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.