The Evolution of Open Research

Courtesy of the Royal Society

The influence of research is dictated by its circulation – the more people that read a piece of research, the better its chances of having a meaningful impact. This can run into conflict with the business models of publishers, who often rely on limited, paid circulation to profit from research. What’s more, this model is often left unquestioned, under the assumption that ‘this is the way it’s always been’.

The business model of publishing is just one of its traditionally unquestioned operating procedures. Another is the peer review process, which regulates academic disciplines by investing their output with greater credibility and accuracy. As an editorial process, however, the peer review system is imperfect. It does not catch all errors, and the limited pool of reviewers raises questions about the diversity of both published research and its researchers. 

The Evolution of the Journal (Click to expand)

By investigating the history of publications like Philosophical Transactions, the world’s oldest and longest-running scientific journal, the team led by Professor Aileen Fyfe generated new insights into the business model of publishing entities and into the functions and dynamics of the peer review system. Between 2013 and 2017, the team collaborated with the Royal Society on researching the ways that Philosophical Transactions has changed over time, initially focused in relation to the journal’s 350th anniversary in 2015. Their research paid particularly close attention to the editorial and publishing practices that underpinned the journal’s output, which could only be revealed by studying the stacks of paperwork surviving in the Philosophical Transactionsarchives in London.

The over-arching insight of their investigation is that the academic journal that we know today did not emerge fully-formed with the first issue of Philosophical Transactions in 1665. The ways that journals communicate knowledge have been altered by changing political, social, and economic circumstances, as has the significance attached to this form of publishing. This raised even more questions for the team, and it has profound implications for contemporary journal publishing. By revealing that journal publishing had undergone dramatic shifts in the past, Fyfe’s research made the resistance to change of academic publishing today much harder to justify.

These previous developments took several forms, including the business models of publishers. The finances of the Royal Society in the 19th and 20th centuries demonstrate that publishing scientific journals has not always been commercially profitable: the journals were expensive to produce, so the Society’s desire to circulate scientific knowledge as widely and freely as possible made gifting, and non-commercial circulation, more attractive than selling them. Indeed, as far back as 1766 booksellers Davis & Reymers had pointed out that the Royal Society’s policy of distributing Transactions to members for free was anathema to the prospect of profiting from the journal. Long before the prospect of digital open access, then, there was a well-established scholarly commitment to the wide circulation of scientific knowledge, free to the end-user and supported by learned society publishers. The Royal Society only changed to a commercial model in the second half of the twentieth century.

Journal referee reports from the 1830s, via the Royal Society

The team has developed similar insights into editorial practices through an investigation of their history and purpose. The term ‘peer review’ only came into use in the early 1970s, however its origins can be traced back much further. The process of ‘refereeing’ emerged from the gentlemanly learned societies of the late 18th and 19th centuries, and the research showed that its function has historically been quite different from the peer review of today. Whereas contemporary peer review is concerned primarily with the reliability of scientific research, refereeing and its associated editorial practices as they were used by the Royal Society were intended, at least initially, to ‘disarm specific attacks upon the eighteenth-century Society; sometimes, to protect the Society’s finances; and, by the later nineteenth century, to award prestige to members of the nascent profession of natural scientists.’ 

Current concerns about the sustainability of the growing workload of peer review, and about diversity at the Royal Society prompted  Fyfe and her team to undertake new research. They investigated how the Royal Society coped with earlier periods of growth in scientific research; and they examined female participation in the editorial process, revealing that it was cultural practices – rather than explicit rules – that excluded women scientists from the evaluation of scientific research at the Royal Society for most of the 20th century.

The research has also led to more existential questions being asked within the administration of the Society and other publishers. The better understanding of their predecessors’ motivations regarding open access has informed the balancing between ‘money and mission’. A review of publishing strategy was launched in 2019, and in July 2020, the Royal Society Council agreed to transition the research journals “to fully open access within five years”.

The impact of Fyfe’s research is also apparent through its high levels of engagement in professional and public spheres. Fyfe has contributed to a wide range of media targeting research and higher education stakeholders, including Times Higher Education, Research Fortnight and the LSE Impact Blog. Her expertise is also regularly sought by publications as varied as Intellectual Property World, Chemistry World, Le Monde and Vox news. 

The process of shaping research is crucial to its eventual impact – without a diverse and accurate array of publications, academics are unable to make truly meaningful contributions. However, the journey of a research paper does not stop once it has been published. Read about how academics at the University of St Andrews are influencing the translation of research into concrete public policy here.

This work contributed to the University of St Andrews’ REF 2021 submission.

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is a system which assesses research at UK Higher Education Institutions by discipline, based on three elements: outputs, impact and environment. This blogpost is based upon an impact case study that contributed to St Andrews’ outstanding results this REF cycle. Visit REF to view the submitted case study in the UKRI’s impact case study database.

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