What is the role of the Council of the Royal Society?

The earliest statutes (or laws) of the Royal Society in 1663 (just three years after the first meeting of the Society) referred to the election of the ‘Council and Officers’. The Council was to consist of eleven members. These members included an elected President, two Secretaries, Treasurer, and Vice-President, as well as ordinary members. The Council was to oversee the activities of the Society, and to govern according to the statutes. Council meetings were held weekly throughout the Society’s season (November to November), with a long break in the summer months. Before 1752, the Council was not officially associated with the Philosophical Transactions, which was started by its Secretary, Henry Oldenburg, in 1665. It did, however, engage with Oldenburg on the publishing of the journal, even aiding its production inadvertently by honorary payment to Oldenburg as Secretary, who was solely responsible for production costs. Yet, in January 1752 George Parker, the Earl of Macclesfield and one of the Society’s Vice-Presidents, introduced a set of proposals that would formally establish the Transactions as a Royal Society publication, run ‘for the sole use and benefit of this Society’ and under its financial and editorial control (RS JBO/22 pp. 22-3, 23 January 1752). This transformation meant that the Council’s interest and involvement in the Transactions was now official. The editing of the journal was to be done directly by the Council, acting as the new ‘Committee of Papers’: ‘it was thought advisable, that a Committee of their [the Society’s] Members should be appointed to reconsider the papers read before them, and select out of them such, as they should judge most proper for publication in the future Transactions; which was accordingly done upon the 26 of March 1752’ (Phil Trans 1751, 47, Advertisement, unpagenated). The Society was adopting a collective editorship model of editing that meant there was no direct responsibility on the President or Secretaries. These reforms followed the publication of a series of brutal satires on the Society that had flagged the Society’s editorial process as arbitrary and lacking in transparency. The Society was keen to maintain neutrality, and to avoid responsibility for any claims made in its journal.

In the first volume published under the new editorial regime, the Society included an advertisement that would be printed until the late twentieth century. The statement made clear that the Society held no responsibility for facts given in its journal: ‘it is an established rule of the Society, to which they will always adhere, never to give their opinion, as a body, upon any subject, either of nature or art, that comes before them’ (Phil Trans 1751, 47, Advertisement, unpagenated). The Committee of Papers met weekly. They voted on papers by closed ballot. This was to ensure there could be no claims of unfair practice in choosing papers. There was therefore no discussion of papers, at least not officially; but, of course, papers were likely discussed over coffee or dinner among Council members.

Over time, the editorial process changed slightly. By the mid nineteenth century, the Council decided that papers for Transactions should be sent to at least one referee, and later two, who was often on the Committee of Papers (Council), at least initially. In addition, in 1896 the Sectional Committees were established to reduce the burden of the Council by administering papers, selecting referees, collating referee reports, and reporting back to the Committee of Papers with recommendations for publication. The Council rarely questioned Sectional Committees’ decisions on papers. As a result, the Council became less central to the publishing of the Transactions, and the Society’s other journal, the Proceedings. After 1896, the Council was largely rubber stamping decisions made by the Secretary and Chairman of the respective Sectional Committees. By 1868, the Committee of Papers was dismantled, to be replaced by an editorial board. The editorial board was chaired by the named editor of each journal.

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