17th century commonplace book

A mid-17th century commonplace book of the kind (if not the content) favoured by natural philosophers before Philosophical Transactions. (Public domain)

Since the first issue of Philosophical Transactions was published just over 350 years ago, its success has been built on the dawning realization, among early natural philosophers, of what the journal was actually for. Rather than keeping their work behind closed doors, they could now share their ideas with others and gain due credit. With each subsequent issue, they were building a continuing record of what had been done and the results of those endeavours. It was – in fact – a 17th century wiki-cum-blog on loose-leaf folio.

Philosophical Transactions succeeded because it was fast, cheaper than a book, and it had a ready audience, hungry for news at a time when there wasn’t even an official English newspaper. It has remained in existence because it has remained relevant, protected during periods of transition by the Royal Society’s ability to weather huge change while also evolving with the times. Its long-lasting impact derives from the fact that it is no longer unique. Over 30,000 journals publish today, a number which has risen sharply in the twenty years since the advent of online publishing.

The rise of the world wide web and its emergence as the primary tool for dissemination and sharing of ideas is one of the key reasons why the Society is marking this 350th anniversary as being particularly significant. It is an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of publishing at the Royal Society while also looking forward to how scientific publishing can and must continue to move with the times and remain relevant.

The web has not only opened up new avenues for communication, but it also allows the form in which scientific ideas are communicated to change. By allowing immediate publication of a paper after it has been peer-reviewed and found to be worthy of publication, the web has done away with the idea of an ‘issue’; it also allows the immediate publication of single results (called ‘micropublication’), inline comments (a form of ‘post-publication peer review), and instant feedback. It has even been suggested that the web negates journals altogether: preprint archives – even personal blogs – could service to share scientists’ findings far more quickly than journals, but crucially without pre-publication review. Post-publication review, it has been argued, would fill its place, with a renewed emphasis on reproducibility of scientific findings by one’s peers: nullius in verba – the Society’s motto (‘take nobody’s word for it’) – implies the next step is to try things yourself. Perhaps most prominently, the web has allowed new business models to flourish: author-pays open access makes sense on the web, where its viability would be questionable in hard-copy.

Web server

The first web-server (‘Do not switch off!’ on the label) as set up by one Sir Tim Berners-Lee FRS. The web is central to the technological drivers for change.

In April and May, the Society is bringing together an international cohort of scientists, research funders, university leaders, policy makers, publishers (others, as well as ourselves), citizen scientists, bloggers, librarians and data specialists to debate the future of how scientists communicate their work. The impact of the web – the technological driver – has been a catalyst for change but the rapid pace of change has itself highlighted areas in scientific publishing that could be improved: with increasing workloads, does peer review work as well as it should? Why is so much published science irreproducible? Should publishing produce a profit, and does this change if profit is ploughed back into funding science? Is the idea of journal hierarchies entrenched in research culture, and what are the implications?

Before we get to these debates, Publish or Perish – an academic history and sociology of science conference, is happening this week at the Society. 350 years is an incredible legacy for scientific publishing to draw upon, and as the project team behind the ‘Publishing the Philosophical Transactions ’ project, which is organising the conference, has already demonstrated: many of the changes in scientific journals in that time have been as much due to external forces as internal moves for reform. The biggest external force in 2015 is the web and the new modes of communication it allows: that’s ‘why 350 years’.