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Referee Reports

Dates: 1832-1949

The 'Referee Reports' are reports advising whether a paper submitted for publication to the Royal Society is suitable for its periodicals, the Philosophical Transactions and Proceedings. 

by Louisiane Ferlier
Digital resources manager

The Royal Society journals are closely associated with the history of scientific peer review, making this collection a unique resource for historians of science. A structured system of peer review assessment began in December 1831 following new Statutes granting the existing Committee of Papers, the 'liberty' to:

'call to their assistance  Fellows of the Society, who are knowing and well skilled in the particular branch of Science to which the Papers under deliberation relates'.

Drawing on the expertise and judgment of the Fellowship, the Committee of papers experimented with a variety of formats for its peer-review process. Alongside committee evaluation, public reporting was adopted for a short time, with reports published in the newly-created Proceedings

This early form of collaborative 'Open peer-review' was spurred by William Whewell who also co-authored the first published report with John Lubbock

Though the discussions in these early reports are fascinating, sometimes 'more interesting than the memoirs themselves' as Whewell famously surmised, confidentiality was ultimately adopted. The protection afforded by confidentiality is repeatedly noted by the referees, such as Edwin Ray Lankester in the following report who underlines the importance that his letter be considered 'a matter of a confidential and private matter' as he has personal regard for the author whose paper he rejects and does 'not wish to appear as the special instrument of pain to him', opening with these lines: 

'You have called upon me to discharge a very unpleasant duty - & I have done it'. 

Matters of confidentiality also come back during World War II, when certain papers are classed as 'confidential' because of their potential value 'to the enemy' and to be published after the war, with only a limited number of prints made available to Government departments, if necessary. This is the case for this paper on 'supersonic dispersion in gases', which generated an incredible number of reports in the series despite its author certifying that the paper 'contains no information of use to the enemy in the prosecution of the war; it does not contravene the Official Secrets Act'.

Reports vary tremendously in form and content. The early reports, included in letters, sometimes include digressions and personal correspondence. While the introduction of a printed sheet in 1898 formalised the process, the length of the response still vary significantly, from short 'yes'/ 'no' decision to full examination and discussion of a topic.

The archival series 'Referee Reports' contains a continuous record of the peer-review process until it became digital. 

To preserve the anonymity of reviewers Science in the Making contains all reports until 1949 and we plan to make more available online 70 years after the date of the report.