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.
Until 1990, to submit a paper to the Society one had to be a Fellow or be acquainted with a Fellow who was willing to communicate a paper on your behalf. The communicators’ role was therefore the first check whether a paper was appropriate for the Society, both to be read and potentially to be published. The Society was therefore not accessible to everyone.
Potential authors who were not (yet) Fellows needed to find a sponsor or patron among those who were Fellows. Prior to the 1847 reforms, such patronage links were often social or familial, and communicating a paper implied vouching for the social credentials of the author. After the reforms, with an increased emphasis on active scientific research, Fellows tended to communicate papers for other people in their fields – junior colleagues or, latterly, PhD students and research fellows – and the act of ‘communicating’ a paper came to imply approval of its contents. By 1900, over half of the papers submitted to the Royal Society were authored by non-Fellows, all of whom had managed to find a contact at the Society to submit it.
This system was clearly easier to navigate for those who were well-networked in British scientific circles, but some international authors (especially colonial authors) and some women certainly did manage to submit papers to the Society.
The earliest paper by a woman is a short letter in 1787 from Caroline Herschel to Charles Blagden describing her observations of a comet. Herschel was acquainted with Blagden, then the Society’s secretary, through her astronomer brother William (FRS). The mathematician Mary Somerville also had a paper published in the Transactions in 1826, but it was not until the 1880s that a small but steady trickle of papers by women were submitted. These women were mostly either related to Fellows, or else graduates of the Cambridge women’s colleges (and thus connected to Cambridge’s scientific networks).
No woman was able to act as a communicator for other authors’ papers until the first female fellows were elected in 1945 (the biochemist Marjory Stevenson, and the crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale).
Rosalind Elsie Franklin (1920-1958) is becoming more known for her contribution to X-ray crystallography and the discovery of the DNA double helix. Brenda Maddox’ excellent biography, ‘The Dark Lady of DNA’ is key reading for anyone interested in Franklin, women in science, or the DNA-discovery saga. But because Franklin was never made an FRS, her times at the Royal Society have often been overlooked. In fact, she both visited, spoke and published with the Royal Society, as this example of a 1950s referee report shows. Note the questions referees are asked, and that the referees in question are JD Bernal and Dorothy Hodgkin, both huge names in the field by 1951. Franklin’s paper was well received by both, as you can see, and published by the Royal Society. Today, a photograph of a young, smiling Franklin hangs to the right of the main staircase when you walk into the Royal Society. Despite her lack of FRS status, her work was recognized by the Society in the fifties; – and today through the Rosalind Franklin award and lecture.
Following the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919, the Royal Society nominated and elected its first female Fellows in 1945. But long before this female authors had published in the Society’s Philosophical Transactions and the Proceedings. There had been a steady, small trickle of female authors since the 1890s. They would often publish with husbands or colleagues, but there was also a noticeable group of solo female authors, often tied to the early women’s right movement.
Until 1990 (there was a brief experiment in 1974), authors needed to go through a fellow in order to have their paper officially communicated, reviewed and published at the Society. The official role of a communicator was thus held only by men for most of the Society’s history. By the 1960s crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale and biochemist Dorothy Hodgkin were the most active female referees and occasional communicators of papers at the Society, having been elected to the Fellowship in 1945 and 1947 respectively, and having since been joined by almost 200 other women.
Despite this expansion, male referees sometimes included their personal opinions about female authors in their referee reports. Some female authors were cautioned against being ‘too ambitious’, or for using ‘emotional’ language. The private lives and marriage status of female authors were sometimes discussed too, not in terms of who they published with, but whether they would stay in the field after starting a family. Comments like these would be cut and pasted by the Secretary and then sent to authors, so that they did not see the original report or such remarks. Although opinions such as these were of their time, comments about female author’s work would sometimes be judged along these lines until the 1980s, when the referee reports became more formalized and professional in tone.
Despite this, sexism in referee reports only occurred in a small number of cases. On a whole, men and women reviewed each other with great respect, often adding pages of extra comments to help the author get their manuscript out. This collegiate tone is reflected in referee reports throughout the twentieth and twenty-first century at the Society. This, along with increasing gender diversity in journal editorial committees, makes the comments about ambition and gender in the past all the more disappointing.
There are still firsts’ happening at the Society in modern decades. Professor Georgina Mace (above, right) and Dame Professor Linda Patridge (above, left) became the first female editors of any Society journal in the 2010s (both of Philosophical Transactions B) and the first female Head of Publishing is on her way in in 2017.
Follow us on Twitter at @ahrcphiltrans for updates on this topic. We are currently collecting all our gender material for a longer paper about the history of women and publishing at the Royal Society. There’s a lot more to say; – get in touch if you have things to add!