To celebrate 350 years of scientific publishing, we are inviting our readers to tell us about their favourite papers from the Royal Society archive. Today David Nelson, Professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Biochemistry at the University of Tennessee, tells us how the particular format of Philosophical Transactions serves a special role in science publishing.
Philosophical Transactions caught my attention via Tom Cavalier-Smith’s systematic papers on eukaryotic and prokaryotic evolution. Some of these articles ranged from 22-38 pages as a single author work. One Cavalier-Smith article outside of Philosophical Transactions was 77 pages. When reading these articles one is struck by the depth of knowledge displayed about cellular ultrastructure, biochemistry, evolutionary transitions and the sheer diversity of life. I felt as if by reading and studying these papers I was taking a master course in deep phylogeny, evolution and classification of life. A comparable experience came from reading Lynn Margulis and Karlene V. Schwartz, Five Kingdoms: An Illustrated Guide to the Phyla of Life on Earth. My point is that an adequate presentation of ideas over grand topics requires space. Most prominent journals today allow only limited space of a few pages per article. The real data goes underground in supplementary materials that only a handful of devotees will ever see.
I was attracted to Philosophical Transactions because I wanted to make a larger contribution on the evolution of cytochrome P450s in animals and I knew it would take more than 20 large format pages. This led me to guest edit a special issue: “Cytochrome P450 and its impact on planet Earth”. Being a guest editor made me aware of the need to put your slower contributors under some pressure to produce. It took some time to realize this so the product was two years out instead of one as promised. I have to thank Philosophical Transactions B for being accommodating and providing the venue for an ambitious project. The 2-5 page article may rule the science publishing world, but there is a need for depth that can only be met by generous page allotments and special issue focus. Philosophical Transactions serves this role as a portal for scholarship.
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