Quality in peer review: a view through the lens of time

The Royal Society has been asking for expert advice on papers submitted for publication since the 1830s, and quality (or something like it) has always been one of the elements under consideration. Here, I investigate how the definition of ‘quality in peer review’ has changed over time.

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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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What was the function of early peer review?

What does peer review do? Every academic author nowadays is used to the process of receiving reports on their submitted manuscripts from independent experts consulted by the editor of the journal. Refereeing undoubtedly delays the publication of research, but it is widely believed to add significant value as a means of accrediting ‘proper’ research and researchers.

Amidst all the current discussions of the future of academic publishing, there lurks a strangely ahistorical view of the academic journal. It is not uncommon to hear that the peer-reviewed research journal has been at the heart of the scientific (and, by implication, scholarly) enterprise since the beginnings of modern science. But our research reveals that there is nothing natural, inevitable or timeless about the way academic research is published.

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Then and now – exploring diversity in peer review at the Royal Society

This piece on the history of peer review at the Royal Society and the problem of unconscious bias originally appeared on the RS Publishing Blog, 10 Sept. 2018, as part of Peer Review Week 2018. 

Peer review cannot be done by everyone. It can only be done by people who share certain levels of training and subject-expertise, and have a shared sense of what rigorous experimentation, observation and analysis should look like. That shared expertise and understanding is what should enable alert peer reviewers to reject shoddy experimental methods, flawed analysis and plans for perpetual motion machines.

But as we have increasingly come to realise, any group of people with shared characteristics may display unconscious bias against outsiders, whether that means women, ethnic minorities, or those with unusual methods. While peer review should exclude poor science, it should not exclude good research on the basis of the individual traits or institutional affiliation of the researchers, nor should it dismiss innovative approaches to old problems.

However, it seems socio-cultural and intellectual criteria have often been mixed together in the peer review process, and history can help us to understand why.

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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.

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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.

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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. Continue reading “How did the Royal Society cope with increasing specialization?”

1895: The Society’s request for a Government Grant in-aid of publication

The rising costs of publishing the Philosophical Transactions was causing considerable anxiety at the Royal Society. In 1895, the Senior Secretary, physicist Lord Rayleigh (John Strutt) took steps to increase the Society’s capacity to finance its publication. He wrote to Her Majesty’s Treasurer describing ‘the financial difficulties attending the adequate publication of scientific papers’. Scientific journals and their publishers were finding it almost impossible to be commercially successful. There was limited readership owing to the specialization of science, which meant that readers were unlikely to buy publications, like the Philosophical Transactions, covering the whole of science. The cost of illustrations was also very high, but Rayleigh considered them essential for effective scientific communication. The Society had struggled so much that in some cases it had even rejected papers despite them being worthy of publication. It was not only the Royal Society that was struggling to meet costs, but all scientific publishers, including learned societies, specialist societies, and even commercial publishers. Learned societies bore much of the burden so Rayleigh proposed a grant of £2000 or £1000 annually to aid not only the Royal Society’s activities but those of other societies. A grant of £1000 was given, and the Society began to administer it to needy Societies and publications, as well as using it on its own publications. In 1925 H. M. Treasurer asked the Society to receive an increased grant of £2500 annually, administering it to other Societies in need. The Society agreed, becoming a tool for the government’s support of scientific publishing.

The fact that the Society had to request a grant for publishing was a reflection of its financial model at this time. Rayleigh’s request was the consequence of a wider ethos of free circulation, which meant that the Society rarely made money on its publications. Every Fellow received a free copy of the journal, and authors received upwards of 100 copies of their papers. Exchange and gift lists also meant many institutions throughout the world had copies of the Society’s publications. Rayleigh wanted to maintain this generous, and even philanthropic, approach to science publishing, but the Society was struggling to do this without assistance. The grant also marked a new role for the Society: by administering the grant to other societies for their publications it meant that the Society was aiding a non-commercial approach to British learned society publishing. This atmosphere of generosity would eventually shift, but not until the late twentieth century.

Source: CMP/7, 20 June 1895, p. 179-183, Royal Society Archives.

1895: Creation of Sectional Committees

By the end of the nineteenth century the Society was facing the challenge of increasing specialization in Science, as well as the continued growth in the submission of papers to its publications. The combination led the Society to reconsider the way it managed the selection of papers. The result was the creation of individual committees, with around 10 Fellows who had expert knowledge in a particular area of science. These were called Sectional Committees; they were each led by a chairman. They consisted of the Mathematical, Physics and Chemistry, Zoology, Geology, Botany, and Physiology committees. Now, instead of papers being sent on receipt directly to referees or to the Committee of Papers, they were sent to the relevant Sectional Committee, whose members administered their refereeing, before sending a summarized report and provisional decision to the Committee of Papers. In reality, the Sectional Committees met infrequently, decisions on papers were often made through correspondence. What was important here was that the administering of refereeing was no longer simply down to the Secretary and the Committee of Papers as a whole. The creation of the Sectional Committees was to reduce the burden of work the Council faced, and to lessen the work carried out by the Secretary, who took on a lot of editorial work. There was thus a decentralisation of editing, which meant that it was now the Chairmen of the Sectional Committees, along with the Secretary, who were central to the Society’s management of its editorial practices until the decommissioning of these Committees in 1868.

Source: CMP/7, 21 February 1895, p. 146-150, Royal Society Archives, London.

How many copies of Transactions circulated out-of-commerce?

Since 1752, payment of the membership fee entitled fellows to claim a free copy of every volume of the Transactions, though they had to do this in person and within five years of publication. The copies for fellows accounted for a large fraction of the print run. For instance, in the 1840s, there were over 700 fellows, and the print run was just 1000. Thus, even though only two-thirds of fellows actually claimed their copies, several hundred copies of the Transactions – maybe even half the print run – were free to read (though an indirect contribution to the cost had been made via membership fee).

The most striking way in which the Royal Society supported the free circulation of knowledge was by using copies of the Transactions as tokens in gift exchange with other bodies.

By the 1840s, the Society was giving around 60 copies each year to learned societies, observatories, academies, and universities, as well as another 20 or 30 copies as gifts to individuals. And by the early twentieth century, there were 465 institutions receiving the Royal Society’s publications for free (Year-book of the Royal Society (1908), 125-142). Within Britain alone, the number of institutions benefitting had quadrupled, and included virtually all the universities and university colleges, as well as national scientific organisations (the National Physical Laboratory), metropolitan scientific societies, provincial societies (the Essex Field Club, Glasgow Natural History Society) and public libraries in Birmingham, Manchester, and Cardiff.

By 1908, over 70% of the gifts were going overseas. The majority of these went to European universities and scientific societies, but significant numbers also went to similar institutions in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa, and to the USA. A handful were sent even further afield, to the observatory at Rio de Janeiro, the university library at Caracas, the imperial university in Tokyo, and the bureau of science in Manila. In the 1930s and 1940s was participating in an international system of exchanges amongst those scholarly institutions that both published research and hosted research libraries.

In addition, there was a substantial list of universities, research institutions, observatories, and public libraries which did not publish their own research journals but did have members or staff seeking access to research from elsewhere. By the 1930s, this was known as the ‘free list’, and an analysis of its cost to the Society led to the removal of most foreign universities, research institutions and libraries. All universities in the British Empire were entitled to a place on the free list, which still ran to 276 institutions in 1954 (RS OM/14(54)).

After a review that year, universities were expected in future to buy the Society’s publications, and only the Queen continued to get the Transactions for free (OM/16(54)).

With the development in the late twentieth century of ‘deeply-discounted’ and similar schemes to assist institutions in the developing world, the Royal Society could be said to have returned to its roots in the philanthropic, non-commercial circulation of knowledge.