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Peer Review BC (Before Citations)

Cartoon of peer reviewer hundreds of years ago
In theory, science isn’t just self-interested. We’re all driven by curiosity and pure motives to strive together to unlock the secrets of the universe and solve problems. Which is true.

But it’s for others to determine whether or not we’ve unlocked or solved anything. If our work is ignored, then we’ll feel we haven’t made a contribution to the accumulation of scientific knowledge. And that makes the esteem and notice of other scientists critical. “Discovery” and “novelty” get the most acclaim of all (unfortunately, really).

Sociologist Robert Merton argued that paradoxically, it’s scientists’ desire to make a contribution to collective knowledge that is responsible for the burning intensity of desire for credit – especially for claims of prior discovery. It’s been fueled by the emergence of metrics based on citations in the 1960s as the journal industry capitalized on it and became highly profitable. But concern, and even bitter disputes, over credit have been part of modern science’s culture from the outset.

Water color portrait of Charles Darwin
Portrait of Charles Darwin in the late 1830s by George Richmond. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Merton points to Goethe writing in a letter in the 18th century of “all those foolish quarrels about earlier and later discovery, plagiary, and quasi-purloinings”. Stories of these disputes can be found for most great scientists, as he shows:

Galileo, writing that another “attempted to rob me of that glory which was mine, pretending not to have seen my writings and trying to represent themselves as the original discoverer of these marvels”.

Or Descartes: “tell him [Hobbes] as little as possible about…my unpublished opinions, for if I’m not greatly mistaken, he is a man who is seeking to acquire a reputation at my expense”.

And Darwin: “It seems hard on me that I should lose my priority of many years’ standing”.

Image of front matter
The first issue of the Philosophical Transactions published 350 years ago (March 1665). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Darwin features, too, in a fascinating exhibition on now at The Royal Society in London,* celebrating 350 years since the first issue of Philosophical Transactions. It’s one of the two first science journals, and the only one that’s still publishing science.

Darwin gets a mention for having his manuscript called “long-winded” by a peer reviewer in 1839. This was around the time that the form of pre-publication peer review we have now was becoming the norm.

There’s a flowchart at the exhibition showing how it used to work. If you had work to report and you were a Fellow of the Society, you could send it straight in. If you weren’t, you needed to get a Fellow to recommend it for consideration.

It could be rejected outright, or read to a meeting of the Royal Society and discussed. After the reading, it went to a Committee. A note from the Exhibition:

Strict rules were imposed at the Committee of Papers’ meetings: no discussion of papers; votes to be taken in secret. The Committee could vote to publish, postpone or reject a paper and could recommend alterations or cuts, or call in expert help to assess its merits. [The] minutes record their verdicts: they considered every paper read to the Society.

From the mid-19th century, the peer review process followed, with possible publication in the Philosophical Transactions or Proceedings of the Royal Society.

Photo of manuscript
Original manuscript of James Clerk Maxwell’s paper on electromagnetism, received October 1864, read December 1864, sent to printer June 1865. (Photo taken by Hilda Bastian at the Royal Society, London 2015.)

Well, that was how it was supposed to work. It didn’t for Alice Lee, though. She was a student and colleague of the pioneering statistician, Karl Pearson. The exhibition tells us not only that she wasn’t allowed to read it to the Society herself (Pearson read it), but it was sent to two referees before even making it that far.

There had only been a handful of women published by the Society at that point in 1901. In 1894, only 5 women had managed to run past the gauntlet. (They’re listed below.)

A special place in the annals of peer review horrors, though, is held by Charles H. Jones. The single copy of his paper, On the construction and development of the liver, was, well…lost. Even so, he managed to get another version published about 2 years after he first submitted it – thus still giving some journals today a run for their money!

Photo of crest sign at Stationer's Hall
At Stationers’ Hall, East London (Photo by Hilda Bastian, April 2015).

Speaking of money, it wasn’t until the 1940s that the journal started to sometimes bring in more money than it cost. Fellows got it for free. It didn’t became a source of revenue for the Royal Society till the 1950s.

After leaving the Royal Society, I serendipitously and fittingly came across Stationers’ Hall. It’s the home of the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers. That’s the commercial guild that drove for, and achieved, copyright in the 18th century. Here’s a photo of their insignia.

That brought the less salubrious aspects of the old “bands of brothers” into sharp relief for me. There’s so much that’s inspiring about the history of science. The elitism and awkward mixture of openness and secrecy in scientific publishing’s origins is anything but, though.

It’s hung on in closed, anonymous peer review that doesn’t have science on its side. The extension of secrecy to peer review discussions hasn’t served us well. It’s an anachronism, a throwback to an elitist age. The desire for the regard of our peers can be childish and spiral crazily, but it’s an inherent part of science. The secrecy and elitism aren’t.


Thumbnail of cartoon about abtracts

I’ve written more about the history of journals in my post on abstracts, but check out these overviews of the history of peer review from Drummond Rennie and Dale Benos and colleagues.

I’ve also written a post on the evidence on anonymity in peer review.

* The exhibition celebrating 350 years of the Philosophical Transactions (1665 – 2015) was curated by Julie McDougall-Waters, Noah Moxham, and Aileen Fyfe. It’s open to the public at the Royal Society in London till 23 June 2015. Here’s the [PDF] of the Exhibition Catalog.

The first 5 women published in the Philosophical Transactions were:

  • Caroline Herschel, astronomer, published in 1787.
  • Mary Somerville, physicist, published in 1826.
  • Grace C. Frankland, bacteriologist, published 1887. (She has no Wikipedia page or biography that’s easy to find online – but there are a few pages about her in this book: Ladies in the Laboratory?)
  • Helen G. Klaassen, chemist, published in 1893. (Same as Frankland.)
  • Charlotte Angas Scott, mathematician, published in 1894.

The cartoon is my own (CC-NC-ND-SA license). (More at Statistically Funny.) Notes: “Idle-headed” comes from Shakespeare, “quasi-purloinings” comes from a letter by Goethe, as quoted in Robert Merton’s “The ambivalence of scientists”.


* The thoughts Hilda Bastian expresses here at Absolutely Maybe are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.



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