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 Transactions in the early eighteenth century

How much difference does the identity of the editor make to the content of a journal? In the early eighteenth century, the answer was ‘quite a bit!’. The first editor of the Philosophical Transactions, Henry Oldenburg had died in 1677, and subsequent editors had a tendency to reinvent the periodical (consciously or not) to suit their own interests or editorial abilities. Here, we present a series of charts to illustrate how the Transactions changed under the various editorial regimes of the early eighteenth century.

The editors of the period were: Hans Sloane, c1695-1714; Edmond Halley, 1714-1720; James Jurin, 1720-1727; William Rutty, 1727-1729; and Cromwell Mortimer, 1729-51.

Source of material – from the fellowship of the Royal Society, or not?

During Sloane’s editorship, the proportion of material contributed by fellows of the Royal Society increased significantly – and this trend continued under the subsequent editors.

Source of material – British or overseas?

The Transaction was more strongly British (with less overseas material) during Halley’s editorship .

Topic of material – broad disciplinary breakdowns

Sloane included far less material from astronomy and mathematics than did his successors

Where do the data come from?

This analysis is based on a manual count of sample volumes of the Transactions, carried out by Noah Moxham in 2019. It extends to 1738 because after that, the form/genre/remit of the Transactions had stabilised.


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.

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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?”

The unprofitability of scientific journals, 1750-1900

Income/Expenditure on the Transactions, 1750-1900 (adjusted for inflation to 1900£)

This graph shows as much information as we have about the Royal Society’s expenditure on publications, and income from sales of publications, from 1752 (when the Society took on the ownership of the Transactions) until 1920.

Continue reading “The unprofitability of scientific journals, 1750-1900”

“Permit me to lay before you the bladder of Mr Gardiner”

Medicine in public in eighteenth-century London

Poor Mr Gardiner’s bladder was to be the subject of a great deal of curiosity and investigation over the course of several years. It features prominently in the Letters & Papers series which I’ve been working through in the Royal Society archive recently. These are the original drafts and translations of papers communicated to the Society from 1740 to around 1800, many of which subsequently found their way into the Philosophical Transactions. Amongst these I came across a series of documents relating to patent remedies for curing bladder-stones, extraordinarily painful concretions which were typically dealt with surgically in the period, by cutting into the bladder and physically removing them.

The early Royal Society appears to have been curiously fascinated with bladder-stones; there are numerous reports of unusually large calculi, as they were also known, being shown in meetings. The surgery was invasive and, because it was performed without anaesthetic, agonising; the young Samuel Pepys was a martyr to bladder-stones and underwent successful surgery to have them removed in 1658. Pepys himself doesn’t say what this was like – perhaps mercifully, 1658 falls outside the period covered by his diary, but his biographer, Claire Tomalin, supplies an eye-watering account of the procedure based on contemporary surgical manuals.

The operation was usually performed at home, since the patient would need plenty of time to recover and it was dangerous to move him. The pain and danger it entailed led to considerable interest in alternatives to surgery, and a Mrs Joanna Stephens offered a patent remedy that she claimed would dissolve the stone without the need for surgical intervention. Specifically she offered in 1738 to make the recipe publicly available in exchange for a reward of £5000, and a parliamentary committee was set up to supervise a clinical trial. Fellows of the Royal Society were heavily involved in the trials and subsequent debates. Four patients were examined before and after a course of Mrs Stephens’ treatment; all reported relief of their symptoms and Mrs Stephens duly claimed her prize in 1740.

The efficacy of the treatment continued to be hotly contested after Mrs Stephens herself fades from the historical record. Edward Nourse, a Fellow of the Society and a surgeon at Bart’s Hospital, wrote to the Society in January 1742, reporting that he’d examined one of the guinea-pigs – a Mr Gardiner – before, during and after his treatment, and indeed after his death. Nourse’s letter apparently accompanied Mr Gardiner’s actual bladder, which had been removed in the presence of witnesses after he died earlier that month. Nourse had examined Gardiner in December 1738 and immediately found a stone in his bladder. He doesn’t say where this happened, but the next examination took place in startlingly public fashion after the patient had begun to take Mrs Stephens’s medicine.

Locating a bladder-stone was itself a fairly invasive procedure, since it involved the insertion of a steel rod into the bladder via the urethra. Almost a year later, Nourse reports running into him by chance at Child’s coffee-house, where the luckless Gardiner had his genitals probed again, by Nourse and a number of other physicians and surgeons who happened to be present. Child’s had become a notable haunt for eighteenth-century medical men and appears – startlingly, to modern sensibilities – to have been used informally as a consulting-room. Some of them also used it as a correspondence address – the same series of papers that includes Nourse’s letter in the Royal Society archive also contains a few letters to James Jurin, a former Secretary to the Society and editor of the Phil Trans, addressed to him at Child’s (and this isn’t the only recorded instance of Royal Society Fellows carrying on their scientific work in the coffee-house: in November 1680 Robert Hooke and Edward Tyson dissected a porpoise at Garraway’s, publishing the results the following year).

The Society continued to gather information about the efficacy of the Stephens remedy over the next several years, which they continued to publish at intervals. Although the medical establishment seems to have been divided on the question, most of the material gathered by the Society inclines to scepticism. This may have been reinforced by Gardiner’s bladder, which was found to contain six holes. Whether these reflected a pre-existing condition or had actually been caused by Mrs Stephens’ remedy the Fellows were unwilling to say definitively; but they certainly made the bladder itself public.


Two illustrations by Elizabeth Blackwell showing front and back views of the bladder of the late Mr Gardiner.
Philosophical Transactions vol. 42, 1742-43, pp.11-14.
Royal Society Picture Library image RS.10395 © The Royal Society


It was engraved and printed as an illustration to Nourse’s letter in the Phil Trans, by Elizabeth Blackwell, who applied her considerable talents as an artist to rescue her husband Alexander from debtor’s prison, where he had been shut up after the failure of his printing business. She is a remarkable figure in the early history of science: her illustrated herbal, featuring her own hand-coloured engravings of 500 medicinal plants, successfully rescued the family from debt. She was well-known to the Fellows of the Royal Society, and her illustration for Nourse’s report may well be the earliest substantive contribution by a woman to the Philosophical Transactions.


Caryophyllus ruber, by Elizabeth Blackwell.
Plate 85 from ‘Herbarium Blackwellianum’, vol.1 (Nuremberg, 1750).
Royal Society Picture Library image RS.9469 © The Royal Society


The Royal Society’s move here is typical, and might suggest a few things about the impact of the medical and allied professions on publishing research-driven medicine. Though many medical men were members of the Royal Society, relations between the Society and the professional medical associations of early modern London weren’t always easy. Part of this was due to distrust of innovation on the part of some medical practitioners, but it was also due to the Society’s nervousness about appearing to endorse particular practices in any discipline. Medicine in the Phil Trans and in meetings of the Society tended towards reports of the curious and extraordinary – towards the singular, or at any rate the specific instance, rather than the general remedy; and towards investigation and description rather than therapy. In a public debate over the efficacy of a particular cure, the Society was happy to gather evidence but not to adopt a position, and might not have been willing to go even that far if the medical professions had been united in opposition to it.