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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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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Ownership and control of scientific journals: the view from 1963

On 13 June 1963, the president of the Royal Society Howard Florey presented a ‘Code for the Publication of New Scientific Journals’ to a meeting of officers representing 55 British scientific societies.

In the light of subsequent developments in the management and ownership of scientific journals, the Code’s insistence upon scholarly control of academic journals is notable. It was written at a time when the growing involvement of commercial publishers in academic publishing was becoming visible.

“The present tendency for commercial publishers to initiate new scientific journals in great numbers is causing concern to many people. With the expansion of established sciences and advances into new fields and disciplines it is evident that new journals are necessary.”

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What history tells us about diversity in the peer review process

With this year’s Peer Review Week focusing on diversity, there has been a lot of discussion of the changes that could or should be made to ensure that peer review is not being done by people who all think the same, or who all share the same implicit biases. Our historical data has some rather striking things to say about the effectiveness of certain kinds of intervention (On why diversity matters to peer review, see ‘Then and now’).
We have been able to count the number of women who were invited to act as reviewers of papers submitted to the Royal Society from the 1920s onwards. We can compare these figures with those for women authors, and women Fellows of the Society.
The number of women fellows steadily increased after 1945 (when women were first admitted to the Royal Society), and continued – very slowly – climbing. It had only reached 3.5% in the 1980s, and was still only 8% in 2017.
The participation rates of women as authors and as reviewers do not follow the same trend.

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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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1936: LNG Filon on the importance of journal reputation

“Research qualifications are now more and more insisted upon for appointments to academic and other posts, and appointing bodies have often no means of discriminating between important and trivial research, except the particular medium of publication. The publications of the Society have always been recognized as of exceptionally high standard, and special significance has been attached to papers published in them. Should such discrimination between publications become obsolete or even weakened, a spate of trivial papers may easily outweigh, in the minds of lay persons, a few really valuable contributions, with results ultimately detrimental to the best interests of Science.”

So wrote mathematician (and fellow of the Royal Society) Louis Filon, in the summer of 1936.

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Submissions in life sciences vs physical sciences, 1927-1989

Submissions to the Royal Society, 1927 to 1989

This graph shows the number of papers submitted to the Royal Society over the course of (roughly) the twentieth century. It includes papers that would ultimately be published in both Transactions and Proceedings, as well as papers that were never published.

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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?”

1934: Questioning the quality of paper, printing, and engraving

Printing the Society’s publications fell to a relatively small number of printers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Society tended to stick with a printer for several decades before changing, sometimes in order to get a reduced price, or on some occasions to receive better quality productions; the interplay between cost and quality was never clear cut and was often complicated. It is thus significant that in 1934 the Council of the Society appointed a Publications Committee to enquire into and report on the paper, printing and engraving of the Society’s publications. The Committee’s report was based on considerable research into the production processes and materials used for the Society’s publications by the Committee members. As indicated, this was all based on interviews with printers, paper-merchants, and event visits to the production sites in some cases. The report sent to Council addressed paper quality for text and images; the quality of blocks for printing images; processes used for printing and engraving; types of ink; the quality of wrappers for binding publications; and typographical styles.

As well as suggesting that the portraits for obituaries should now be done by the photo-litho-offset process (cheaper than photogravure process), the Committee suggested better quality paper should be used for the Society’s publications, including for printing images, which would cost an extra £150 per annum for text and 20-25% more for images. In fact the Committee were privy to knowledge that there had been complaints (presumably from authors) that the reproduction of images was unsatisfactory. The problem was partly related to bad printing, for which the Society’s printer of 56 years, Harrison and Sons, was responsible. But bad printing blocks were also to blame, as well as poor quality drawings. Yet, Harrisons ‘frankly admitted that some of the printing has been unsatisfactory, and “would assure us that every care will be taken to maintain a high standard of production”’. With Harrisons’ assurance, and a promised 7-8% reduction in costs for the Society, Harrisons were kept on as printer, but the ‘quality of their work’ was to be reviewed a few months later. The following year saw a permanent Publications Committee formed to meet annually to discuss and report on the text, paper and printing of publications.

The dissatisfaction with Harrisons is perhaps unsurprising when we realize that Harrisons was not particularly skilled in scientific printing. It is known most for the printing of H. M. stamps, and for acting as official printer to a number of government departments [ref to Harrisons biog.]. In this way it contrasted with the Society’s previous printer, Taylor and Francis, which was a major printer-publisher of scientific print throughout much of the nineteenth century. By transferring printing from Taylor to Harrisons in 1877, the Society was compromising quality for the reduced cost that Harrisons, as a much larger printer, could offer. But by 1934, the Society was beginning to question whether the quality of printing offered by Harrisons was sufficient. In fact, despite continued struggles with the rising cost of publishing, the Society adopted the Publications Committee’s somewhat costlier recommendations, showing that quality trumped cost in this case.

Even though the Society had stuck with Harrisons for almost sixty years, by 1937, in fact, the Society had moved printing once again, this time to the Cambridge University Press. Cambridge University Press had considerable experience printing scientific books by its University lecturers, and could meet Harrisons costs.

Source: CMP/14, 5 July 1934, p. 151-153, Royal Society Archives, London.