Recording the labours of the ingenious: 350 years of the scholarly journal

In this blog post, Kim Eggleton, our Journals Executive, takes a look back at the 350 year history and exciting future possibilities for the humble Journal.

Kim Eggleton, Journals Executive

Kim Eggleton, Journals Executive

2015 marks the 350th anniversary of the scholarly journal. Can you believe that, 350 years? Think where we’ve come from there. There are now arguably too many journals to choose from!

There are even tools and businesses dedicated to helping researchers find the “right” journal for them. While the exact number is up for debate, there were estimated to be more than 28,000 active scholarly peer-reviewed journals in existence in August 2012, collectively publishing about 1.7–1.8 million articles a year (Ware and Mabe, 2012).

There’s a journal of everything now. Want to know more about chips? Try the American Journal of Potato Research. Wondering what the music of Ancient Greece was inspired by? Try Greek and Roman Musical Studies. Interested in what causes dandruff? Read the International Journal of Trichology. Any viewers of Have I got News for You know this list could go on and on. But this tells us something…

Someone was onto something 350 years ago.

The first journal ever published began as a bit of a private project for Henry Oldenburg, the then Secretary of the Royal Society. Henry wanted to create a kind of collective notebook between scientists, and came up with Philosophical Transactions. The aim of the journal was to give “some accompt of the present undertakings, studies, and labours of the ingenious in many considerable parts of the world”.

The journal was published pretty much on a monthly schedule, and Henry himself put out 136 issues before his death in 1677. It was only taken over by the Society in 1752, until then all financial and editorial responsibility was that of the Secretary of the Society. At the end of the 19th century journal was divided in to two, such was the increase in and demand for scientific discovery. Philosophical Transactions A covered the physical sciences and Philosophical Transactions B covered the life sciences. An exhibition of the treasures relating to the first ever journal is currently on at the Royal Society in London, and runs until next Tuesday.

“Most academic journals now have double-blind peer review -the author doesn’t know who the reviewer is and vice versa.”

Peer review as we know it today has its roots in this journal, although until the end of the 19th century, peer review was only conducted by the Editor in Chief, or perhaps a small team of advisors – and they knew the identity of the author. Most academic journals now have double-blind peer review, meaning the author doesn’t know who the reviewer is and vice versa.

Nowadays peer review is an accepted part of academic life, and journals can reach out to any qualified academic in the field to ask them to complete a review. Lots of researchers will receive a number of requests to review papers each week, and peer review itself is often described as system now in need of an overhaul.

A Brave New World

There have been many, many changes in journals-land since Henry started Philosophical Transactions – some small, some colossal. The upscaling (and economies of scale) of production thanks to industrial sized printing presses in the 1900’s. The personal computer. The move to online – not only for access, but for submission and review. The Big Deal. Open Access.

Henry Oldenburg would hardly recognise the moden Journal and its accompaniments.

Henry Oldenburg would hardly recognise the moden Journal and its accompaniments.

Could Henry ever have conceived of something like PLOS ONE or GoogleScholar? And that’s keeping things relatively traditional. What about the other innovations in research dissemination, like FigShare? And the ways of measuring impact using tools like Altmetrics and Kudos? Researchers are under pressure now not only to study and publish, but to prove that what they publish makes a difference.

“I can’t imagine my life without Editorial Manager.”

The future

Things are moving very fast now for journals, and I’m sure that at the 400th anniversary of Philosophical Transactions, things will be unrecognisable again. There are new ideas and projects being launched all the time – and this is a very healthy thing. A small but personal example: I use Editorial Manager every day to keep an eye on the papers coming into all our journals. I can’t imagine my life without it – I’d constantly be on the phone, I’d have lists coming out of my ears, I’d have to carry all my notes around with me if I went away on business… it’s a horrible thought. I’d certainly lose something, if not many things – including my mind. Many resisted the idea of an online submission system at first, but it’s made a big improvement in time to publication, peer review transparency, and ultimately author satisfaction.

Science has taken thousands of great leaps forwards since Henry Oldenburg started his “collective notebook”, but so has the notebook itself. While I won’t be around to attend the 2515 exhibition, I’m certainly intrigued to see what happens next…


Ware, M. and Mabe, M. 2012, The STM report: An overview of scientific and scholarly journal publishing, 3rd edition,

Larsen PO, von Ins M. The rate of growth in scientific publication and the decline in coverage provided by Science Citation Index. Scientometrics 2010; 84(3):575-603. doi:10.1007/s11192-010-0202-z


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