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 Transactions in the early eighteenth century

How much difference does the identity of the editor make to the content of a journal? In the early eighteenth century, the answer was ‘quite a bit!’. The first editor of the Philosophical Transactions, Henry Oldenburg had died in 1677, and subsequent editors had a tendency to reinvent the periodical (consciously or not) to suit their own interests or editorial abilities. Here, we present a series of charts to illustrate how the Transactions changed under the various editorial regimes of the early eighteenth century.

The editors of the period were: Hans Sloane, c1695-1714; Edmond Halley, 1714-1720; James Jurin, 1720-1727; William Rutty, 1727-1729; and Cromwell Mortimer, 1729-51.

Source of material – from the fellowship of the Royal Society, or not?

During Sloane’s editorship, the proportion of material contributed by fellows of the Royal Society increased significantly – and this trend continued under the subsequent editors.

Source of material – British or overseas?

The Transaction was more strongly British (with less overseas material) during Halley’s editorship .

Topic of material – broad disciplinary breakdowns

Sloane included far less material from astronomy and mathematics than did his successors

Where do the data come from?

This analysis is based on a manual count of sample volumes of the Transactions, carried out by Noah Moxham in 2019. It extends to 1738 because after that, the form/genre/remit of the Transactions had stabilised.


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.

Continue reading “Submissions in life sciences vs physical sciences, 1927-1989”