mine in Cheshire. We made good use of all these materials. No other scholarly journal – or periodical of any type – has an archival record for such a long period of time! Following the fortunes of one periodical through three and a half centuries offered us a structuring narrative for the British book trade from the Restoration, through the development of modern publishing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to the era of electronic publishing.

Editing book chapters.

But we have also used other sources! With kind help from the Royal Society we have interviewed former staff members, editors, authors, referees and others who could give us first-hand knowledge about the modern and contemporary history of the journal. Using a ‘snowball’ model of sourcing interview subjects, we met many people with fantastic memories and facts that they shared with us. This has illuminated the modern chapters of the book, and filled in gaps where the archives were restricted.

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