This graph offers additional detail on the overall rejection rates at the Royal Society’s Transactions and Proceedings in the second half of the twentieth century. As I discussed in that earlier post, the Royal Society historically had a low rejection rate (around 10-15%), due to the filtering-out of papers that was done pre-submission, since papers had to be submitted via a fellow. Continue reading “Rejection rates in life sciences vs physical sciences, 1950s-1980s”
I looked at the numbers of submissions to the Royal Society journals in an earlier post. Here, we look at the relationship between the number of submissions, the rejection rate and the sustainability of peer review. Continue reading “More submissions, more rejections: the Royal Society Journals since the 1950s”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.