This is an extended version of a piece written for Research Fortnight. To celebrate its 350th anniversary, Phil. Trans. is also soon to publish a special issue containing some of its “greatest hits”, along with accompanying commentaries explaining their significance and impact. I have written a piece for it on Alan Turing’s classic 1952 paper on morphogenesis, which I’ll put up here when the time comes. The exhibition described below is small but fun, and if you’re in the neighbourhood of the Royal Society, well worth a look.
The scientific journal is 350 years old this year. As the first real scientific journal, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, which published its first issue in January 1665, can claim to have set the scene for the entire scientific literature of today, which now counts its titles in the tens of thousands.
This history is explored in a new exhibition at the Royal Society in London to mark the anniversary. It has been put together by a team at the University of the University of St Andrews in Scotland, led by historian Aileen Fyfe, that has studied the development of the journal. The exhibition includes a copy of the first issue, the referee’s report on Charles Darwin’s sole publication in the journal (a minor work of 1839 about Scottish roads) and the handwritten manuscript submitted by James Clerk Maxwell in 1865 in which he proposes that light is an electromagnetic wave.
“Phil. Trans. was central to the whole idea of a scientific journal”, Fyfe says. Yet you need only glance at the first page of the first issue to see that the resemblances with the modern scientific journal were at that stage remote. Among this ‘accompt of the present Undertakings, Studies, and Labours of the Ingenious in many considerable parts of the World’, one could find the following:
"An account of the Improvement of Optick Glasses at Rome. Of the Observation made in England, of a Spot in one of the Belts of the Planet Jupiter. Of the motion of the late Comet predicted… An Experimental History of Cold… A Relation of a very odd Monstrous Calf. Of a peculiar lead-ore in Germany… Of the New American Whale-fishing about the Bermudas. A Narrative concerning the success of the Pendulum-watches at Sea for the Longitudes… A Catalogue of the Philosophical Books publisht by Monsieur de Fermat, Counsellour at Tholouse, lately dead."
In its early days Phil. Trans. published all kinds of strange, curious and often fanciful accounts of phenomena related to the Royal Society by its network of “virtuosi”: men (almost without exception) interested in the natural world, inventors, travellers, dilettantes and armchair philosophers. The selection of what to include and exclude was made solely by the Royal Society’s energetic secretary, the German natural philosopher Henry Oldenburg.
Oldenburg was the original networker, a multi-linguist who cultivated connections with all the “experimental philosophers” of seventeenth-century Europe. His approach is exemplified in a letter he sent in 1667 to the Italian naturalist Marcello Malpighi on Sicily:
"We earnestly beg you to be so good as to let us know of all that is noteworthy – of which there is so much in your island – concerning plants, or minerals, or animals and insects, especially the silkworm and its productions, and finally concerning meteorology and earthquakes, known to you or to other ingenious men."
The avowed intention of the Royal Society was to collect facts without rushing to formulate theories about them – witness Isaac Newton’s famous (and somewhat disingenuous) “hypotheses non fingo”. Yet Oldenburg’s choices reflected the spirit of his times, in which wealthy collectors and antiquaries stocked their cabinets with “curiosities” – strange and bizarre objects from around the world. Like them, the collectors of ‘facts’ at the Royal Society were often drawn to reports that were entertaining, amazing or strange rather than necessarily informative.
The editorial power wielded by Oldenburg – his contemporary Robert Hooke, demonstrator for the Royal Society, called him a “dog” for perceived biases in his record-taking – was inherited by his successors as secretary. So, however, was the considerable financial burden of producing the Transactions. But when in 1752 the Royal Society first took official responsibility for the journal (it had previously been something more akin to a news-sheet), the organization felt that it needed to think about its reputation. In the face of complaints about the poor quality of some of the content, which placed sensation before reliability, the council members figured that they needed a mechanism for making editorial decisions that were seen to be fair and well grounded.
At this time (and for many years subsequently), papers in Phil. Trans. were first read at the Society’s meetings before being published. So it was decided that Fellows would hold a secret ballot on whether, after hearing a contribution, it should be included for publication, with or without modifications. (Fyfe doubts whether this procedure was always followed to the letter.) It was a kind of peer review, after a fashion – albeit one conducted by what amounted to show of hands among a tiny clique.
In 1832 that procedure for collective editorial decision-making was extended when the Society began to solicit written reports from two reviewers – the first real instance of what we would now recognize as real peer review. Fyfe notes that some other societies were starting to introduce this system for their journals around the same time, but Phil. Trans. was certainly the most prestigious title to do so, and that the use of two referees was standard practice by the mid-nineteenth century. “Phil. Trans. became a modern scientific journal in the nineteenth century”, she says – indeed, it more or less created the template for what that meant.
The secretary for most of that century’s second half, the physicist George Stokes, was instrumental in this increasing professionalization of the publication process. His role, and that of his successors, was now becoming something like that of a journal editor as we know it today. It was during this period that commercial scientific journals began to flourish, such as the idiosyncratic Chemical News edited and published by the equally idiosyncratic William Crookes, and most famously Nature, started in 1869 by the astronomer Norman Lockyer. While these commercial ventures could publish what they liked – the peer review system at Nature was still very informal in the 1960s – learned journals such as Phil. Trans. were concerned to show their objectivity and impartiality: attributes that any modern scholarly journal now likes to claim.
This, however, was all relative. For one thing, until the 1970s, if you wanted to submit to Phil. Trans. but were not a Fellow of the Royal Society then you needed the blessing of someone who was. This meant that you needed to be plugged into the right networks, and it encouraged systems of patronage, even nepotism: Lord Kelvin was particularly active as a sponsor of submissions, often those of his former students. Schemes of this kind still persisted in recent times. Notably, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA only admitted regular submissions from non-members of the Academy without an NAS sponsor in 1995; and not until 2010, after much criticism, did the journal do away with the principle of “communicating” submissions via Academy members, which almost guaranteed publication.
What’s more, the Phil. Trans. referees came from a limited pool. In the mid-nineteenth century, about half of them were members of the Royal Society council, and all the others had to be Fellows.
The interesting question is how much these developments changed the nature of what was published. Pre-selection procedures by the Fellows doubtless excluded a lot of bad material, so Fyfe thinks that one of the main consequences of formal peer review was not that it raised the quality of published research so much as that it encouraged authors to develop a particular literary style to improve their chances: to reduce speculation and observe the brevity, sobriety and even blandness that some would say afflicts the scientific literature today. (Darwin’s paper was criticized by geologist Adam Sedgwick for its loquaciousness.)
With alternatives to the “standard model” of peer review now proliferating, from the “techniques-only” assessments of PLoS ONE and Scientific Reports to the increasing acceptance of preprint servers as venues of de facto publication, it seems particularly timely to consider how science publication evolved and acquired its customs and habits. Perhaps peer review has become something of a shibboleth. Certainly it seems sometimes to have mutated from a routine check and trash filter to a dictatorial, almost paranoid gatekeeper: biologists complain that no referee seems to consider they have done their job unless they have suggested half a dozen additional experiments. There is surely something in the famous suggestion that Watson and Crick’s 1953 paper would not have found favour with Nature’s reviewers today. And the broadening of reviewing networks, while surely beneficial in many ways, hasn’t eliminated accusations (some well founded) of favoritism, discrimination and bias towards big-name labs. There is a fine balance to be fund between rigour and permissiveness, one that can fall foul of conservatism and petty box-checking as much as caprice. The story of Phil. Trans. opens a lively window on that discussion.