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 Royal Society’s ‘other’ journals

The Proceedings and the Philosophical Transactions may have been the Royal Society’s best-known periodicals in the twentieth century, but they were not its only ones. It also published (and publishes) a number of periodicals aimed largely at an internal audience of Royal Society fellows.

The Year Book was published annually from 1897, combining the role of directory (of people and procedures) for the coming year, with reports on the previous year. Biographical Memoirs began as Obituary Notices in 1932, as a way of providing space for obituaries of deceased fellows to expand beyond the paragraph or so that could be fitted into the president’s annual address. Notes and Records began in 1938, providing an opportunity for conversations about how the Society operated, brief reports on its activities and meetings, and short articles about its history; it was only much later, in the early twenty-first century, that it became a journal aimed at professional historians of science. From 1980, there was also Royal Society News.

These publications were valuable for keeping the fellowship informed and engaged, but from a financial and editorial point of view, they absorbed resources and generated little economic return. When the Society began to focus more on ways of generating income from its journals, in the mid-1950s, its new sales and marketing team tried to increase awareness of the ‘other’ journals, in the hope of making some sales. The graph below shows that they were successful in the short-term, with paid-for subscriptions to all three publications increasing until the early 1970s… but then declining.

line graph showing circulation of Royal Society 'other journals', rising through the 1960s but declining after about 1970

The trend – of growth in the 1950s and 1960s, followed by long decline from the mid-1970s onwards – is similar to that for  subscriptions to Proceedings A and B and the Transactions A and B [see Figure 3 of ‘From philanthropy to business…‘].

The subscriber numbers were published in the Year Book from 1961, then moved to the Annual Report from 1979. They were no longer made public after 1989, but circulation figures were reported in an internal report in 1995. The later figures for N&R were provided by the Publishing team.

Time Taken to Publish

The time taken from receipt of a submission to publication is today frequently used as a ‘key performance indicator’ by academic journals. It is a (partial) measure of the speed or efficiency of the journal’s editorial and production processes (though also highly dependent on the author’s approach to revisions and proofs). The Royal Society has been recording and reporting this metric since the early 1950s, which allows us to produce the graph below:

For the period 1949 to 1986, we have data separately for the Society’s four journals. Articles in the two series of theTransactions typically took longer than those in the Proceedings, presumably because articles for the Transactions were longer than those for the Proceedings, and usually went through a stricter refereeing process (potentially involving more referees, and more author revisions).

Although the Royal Society’s staff claimed to care about speed of publication, the strong impression from the archive is that they were relatively powerless to do anything about it in the pre-1990 period. Referees were often blamed for being slow. Authors were sometimes blamed for being slow to make revisions. The printers and publishers (Cambridge University Press) were often blamed; in return, the Press pointed out that, if the Society would only commit to a regular publication day (on the same day each month), then the Press could plan the Society’s work into the printing schedule, rather than having to fit it in around other scheduled work. The move to a regular schedule for the Proceedings journals in 1982 did help in the short-term.

The improvement in editorial and production times since 2000 reflects the dramatic change in workflows in academic publishing. These include the use of author-generated electronic text (since the mid-1990s), which could feed into computerised typesetting processes (which had existed since the late 1970s, but had initially required re-keying); the introduction of editorial management software, and a close attention to staff efficiency (a new KPI); and digital printing technologies and online publishing.

Where do the data come from?

From 1951 to 1979, the average ‘time taken from receipt to publication’  for the previous two years was printed in the Society’s Year Books (and in the 1960s, the quickest and slowest times were also recorded, as well as the average times for various parts of the process). From 1979-81, these data appeared instead in the Annual Report. The data continued to be gathered until 1986, but were no longer made public.

The more modern data series begins in 1997. It comes from a spreadsheet maintained by Stuart Taylor, Director of Publishing. This data differs from the historic series because it relates only to the journals that are now defined as ‘research journals’ (and therefore, it excludes Transactions A and Transactions B). The modern data should be treated as a continuation of the data for Proceedings A and Proceedings B, but it does also include the new journals founded after 2003.

The Proceedings in the 20th Century

The Proceedings of the Royal Society has been printed since early 1831, when it reported the activities (or ‘proceedings’) of the weekly meetings of the Royal Society. The first meeting reported was that for DATE 1830. For the rest of the nineteenth century, it carried a mix of content: reports of meetings; annual accounts; summaries of papers presented to meetings of the Societies (similar to abstracts); short stand-alone papers; and occasional longer papers full of data, deemed insufficiently ‘significant’ for publication in the Transactions.

In the early twentieth century, after many decades of calls for reform to the Proceedings, some changes were made. From 1905, the Proceedings was divided into two series: Proceedings A, for physical and mathematical sciences; and Proceedings B, for biological sciences. From 1914, it focused on independent papers (not abstracts), of up to 24-pages; and these were now papers of ‘approved merit’, equivalent to those in the Transactions but shorter. The vast majority of content published by the Royal Society in the twentieth century appeared in the Proceedings, not in the Transactions.

Here, we present some overviews of the twentieth-century Proceedings.

The enforcement of the page limit for the Proceedings meant that its total page output per year was closely linked to the number of articles published. (This contrasts with the Transactions, where exceptions to the nominal limit of 40pages were far from infrequent.)

Prior to the Great War, Proceedings A and Proceedings B carried similar numbers of articles, but after the war, Proceedings A grew dramatically. It was edited by Arthur Schuster, and then James Jeans; and this was the period when the Royal Society was closely associated with the latest developments in modern physics (such as the research undertaken by Ernest Rutherford, who became president of the Society in the late 1920s).

Physical sciences continued to attract far more submissions than biological sciences (and to print more) through until the late 1970s. Since the re-launch of all the Society’s journals in 1990, Proceedings B has come to carry far more material than Proceedings A. The flood of submissions from researchers in molecular biology, genetics, and biomedical sciences enabled the Society to move Proceedings B from a monthly to a fortnightly schedule in DATE; and to launch new bioscience journals: Biology Letters in 2003; and Open Biology in DATE.

Rejection rates in life sciences vs physical sciences, 1950s-1980s

Effective rejection rate for physical science vs biological science journals at the Royal Society, 1952-86

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”

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.

Continue reading “What the history of copyright in academic publishing tells us about Open Research”

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.

Continue reading “Then and now – exploring diversity in peer review at the Royal Society”

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.”

Continue reading “Ownership and control of scientific journals: the view from 1963”