Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society

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Title page to volume 1 of Philosophical Transactions

Philosophical Transactions later Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (Phil. Trans.) is a scientific journal published by the Royal Society. It was established in 1665,[1] making it the first journal in the world exclusively devoted to science. It is also the world's longest-running scientific journal. The slightly earlier Journal des sçavans published some science but also contained subject matter from other fields of learning, and its main content type was book reviews.[2][3][4] The use of the word "Philosophical" in the title refers to "natural philosophy", which was the equivalent of what would now be generically called "science".

Current publication[edit]

Magazine cover with photo of particle detector
Magazine cover with photo of trees
Philosophical Transactions A and B focus on respectively the physical and life sciences

In 1887 the journal expanded and divided into two separate publications, one serving the Physical Sciences (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Physical, Mathematical and Engineering Sciences) and the other focusing on the life sciences (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences). Both journals now publish themed issues and issues resulting from papers presented at the Discussion Meetings of the Royal Society. Primary research articles are published in the sister journals Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biology Letters, Journal of the Royal Society Interface, and Interface Focus.

Origins and History[edit]

The first issue, published 6 March 1665, was edited and published by the Society's first secretary, Henry Oldenburg, four-and-a-half years after the Royal Society was founded.[5] Its full title of the journal as given by Oldenburg, "Philosophical Transactions, Giving some Account of the present Undertakings, Studies, and Labours of the Ingenious in many considerable parts of the World". The Society's Council minutes dated 1 March 1664 (in the Julian calendar, equivalent to 1665 in the modern Gregorian system) ordered that "the Philosophical Transactions, to be composed by Mr Oldenburg, be printed the first Munday of every month, if he have sufficient matter for it, and that that tract be licensed by the Council of this Society, being first revised by some Members of the same". Oldenburg published the journal at his own personal expense and seems to have entered into an agreement with the Society's Council allowing him to keep any resulting profits. He was to be disappointed, however, since the journal performed poorly from a financial point of view during his lifetime, just about covering the rent on his house in Piccadilly.[6] Oldenburg put out 136 issues of the Transactions before his death in 1677.[7]

The familiar functions of the scientific journal – Registration (date stamping and provenance), Certification (peer review), Dissemination and Archiving − were introduced at inception by Philosophical Transactions. The beginnings of these ideas can be traced in a series of letters from Oldenburg to Robert Boyle:[8]

  • [24/11/1664] We must be very careful as well of regist'ring the person and time of any new matter, as the matter itselfe, whereby the honor of the invention will be reliably preserved to all posterity' (registration and archiving)
  • [03/12/1664] '...all ingenious men will thereby be incouraged to impact their knowledge and discoverys' (dissemination)
  • The Council minute of 1 March 1665 made provisions for the tract to be revised by members of the Council of the Royal Society, providing the framework for peer review to eventually develop, becoming fully systematic as a process by the 1830s.

The printed journal replaced much of Oldenburg's letter-writing to correspondents, at least on scientific matters, and as such can be seen as a labour-saving device. Oldenburg also described his journal as "one of these philosophical commonplace books", indicating his intention to produce a collective notebook between scientists.[9]

Issue 1 contained such articles as: an account of the improvement of optic glasses; the first report on the Great Red Spot of Jupiter; a prediction on the motion of a recent comet (probably an Oort cloud object); a review of Robert Boyle's 'Experimental History of Cold'; Robert Boyle's own report of a deformed calf; A report of a peculiar lead-ore from Germany, and the use thereof; "Of an Hungarian Bolus, of the Same Effect with the Bolus Armenus; Of the New American Whale-Fishing about the Bermudas," and "A Narrative Concerning the Success of Pendulum-Watches at Sea for the Longitudes". The final article of the issue concerned "The Character, Lately Published beyond the Seas, of an Eminent Person, not Long Since Dead at Tholouse, Where He Was a Councellor of Parliament". The eminent person recently deceased was Pierre de Fermat, although the issue failed to mention the last theorem.[10]

By the mid-eighteenth century, the most notable editors, besides Oldenburg, were Hans Sloane, James Jurin and Cromwell Mortimer.[7] In virtually all cases the journal was edited by the serving secretary of the society (and occasionally by both secretaries working in tandem). These editor-secretaries carried the financial burden of publishing the Philosophical Transactions. By the early 1750s, the Philosophical Transactions came under attack, most prominently by John Hill, an actor, apothecary, and naturalist. Hill published three works in two years, ridiculing the Royal Society and the Philosophical Transactions. The Society was quick to point out that it wasn’t officially responsible for the journal. Yet, in 1752 the Society took over the Philosophical Transactions. The journal would henceforth be published “for the sole use and benefit of this Society”; it would be financially carried by the members’ subscriptions; and it would be edited by the Committee of Papers.[11]

After the takeover of the journal by the Royal Society, management decisions including negotiating with printers and booksellers, were still the task of one of the Secretaries—but editorial control was exercised through the Committee of Papers. The Committee mostly based its judgements on which papers to publish and which to decline on the 300 to 500-word abstracts of papers read during its weekly meetings. But the members could, if they desired, consult the original paper in full.[12] Once the decision to print had been taken, the paper appeared in the volume for that year. It would feature the author’s name, the name of the Fellow who had communicated the paper to the Society, and the date on which it was read. The Royal Society covered paper, engraving and printing costs.[13] The Society found the journal to be a money-losing proposition: it cost, on average, upwards of £300 annually to produce, of which they seldom recouped more than £150. Because two-fifths of the copies were distributed for free to the journal’s natural market, sales were generally slow, and although back issues sold out gradually it would usually be ten years or more before there were fewer than 100 left of any given print run.[14]

During the Presidency of Joseph Banks the work of the Committee of Papers continued fairly efficiently, with the President himself in frequent attendance. There was a number of ways in which the President and Secretaries could bypass or subvert the Royal Society’s publishing procedures. Papers could be prevented from reaching the Committee by not allowing them to be read in the first place. Also—though papers were rarely subjected to formal review—there is evidence of editorial intervention, with Banks himself or a trusted deputy proposing cuts or emendations to particular contributions. Publishing in the Philosophical Transactions carried a high degree of prestige and Banks himself attributed an attempt to unseat him, relatively early in his Presidency, to the envy of authors whose papers had been rejected from the journal.[15]

Transactions continued steadily through the turn of the century and into the 1820s. In the in the late 1820s and early 1830s, a movement to reform the Royal Society rose. The reformers felt that the scientific character of the Society had been undermined by the admission of too many gentleman dilettantes under Banks. In proposing a more limited membership, to protect the Society’s reputation, they also argued for systematic, expert evaluation of papers for Transactions by named referees.[16]

Sectional Committees, each with responsibility for a particular group of disciplines, were initially set up in the 1830s to adjudicate the award of George IV’s Royal Medals. But individual members of these Committees were soon put to work reporting on and evaluating papers submitted to the Royal Society. These evaluations began to be used as the basis of recommendations to the Committee of Papers, who would then rubber-stamp decisions made by the Sectional Committees. Despite its flaws – it was inconsistent in its application and not free of abuses – this system remained at the heart of the Society’s procedures for publishing until 1847, when the Sectional Committees were dissolved. However, the practice of sending most papers out for review remained.[17]

During the 1850s, the cost of the Transactions to the Society was increasing again (and would keep doing so for the rest of the century); illustrations were always the largest outgoing. Illustrations had been a natural and essential aspect of the scientific periodical since the later seventeenth century. Engravings (cut into metal plates) were used for detailed illustrations, particularly where realism was required; while wood-cuts (and, from the early nineteenth century, wood-engravings) were used for diagrams, as they could be easily combined with letterpress.[18]

By the mid-1850s, the Philosophical Transactions was seen as a drain on the Society’s finances and the treasurer, Edward Sabine, urged the Committee of Papers to restrict the length and number of papers published in the journal. In 1852, for example, the amount expended on the Transactions was £1094, but only £276 of this was offset by sales income. Sabine felt this was more than the Society could comfortably sustain. The print run of the journal was 1000 copies. Around 500 of these went to the fellowship, in return for their membership dues, and since authors now received up to 150 off-prints for free, to circulate through their personal networks, the demand for the Transactions through the book trade must have been limited. The concerns with cost eventually led to a change in printer in 1877 from Taylor & Francis to Harrison & Sons – the latter was a larger commercial printer, able to offer the Society a more financially viable contract, although it was less experienced in printing scientific works. [19]

While expenditure was a worry for the Treasurer, as Secretary (from 1854), George Gabriel Stokes was preoccupied with the actual content of the Transactions and his extensive correspondence with authors over his thirty-one-years as Secretary took up most of his time beyond his duties as Lucasian Professor at Cambridge. The process of getting a paper published in the Transactions still relied on the reading of papers by a Fellow. By the mid-nineteenth century, many papers were sent immediately for printing in abstract form in Proceedings. But those which were being considered for printing in full in Transactions were usually sent to two referees for comment before the final decision was made by the Committee of Papers. During Stokes’s time, authors were given the opportunity to discuss their paper at length with him before, during and after its official submission to the Committee of Papers. [20]

Famous Contributors[edit]

Over the centuries, many important scientific discoveries have been published in the Philosophical Transactions. Famous contributing authors include Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, Michael Faraday, Edmond Halley and Charles Darwin. In 1672, the journal published Newton's first paper New Theory about Light and Colours,[21] which can be seen as the beginning of his public scientific career. The position of editor was sometimes held jointly and included William Musgrave (Nos 167 to 178) and Robert Plot (Nos 144 to 178).[22]

Pirate Bay Episode[edit]

In July 2011 programmer Greg Maxwell released through the The Pirate Bay, the nearly 19 thousand articles that had been published before 1923, and were therefore in the public domain. They had been digitized for the Royal Society by Jstor, for a cost of less than USD100,000, and public access to them was restricted through a paywall.[23][24] In October of the same year, the Royal Society released for free all its articles prior to 1941, but denied that this decision had been influenced by Maxwell's actions. [23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Oldenburg, Henry (1665). "Epistle Dedicatory". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 1: 0–0. doi:10.1098/rstl.1665.0001.  edit
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ "Special Collections | The Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology". Retrieved 2010-04-17. 
  5. ^ "Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London - History". Retrieved 2010-02-06. 
  6. ^ Bluhm, R. K. (1960). "Henry Oldenburg, F.R.S. (c. 1615-1677)". Notes and Records of the Royal Society 15: 183–126. doi:10.1098/rsnr.1960.0018.  edit
  7. ^ a b  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  8. ^ Royal Society Archives
  9. ^ 'Notebooks, Virtuosi and Early-Modern Science' – Richard Yeo
  10. ^
  11. ^ "Philosophical Transactions: 350 years of publishing at the Royal Society (1665 – 2015)". 
  12. ^ Philosophical Transactions: 350 years of publishing at the Royal Society (1665 – 2015).  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  13. ^ Philosophical Transactions: 350 years of publishing at the Royal Society (1665 – 2015), Royal Society.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  14. ^ Royal Society. "Philosophical Transactions: 350 years of publishing at the Royal Society (1665 – 2015)". 
  15. ^ "Philosophical Transactions: 350 years of publishing at the Royal Society (1665 – 2015)".  |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)
  16. ^ 350 Years of Scientific Publishing, The Royal society. "Philosophical Transactions: 350 years of publishing at the Royal Society (1665 – 2015)". 
  17. ^ 350 Years of Scientific Publlishing, Royal Society. "Philosophical Transactions: 350 years of publishing at the Royal Society (1665 – 2015)". 
  18. ^ 350 Years of Scientific Publishing, Royal Society. "Philosophical Transactions: 350 years of publishing at the Royal Society (1665 – 2015)". 
  19. ^ 350 Years of Scientific Publishing, Royal Society. "Philosophical Transactions: 350 years of publishing at the Royal Society (1665 – 2015)". 
  20. ^ 350 Years of Scientific Publishing, Royal Society. "Philosophical Transactions: 350 years of publishing at the Royal Society (1665 – 2015)". 
  21. ^ Newton, I. (1671). "A Letter of Mr. Isaac Newton, Professor of the Mathematicks in the University of Cambridge; Containing His New Theory about Light and Colors: Sent by the Author to the Publisher from Cambridge, Febr. 6. 1671/72; in Order to be Communicated to the R. Society". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 6 (69–80): 3075–3087. doi:10.1098/rstl.1671.0072.  edit
  22. ^ A. J. Turner, ‘Plot, Robert (bap. 1640, d. 1696)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
  23. ^ a b Van Noorden, Richard Royal Society frees up journal archive, 26 Oct 2011
  24. ^ Murphy, y Samantha Guerilla Activist' Releases 18,000 Scientific Papers, July 22, 2011

External links[edit]