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.

Closing paragraph of LNG Filon’s memo to the Royal Society, RS CMP/14 9 July 1936

The Royal Society’s Publication Committee had just recommended a series of changes to the arrangements for improving the physical quality of the Society’s journals (including moving to the University Printers at Cambridge), but Filon was expressing  concern about the intellectual quality of the journals. Long before the impact factor or metrics, Filon noted how useful it was for grant and appointment panels to be able to use the reputation of a journal as a proxy for the quality of its contents.

As a former vice-chancellor of University College London, Filon was well-versed in academic politics. He would have chaired plenty of committees scrutinising the CVs and publication lists of hopeful academics, and heard the arguments between academics (most of whom would not be specialists in the candidate’s field) as they tried to distinguish quality from “a spate of trivial papers”.

The context of academic politics and prestige informed the memorandum Filon sent to the Royal Society (considered at a meeting on July 9, 1936). The real point of the memo is his concern that papers published in Society’s Proceedings were no longer reliably high quality (or, as Filon puts it, “of critical importance”).

He blamed the growing amount of “routine research” produced by the growing numbers of postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers, i.e. “young and comparatively untrained men”. According to Filon, much of this work was of “secondary importance”, and would not formerly (before the Great War) have been “either offered or accepted” by the Royal Society.

Filon felt that too much of this apparently “routine research” was now being published by the Royal Society. This was increasing the bulk and cost of the publications, and also risked damaging the reputation of the Society’s journals, and hence their usefulness as markers of quality for appointment panels.

The editorial processes of the Society’s journals at this time relied entirely on the fellows of the Society. Papers had to be submitted via a fellow (a ‘communicator’), and would be refereed by one or more fellows. Filon felt that fellows who were laboratory heads were finding it “difficult to refuse the request by a student or a member of his staff to submit a paper”, and were thus failing in their duty to the Society as communicators.

He also worried that fellows acting as referees might “not unnaturally, hesitate to recommend the rejection” of a paper “vouched for by a Fellow of some reputation”.

The Society’s council presumably agreed with at least some of Filon’s concerns, for they sent a reminder to all fellows about the duties of communicators and referees, and in 1937, revised the guidance on these matters in the Society’s standing orders.

It should be noted that Filon never claimed that the allegedly “routine research” of early-career researchers should not be published. But he felt that work that was “sound so far as it goes”, or involved “the accumulation of data” or “the elaboration of minor details” should be published elsewhere, not by the Royal Society.

In the age of print and paper, this was not an unreasonable stance: the Society could not afford to publish all the “sound” work that was being produced. In the digital age, things are different, and in 2014, the Society launched Royal Society Open Science, which uses objective peer-review” and aims to publish “all articles which are scientifically sound and useful to the community”.

Filon’s 1936 memo is one of the earliest pieces of evidence we have yet found linking editorial processes (including, but not only, the role of referees) explicitly with  intellectual quality. (For an extended discussion of the roles of refereeing at the Royal Society, see Moxham and Fyfe 2017)

It is also the earliest evidence we have yet found of a recognition that journal brand or reputation was being used as a proxy for the quality of the papers published in it. (The Journal Impact Factor was not launched until 1975, see Archambault and Lariviere 2009).

Historical source reference: Royal Society Council Minutes, vol. 14, 9 July 1936.

 

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.

Throughout the period from 1927 to 1989, the Society was receiving more submissions from the physical sciences (series A) than from the life sciences (series B). But by the 1970s, the gap was closing (and now, in the early twenty-first century, biological science submissions outweigh those from the physical sciences).

The effect of the Second World War is quite clear.

It is also clear that, although analyses of Web of Science and similar databases suggest that the number of scientific papers published in the world was increasing throughout the twentieth century (and even more rapidly after the war), this expansion was not happening at the Royal Society. (Most likely, it was taking place in the many new journals being created in the 1950s and 1960s.)

The dominance of the physical sciences at the Royal Society is a legacy of the late nineteenth century, when many of the most prominent figures in the Royal Society’s administration were physical scientists (e.g. George Gabriel Stokes, secretary and later president; Lord Rayleigh; William Thomson Lord Kelvin).

Unlike other scientific disciplines, physicists did not have a specialist learned society of their own until 1873 (when the Physical Society was formed). Thus, while geologists, astronomers, botanists, zoologists and chemists had alternative places to meet and to publish, physicists continued to focus on the Royal Society. They were heavily involved in running it, and published lots of papers with it.

The Society was aware of the relative lack of papers being submitted from the biological sciences from at least the early twentieth century. From the 1950s, there were concerted efforts to recruit more papers from the life sciences, and fellows were urged to help. The upwards trend of this graph from the 1970s suggests that it may finally have been working.

Where do the data come from?

From the 1850s until the 1980s, all papers submitted to the Society (regardless of which journal they were intended for) were recorded in a series of ledgers known as the ‘Register of Papers’. From 1927, those ledgers were kept in two series, A=physical sciences; B=biological sciences, reflecting the two series of Transactions (split in 1887) and of Proceedings (splitin 1905).

From 1927, the editorial staff responsible for maintaining the ‘Register of Papers’ recorded the number of submissions per month in a table inside the front cover, along with running totals. So, from this point onwards, it is relatively easy to compare the number of submissions coming from the life sciences and the physical sciences.

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. The expectation was that researchers and institutions in the physical sciences would read series A; while researchers and institutions in the biological sciences would prefer series B. There appear to have been no particular efforts to defend the value of a generalist periodical.

Less than ten years later, the Society was struggling with another effect of specialization. The Council acting as the Committee of Papers was supposed to be able to judge, with the assistance of referees, whether a paper should be published or not. The increased rate of submissions meant that the Committee was already over-burdened; and few of its members could evaluate the significance of specialised papers. The referees could do that, but it was also difficult for the secretaries (one for physical sciences, one for biological sciences) to choose appropriate referees: they were limited by their own networks and knowledge.

In 1895, the Council decided to create individual committees with specialist knowledge to relieve Council of the burden of editorial decision-making, and to ensure specialist knowledge was appropriately involved. These were called Sectional Committees, consisting of the Mathematical, Physics and Chemistry, Botany, Geology, Physiology, and Zoology committees. (The committees were similar to the ‘scientific committees’ that had existed from 1838 to 1848.)

The sectional committees (or, usually, their chairmen) chose the referees, and made recommendations about whether and where to publish (Transactions or Proceedings). These were generally rubber-stamped by the Committee of Papers, which only became directly involved if there was a dispute or a difficulty of some kind.

This marks an important decentralisation of editing at the Society. Working with the Secretary on the A or B side, the chairmen of the Sectional Committees became important figures in publishing at the Society. While meetings were held by the Sectional Committees several times per year, the majority of decisions were made by the chairman and the Secretary, at times seeking members’ opinions via correspondence. In the 1960s, this editorial role was deemed to be so important that it was separated from the other work of the sectional committees (e.g. in fellowship nominations), and allocated to Fellows designated as Associate Editors (from 1969). The sectional committees continued to exist, but were no longer involved in publication decisions.

Meanwhile, the question of generalist journals in an age of specialisation remained fraught. In the early twentieth century, there had been suggestions to split Proceedings along similar lines to Transactions. This had been opposed by some prominent fellows, on the grounds that there was value in a generalist journal which would let researchers see what was going on in nearby fields. The chemist, Henry Armstrong, argued in 1902 that the Society’s generalist stance could make it a uniquely ‘favourable.. platform for the discussion of borderland problems’. But this was not pursued. And Proceedings was indeed split in 1905.

There were abortive discussions about creating a series C at various points in the twentieth century: perhaps for Chemistry; or for Applied Science.

At the start of the twenty-first century, the Royal Society returned to Armstrong’s idea of interdisciplinarity, and launched Interface specifically to deal with research that spanned the A and B series.

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.

1925: Printed referee report forms (used since the 1890s)

In the 1890s, the Royal Society had introduced a set of 7 questions for referees, in the hope of structuring the reports (which were sometimes extremely long-winded!). These were originally hand-written into the covering letter, but were quickly turned into a printed standardised report form, sent to each referee with the manuscript to be evaluated. Referees were encouraged to return their reports within 14 days – a deadline that was routinely breached.

By the early twentieth century, these report forms included clear instructions for referees, including advising them of the confidentiality attached to the papers referred to them (see image). It was routine for the author’s name to be written on the form: refereeing was single-blind, not double-blind. At this time referees were always Fellows of the Society (and their names and reports were kept confidential), but the majority of papers came from those outside the Fellowship.

The report forms made it possible for a referee to present an extremely succinct report, as was the case with Professor H. Lamb’s report on this 1925 paper by ‘Mrs. H. Ayrton’. Hertha Ayrton’s work in electrical engineering had previously been published with and exibited to the Society, but her status as a married woman had prevented the Royal Society accepting a fellowship nomination certificate in her name in 1902. (Her husband was also a well-known electrical engineer, and Fellow of the Royal Society, William Ayrton.)

The printed forms were also an attempt to standardize the refereeing process, or to at least advise referees on how to write an effective report. The Society never officially instructed referees until this date; referees were automatically expected to know how to write a report. Guidance on this continued to develop. By 1926, ‘Instructions to Referees’ was part of the Society’s Standing Orders.

Source: Box RR, 1925-1926, Royal Society Archives, London.

1920: Emergency Finance Committee

In 1920, the Society was once again anxious about the cost of publishing, and the ongoing deficit in the publishing account. This year it was particularly heightened owing to the aftermath of the war, which meant increases to printing costs and salaries, whilst the income of the Society remained static. As a result, the Council appointed an Emergency Finance Committee.

Several Fellows were appointed committee members, including James Jeans, who was current Secretary of the Society (1919-1929). The suggestions to counter the impending deficit on the Society’s general account that were adopted by Council included: transferring unexpended balances from government research grants to the general account; raising Fellows’ annual subscriptions to £5 (from £4); increasing new Fellows’ entrance fees to £20, (from £10; £1 covered by Fee Reduction Fund), £10 of which to be covered by the Society’s Fee Reduction Fund; allowing Fellows to receive A or B of Transactions and Proceedings only (except when approved by Council), rather than both A and B; raising the cost of public subscription to the Society’s publications by 50%; cutting the list of institutions receiving Society publications for free; limiting the expenditure for the Library Committee (for purchasing books); and making ‘an appeal to private generosity’. One of the biggest pressure on the Society’s finances was printing. This was partly owing to the work done on the International Catalogue, and on the Catalogue of Scientific papers – both of which involved collating a record of scientific papers alphabetically [or chronologically?], and were extremely expensive in terms of printing. Yet, the Society’s journals were also to blame. The Emergency Committee therefore suggested that ‘every possible economy be effected in the Society’s publications consistent with their maintaining their present scope and character’. The Society was unwilling to drastically change the Transactions, for instance by imposing strict page limits; this was seen as an unnecessary risk to the purpose and scope of the journal.

This episode in the Society’s history is important, not because of the effect these changes had on income – the Society continued to lose money on its publications – but, rather, because it signified a slight change in the Society’s attitude to finances. While the Society had historically relied almost completely on donations and grants in order to cover costs, never paying much attention to its income stream, it was now attempting to increase its income by raising Fellows’ contributions and the sale price of its journals. The results were not enough to propel the Society into an income-generating model, but they were a sign that some at the Royal Society were willing to think more commercially about the Society’s publishing activities. Commercial agendas would not have any great effect on the Society’s finances until much later in the twentieth century.

Source: CMB/86b Emergency Finance report, 20 July 1920, Royal Society Archives, London.

1914: Proceedings recognised as a research journal

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Philosophical Transactions was the Society’s only publishing organ. This changed in 1832 when the Proceedings was established, first as a retrospective record of all papers published by the Society, and then soon after as a record of all papers read before the Society. Thus, if an author got their paper read before the Society, they were guaranteed a short abstract published in Proceedings. The Proceedings, however, was at times the location for full research papers, usually those too short to be considered for Transactions but longer than abstract length. This became an increasing practice towards the end of the nineteenth century. By 1914, the Standing Orders of the Royal Society were changed to reflect the different purpose of Proceedings. Now it would contain abstracts of papers published in the Philosophical Transactions, but the main content was papers ‘of approved merit not more than twenty-four pages in length, and not containing numerous elaborate illustrations’. The Philosophical Transactions was for ‘papers of approved merit which contain numerous or elaborate illustrations, or which cannot without detriment to their scientific value be condensed into the space reserved for papers in the Proceedings’. The other distinction was that papers for Transactions should be sent to two referees, while Proceedings papers <24 pages in length could be passed for printing without being referred.

The new Standing Orders simply formalised what had been the usual practice for several decades. They also marked, however, an important development which meant that the Proceedings was increasingly an attractive alternative to Transactions because of its shorter lag-time between submission and print due to the speedier decision making process that generally avoided referees. Some scientists were keen to take advantage of it, choosing the Proceedings to publish papers they would have submitted to Transactions fifty years earlier. In reality, some Proceedings papers were refereed, and increasingly so as the twentieth century progressed [some figures from Aileen’s peere paper?]. But initially, Proceedings remained less tied to the long refereeing process. The Proceedings was also attractive because it appeared in print more frequently than the Transactions, which was published biannually. By the 1920s Proceedings was monthly, although the publishing date remained unfixed. This meant that a paper could be submitted, read (even just its title), and sent to the printers within a few days, available in print within a few weeks, rather than a few months as was often the case with Transactions papers. The Transactions was therefore no longer the Society’s main publishing organ; the Proceedings was becoming a popular site for speedier publication. While the Transactions was attractive to authors because of its elaborate illustrations, the Proceedings provided a way to publish with the Society without sacrificing speedier publication.

Source: CMP/10, 21 May 1914, p. 428-440, Royal Society Archives, London.

1907: Fellow’s memorandum on changing the Society’s publishing practices

Up until the late twentieth century, the Society had rarely, if ever, made a profit on its publications. It frequently transferred funds from its general account, and from special grants, to cover the cost of production for the Philosophical Transactions and the Proceedings. Fellow of the Society, and zoologist, E. Ray Lankester attempted to reduce the financial burden on the Society from publications by suggesting ways of lessening cost. Lankester believed more ‘stringent selection of papers to be published’ was necessary, and that an estimation of the cost of each paper before publication would help to curtail rising costs. His more unusual suggestions included allowing Fellows to automatically publish short (1 ½ pages) papers in the Proceedings without refereeing or even approval by the Committee of Papers; he also thought having a fixed monthly publishing date would make Proceedings more effective. With regard to any other papers in the Proceedings, they could not exceed six pages in length. The Philosophical Transactions, on the other hand, was to be the location of full research papers with limited restrictions. The division of labour between Proceedings and Transactions was not far from the actual situation in 1907 when increasingly Proceedings was the site of short (12 pages) research papers, rather than just abstracts of papers in Transactions, as it had begun. By 1914, Proceedings had become a research journal on a par with Transactions, papers limited to 24 pages in length. Lankester’s memo. was not far from reality, but his proposal to allow Fellows to publish anything they wished at short notice in the Proceedings was, perhaps unsurprisingly, never adopted.

Estimating the cost of papers, however, was something the Society did trial between 1907 and 1914. The length of paper, number of illustrations, unusual type-setting, and graphical images were all taken into consideration. While this did not become standard practice post-1914, by the 1920s the Society was sending the estimated cost of papers to referees along with the referred paper. In this way the cost of publishing became a measure of the suitability of a paper for the Society’s journals.

Source: Lankester’s Memo Committee of Papers CMB/90/5, 24 October 1907.

1987-1988: The Royal Society ad hoc Publications Policy Committee

In 1987 the Royal Society recognized that the journal publishing journal was changing, predominantly due to new technologies and new commercial structures competing to milk profit from academic writing. The Society, as has been the case for most of its history, decided to discuss these topics and more by forming an ad hoc committee; the Publications Policy Committee, or PPC (not to be confused with PPC2 in the 1990s!)

The purpose of the PPC, chaired by Sir Roger Elliott (and consisting of 17 other men), was to concentrate primarily on the Proceeding and Transactions, and to address the way in which the journals could best serve the needs of the scientific community but also to consider their important financial contribution to the Society. Thus, it is in the ad hoc PPC meetings that we find the first references to potential profit making through the journal’s in modern Royal Society history.

The PPC discussed the poblems with the Royal Society’s journals’ structure in the 1970s and 80s:

  • “Despite their theoretically interdisciplinary nature, Proc And Trans concentrated on certain subject areas and omitted others entirely, and risked covering too few popular areas of science to remain viable.
  • And Trans were not automatically chosen for people’s best work, and were low on ‘impact factor’ lists
  • Long papers restricted breath of subject coverage
  • The philosophy and role of the journals was not clear to Fellows, readers or subscribers: Trans B., for example, contained very detailed reports of an archival nature on single organisms.”

These were big problems, and the PPC tried various methods for improving the journals. One was to compare the journals with others, especially the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and Comptes Rendues.

They went on to discuss possible avenues for change, including publishing more and quicker. However, some members of the committee had “concerns about the relation of very rapid publication to quality of refereeing, and about the value of such papers as properly recognizable scientific papers.”

Large parts of the PPC meetings were set aside to discuss matters of finance, journal production, distribution and marketing. It was found that: “The net income to the Society from the journals was not high by current standards, but it could not be increased by raising the prices”. The solution was to be found in revamping the editorial structure of the journals, introducing a editor for each publication:

Outline of the new model (came into effect in 1990):

  • Proceedings A would continue at its present issue size and frequency, with a section given to ‘rapidly-published short papers’ (4–6 pages) in defined subject areas.
  • Proceedings B would be changed to publish only substantive papers of up to 12 pages in length (present average 18 pages). Aim to publish all papers within three months of receipt. Streamline refereeing procedure required.
  • Transactions A would become a specialist themes journal, comprising A-side discussion meeting reports, review lectures and groups of (review) papers on specific topics.
  • Transactions B would consist of longer original papers together with the B-side discussion meeting reports and review lectures.

The case for the model was that the PPC considered the Council’s concern “over the vulnerability of the income from traditional broad-coverage journals in a market place increasingly oriented to specialist journals”, and the Society’s objective of disseminating scientific knowledge. Thus, at the heart of the changes were concerned both of the Society’s first publication-related goal; dissemination; – and finances. These became the “twin goals” of Royal Society publishing henceforth.

(From CMB/328b, Ad hoc Publishing Policy Committee 1987-1988, Royal Society Archives).

 

 

1936: Royal Society and Cambridge University Press

The Royal Society have used a number of printers since the beginning of its journals. In the early 1930s the Society had started exploring new printers again, after years with Harrisons. After a tender competition in 1935, the Society hires Cambridge University Press (CUP). The fellowship had many links with CUP, including FRS and Biological Secretary Archibald V. Hill. Our research shows that Hill was very involved in the decision to move printers, and that he took control and showed interest in publishing at a time when other officers did not. The documents below show the Publications Committee’s decision to hire CUP.

Click on the images to enlarge.