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.

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.

1886-1887: Changing the way the Philosophical Transactions is published

The publishing of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions underwent considerable transformation in 1886 when a Publications Committee was appointed ‘to consider and report to the Council upon the mode and regulations of publication at present adopted by the Society, and what changes, if any, may be advantageously introduced’. The Society was facing increasing specialization in science and continued growth in submissions. The Committee consisted of the Officers of the Society (President, Secretaries, and Treasurer), as well as several past presidents. Advice was also garnered from the Presidents of the Linnean, Geological, Zoological, and Chemical Societies.

Three months later, the Committee returned with recommendations. After months of discussion by the Council, they adopted several of its changes. The most significant was that the Transactions was to be split into two separate series, one physical (A) and one biological (B). The motivation was not stated, but it seemed that the Society was struggling to keep on top of the growth in submissions, and the increasing specialization of science. Splitting the journal made sense if the Society hoped to attract authors who were eager to publish in a more specialized journal. Yet, splitting in two still meant the Transactions maintained its relatively unique attraction as a general research journal. It also meant that Fellows could now receive one series of the journal depending on their research and interests. In fact, papers were from this date published separately (and only later in volumes), meaning that by the late nineteenth century the separate paper had surpassed the published volume to become the main mode of scientific communication.

Source: Council Minute Papers/6: 2 February 1887, p123-124, Royal Society Archives, London.

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).



1963: ‘Self-help for Learned Societies’ pamphlet

In 1963 the Royal Society and the Nuffield Foundation, alongside several smaller and larger learned societies, decided to meet in order to improve connections and network. But what should the first meeting, planned for the Royal Society with tea and coffee, be about? Publishing was chosen as a good and topical issue, at a time when post-war publishing rates and commercial publishing competition was on most society publishers minds. The Nuffield Foundation engaged Dr Frank V Morley, a scientists with experience in publishing and interviewing, to ‘sit at the bed sides’ of various learned societies and write down what ‘ailed’ them. The Society’s President Howard Florey, the officers, and the very active Assistant Secretary David Christie Martin were also involved in the preparations. Morley’s pamphlet, ‘Self-help for Learned Societies’ gathered everything he had learned about the state of publishing in Britain, and suggested plenty of changes. It was circulated as a draft in advance of the meeting at the Royal Society, and later also published as a pamphlet. ‘Self-help…’ provides an entertaining (Morley was famously charismatic and funny) and informative snapshot of learned societies in postwar and 1960s Britain. Below are some snaps from the booklet, but for more you’ll have to read our book about the history of Philosophical Transactions; – or get in touch in the comment section or via @ahrcphiltrans.

Click to enlarge.