The Proceedings of the Royal Society has been printed since early 1831, when it reported the activities (or ‘proceedings’) of the weekly meetings of the Royal Society. The first meeting reported was that for DATE 1830. For the rest of the nineteenth century, it carried a mix of content: reports of meetings; annual accounts; summaries of papers presented to meetings of the Societies (similar to abstracts); short stand-alone papers; and occasional longer papers full of data, deemed insufficiently ‘significant’ for publication in the Transactions.
In the early twentieth century, after many decades of calls for reform to the Proceedings, some changes were made. From 1905, the Proceedings was divided into two series: Proceedings A, for physical and mathematical sciences; and Proceedings B, for biological sciences. From 1914, it focused on independent papers (not abstracts), of up to 24-pages; and these were now papers of ‘approved merit’, equivalent to those in the Transactions but shorter. The vast majority of content published by the Royal Society in the twentieth century appeared in the Proceedings, not in the Transactions.
Here, we present some overviews of the twentieth-century Proceedings.
The enforcement of the page limit for the Proceedings meant that its total page output per year was closely linked to the number of articles published. (This contrasts with the Transactions, where exceptions to the nominal limit of 40pages were far from infrequent.)
Prior to the Great War, Proceedings A and Proceedings B carried similar numbers of articles, but after the war, Proceedings A grew dramatically. It was edited by Arthur Schuster, and then James Jeans; and this was the period when the Royal Society was closely associated with the latest developments in modern physics (such as the research undertaken by Ernest Rutherford, who became president of the Society in the late 1920s).
Physical sciences continued to attract far more submissions than biological sciences (and to print more) through until the late 1970s. Since the re-launch of all the Society’s journals in 1990, Proceedings B has come to carry far more material than Proceedings A. The flood of submissions from researchers in molecular biology, genetics, and biomedical sciences enabled the Society to move Proceedings B from a monthly to a fortnightly schedule in DATE; and to launch new bioscience journals: Biology Letters in 2003; and Open Biology in DATE.
Academic authors in the twenty-first century have become used to submitting an ‘abstract’ of their paper alongside the full text – but abstracts were originally something written by another person.
The practice of ‘abstracts’ arose from a recognition of the value of providing short summaries of a paper, for the benefit of those people who were not able to access the full original. For instance, in the late 18th century, the Royal Society used the term ‘abstract’ to describe the summary of a paper that was written into the minute-books by the secretary after a paper had been read out loud at a meeting. Continue reading “Where did the practice of ‘abstracts’ come from?”
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.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the weekly meetings of the Royal Society were important sites for the communication of scientific knowledge. The papers presented at the meeting were almost all published in the Society’s Transactions, and from the 1850s they were at least all printed as abstracts in the Proceedings of the Society. The interplay between the meetings and publication was important as the meetings were the first public presentation of a paper, which might not appear in print for several months. Thus, those attending the meeting were aware of the results of new experiments or hear first about a new species before any formal publication. Scientific weeklies and newspapers might have communicated in short what was presented at the Society’s meeting, providing a condensed version of a paper read. The actual published paper in Transactions was thus potentially preceded by considerable interest and discussion. Despite the fact that there was increasing pressure to reform the meetings due to competition from other modes of scientific print, Society meetings retained their primacy throughout this period. This changed in 1892 when the Society’s Standing Orders stated that even if a paper’s title was read only, a paper could be considered for publication. Of the communication that would be read there was now to be a distinction between papers which ‘the author is prepared to illustrate by experiments, diagrams &c., or which is likely to give rise to discussion’. This marked a shift since it meant that a proportion of the papers accepted for publication would be read at a meeting, rather than a proportion of the papers read at the meeting being published, as was the previous practice. This was an important moment, representing a tacit acknowledgement of the subordination of meetings and the primacy of print publication.
Source: Council Meeting Papaers/6: 18 February 1892, p. 398-400, Royal Society Archives, London.