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By Roberto Lalli
This year marks the 125th anniversary of the founding of The Physical Review. When it was started in 1893 at Cornell University, the journal was the first periodical entirely devoted to physics published in the United States. Its founders sought to support the professionalization of American physics and, at the same time, to increase the role of Cornell in this process. For decades, the international physics community considered the journal an expression of a rather marginal national scientific community. Today, the various descendants of The Physical Review, including Reviews of Modern Physics and Physical Review Letters, are among the most prestigious physics journals in the world.
Gordon Fulcher (left) was managing editor of The Physical Review from 1923 to 1925. He introduced the systematic use of abstracts in the journal. John Tate (center) was editor from 1926 to 1950 and had an energetic management style and clear editorial vision. He may have done the most to shape the journal during this time. The first paper published in The Physical Review was on infrared spectroscopy (right).
This anniversary provides an occasion to reflect upon the history of APS scientific publications, on the historical transformation from a relatively peripheral publication to a leading physics journal during the 1930s, and to consider the implications this story has for the current debates and challenges of scientific publishing. Usually, the relevance of a scientific journal is measured by what it contains, which can be judged by the number of scientific breakthroughs that have appeared in its pages (see the 125th anniversary timeline). This number is certainly impressive for the Physical Review portfolio.
In this article, however, I will focus on the container rather than on the content, namely, on the scientific policies and editorial practices implemented by APS editors and the historical evolution of these practices. While scientists might be tempted to see this as marginal to what is considered the "real" scientific work—producing new knowledge—editorial practices and policies strongly shape their daily scientific activity. Not only do editorial procedures affect the dissemination of findings, but also the way in which researchers acquire new knowledge by reading their peers’ papers, and in some cases these procedures can influence the researchers’ own scientific agendas. Scientific publications are not neutral receptacles of knowledge produced elsewhere. They are active and powerful agents that have a deep impact on the production, certification, and diffusion of scientific knowledge.
Most practices today are taken for granted, such as the peer-review system and the publication of an abstract preceding each article. They are so embedded in scientists’ daily activity that such practices have acquired an almost universal character, but they are the result of specific historical contingencies and became standardized only after World War II. In the definition and standardization of these practices, APS has played a particularly relevant role from the late 1920s onward.
APS was founded in 1899, but it was not until 1913 that The Physical Review was taken over by the Society. This change, which was not uncontroversial, was intended to increase the prestige of the journal and attract more publications by American physicists of the younger generation who still preferred to submit their best work to more established British journals. From then on, editorial responsibility was given to a salaried managing editor and an Editorial Board composed of nine APS members, all elected by the Society for a three-year term. The managing editor was the only figure who could be re-elected indefinitely, which implied that he (always "he" in those days) could, at least in principle, provide strong editorial continuity and realize his vision of the journal. Over time, this structure would provide a very fertile ground for the introduction of powerful innovations in physics publishing.
One of the first changes that distinguished The Physical Review from European scientific periodicals came soon after World War I, along with similar innovations in the Astrophysical Journal. Starting in 1919, articles appearing in these two periodicals were required to be preceded by a synopsis. Abstracts were of course not new, but heading abstracts were uncommon at the time; abstracts were published apart from the original papers, usually in dedicated abstract journals.
The change was due to physicist Gordon S. Fulcher, who worked at the Research Information Service of the National Research Council between 1919 and 1920. His main goal was to develop a methodology of analytic abstracting that would allow information to be communicated and catalogued quicker and more effectively. At The Physical Review he worked initially as an abstractor, in 1921 he joined the Editorial Board, and in 1923 he became managing editor. In this period he solidified the norm of the publication of heading abstracts written by the authors themselves by providing the rules that had to be followed to maximize the value of the practice.
Fulcher’s meticulous editorial work improved the abstracts and the general style of the published papers. This approach was greatly valued by many members of APS, but did not favor rapid publication. In the early 1920s physicists in the U.S. felt frustrated that new physics concepts were originating in Europe, while American physicists were respected solely for their experimental contributions to test theories and formulas developed elsewhere. The first major American contribution to the new physics was the discovery of the Compton effect, named after Arthur Holly Compton, who predicted the effect and confirmed it empirically in 1922. While the paper with the detailed report of the breakthrough was submitted in December 1922, six months elapsed before publication, creating great distress because of the issues with priority this delay could have caused. A paper by Dutch physicist Peter Debye on the same topic was in fact published much more rapidly in the German journal Physikalische Zeitschrift.
At the end of 1925, Fulcher was not re-elected to the position of managing editor and his analytic abstract approach was abandoned as excessively time-consuming. However, the publication of clear and comprehensive heading abstracts written by the authors remained a legacy that still shapes modern scholarship both in terms of writing and reading practices, well beyond the boundaries of physics. Historians are not exactly sure how this practice became standardized, but we know that in 1924 the Sub-Committee of Bibliography of the Committee of Intellectual Co-operation of the League of Nations resolved to promote the use of heading abstracts and recommended the rules adopted by The Physical Review.
Fulcher was succeeded by John T. "Jack" Tate, who remained in charge from 1926 until his death in 1950. Tate was probably the editor who more than anyone else shaped the style of the journal. During his editorship the American physics community passed from a peripheral position to a leading role, and so did The Physical Review. One might say that American physics and The Physical Review "came of age," as John van Vleck put it (1), at the same time. No doubt, the two were related, but the increasing prestige of the journal was not the simple consequence of the change of status of the American community. Tate’s editorial management actively helped American physicists in their attempts to compete with other national communities when these were still perceived to be far ahead in the production of new knowledge in physics.
Tate had an energetic management style and clear editorial vision. The rationale behind the innovations he introduced was of a completely different nature than that behind the policies implemented by Fulcher. Tate was responding to authors’ need to get credit more than to the readers’ need to rapidly find useful information. The first three most important changes were all inaugurated in July 1929. The first two were a consequence of the necessity to speed up the publication of papers: The Physical Review passed from being a monthly publication to being issued every two weeks, and a new section called "Letters to the Editor" was established "for the prompt publication of reports of important discoveries in physics," following the success of a similar section in the journal Nature (2). The third change was the publication of a new quarterly periodical, initially called Physical Review Supplement, but shortly after renamed Reviews of Modern Physics (RMP)—which was envisaged to be the first scientific periodical entirely dedicated to the publication of complete critical reviews of the status of research fields in physics (3).
As Tate himself declared in a letter to Raymond T. Birge, "with these reforms [APS] will now have under its auspices about the most complete mechanism for publication that exists anywhere" (4). The competition with European communities, especially German physicists, in the race for priority was the rationale for the first two reforms, and Tate was authorized by the APS Council "to incur whatever expense [was] necessary" in order to pursue this goal. RMP arose from the desire of American physicists for an alternative to the excessive compartmentalization of physics. While Tate was following models and examples from other journals in different disciplines, the "mechanism" he created was quite new. It was in fact the realization of a grand vision where APS members, on the one hand, were able to publish (and read) quick reports of important results and, on the other, could have easy access to critical reviews that favored a comprehensive view of what was going on in various branches of physics.
These innovations entailed an enormous growth of the number of papers published by APS. This growth was not free of charge. Many more pages had to be printed and the costs for publication ballooned, leading to a substantial deficit from 1929 onward. The stock market crash of 1929 and the depression that followed prevented APS from increasing the membership dues to cover the deficit of the journal. Because of this situation the APS Council decided to introduce a voluntary page charge, which was to be covered by the research patrons of the authors publishing in The Physical Review. While the introduction of a page charge was mostly a consequence of the financial situation, it confirms that in the minds of those who managed the journal its function had changed: The journal was now the preferential place for American physicists to claim priority, and for research patrons to gain prestige for the research activities they supported.
The introduction of page charges did not solve the financial issues, though. The community of American physicists was rapidly increasing and, as a consequence, the published material continued to grow. And so did the deficit. In 1932, the APS Council decided to cut expenses, and Tate proposed to achieve this by reducing the number of pages. This decision, motivated by pressing financial constraints during the Great Depression, had a tremendous effect both on physics writing and the practice of refereeing. Papers had to be much shorter and all nonessential information, like the historical evolution of a scientific problem, was considered superfluous.
At the time, refereeing practices at The Physical Review (and everywhere else) lacked coherence. Tate himself made most of the decisions without consulting other experts, and only some of the submitted papers were sent to another referee, who was usually a member of the editorial board. During the 1930s, however, the referees came to assume a role quite different from that they had before. Now, a referee had to work out ways to reduce the paper length and to determine if the paper was really worth the expense to publish it, which led to an overall tightening of acceptance criteria.
This change was not provisional. Quite the contrary, it became standardized in 1935, when Tate and his assistant editor began sending the referees a questionnaire intended to guide their evaluation of the submitted manuscripts. The questionnaire was divided into two three-question parts. The first asked for the evaluation of the content, while the second required a careful judgment about the form. In the questionnaire the length issue appears to be of primary importance, as referees were asked to suggest possible ways to reduce the length of the paper in both the content-related and form-related parts (5).
The introduction of the questionnaire was Tate’s last major change. By 1935, The Physical Review had acquired a stable position as one of the leading physics journals, and some of the papers published in the RMP were playing pivotal roles in furthering research in newborn fields of physics by indicating promising lines of investigation for the future.
Tate died in 1950, and one year later The Physical Review entered a new era under the editorial management of Samuel A. Goudsmit, who also played an influential role in shaping the journal’s style, as is carefully discussed by physicist and historian of science David Kaiser (6). Among Goudsmit’s innovations were the creation of Physical Review Letters in 1958, which transformed the "Letters to the editor" section into a separate and extremely influential periodical. At the same time, under the pressure of an exponential increase of submitted papers and of specialization issues, refereeing practices became a systematic peer-review system around 1960, when it became the norm to send submitted papers to more than one external referee before they could be accepted for publication. In 1970, he oversaw the split of The Physical Review into Physical Review A-D, four separate journals in distinct research areas (Physical Review E came after Goudsmit, in 1993).
The innovations I briefly outlined here were all consequences of the specific needs of a defined community in particular historical periods. While these needs changed, most of the abovementioned practices showed an enormous amount of resilience and became standardized at the international level during the second half of the twentieth century, in conjunction with the dominant role American physics assumed in the Western world during the Cold War.
In my view, this story is instructive for three different, but interrelated, reasons. The first is the enormous dynamism showed by Physical Review journals in the introduction of new practices and how these modifications were strongly linked to dramatic changes in the social composition and scientific interests of the American physics community. It was during a time characterized by a generational change, by radical transformations with the advent and development of quantum mechanics and later by the demographic change caused by the arrival of a sizeable number of European refugees in the 1930s.
The second striking feature is that while all these changes were intimately connected to the needs of a specific national community in a particular historical period, some of them became shared international standards. This process invites thoughts about the development and evolution of communication structures, such as well-defined editorial norms, that are usually taken for granted by working scientists. Not all of the history discussed here was the result of explicit discussions between the scientists themselves. The international process of standardization, for instance, was also related to social and political forces that were well beyond scientists’ reach. This might signal that well-established norms are not necessarily the best ones and that they might be changed if new needs point toward different directions.
This brings us to the last point of relevance, which relates to what this story might imply for the current debates on scientific publishing. For instance, the peer-review system has problems and is far from being the well-defined practice that is sometimes uncritically assumed. And what about the possibilities and challenges posed by the Internet and the World Wide Web in terms of open distribution of scientific knowledge, speeding up of publication of novel ideas, and solutions for information overload? Many of the concerns of the historical actors involved in the editorial decision-making of The Physical Review are very similar to those of today’s scientists.
Yet the general context now is quite different. It is unlikely that today individual journals will be able to promote the same kinds of innovations as those implemented by The Physical Review in specific historical periods, because the scientific community is much more interconnected at the global level. More importantly, publishing norms are nowadays inextricably related to evaluation criteria for the assessment of scientific productivity and creativity of both persons and institutions. Finally, the relationship between online repositories such as arXiv.org (strikingly, administered by the same university that initiated The Physical Review) and academic journals is still very much unsettled. While these repositories allow for prompt and open publication of scientific results, highly ranked scientific peer-reviewed journals are the only recognized venues for the certification of the validity and importance of these results. The lack of a clear relationship between these communication formats does not enable us to clarify what the new role of academic journals should be in this evolving scholarly environment.
In the present situation, the production of new standards will probably require shared international agreement about the best practices, but well established institutions, and APS is certainly is one of those, might start experimenting with new modalities that combine the different and sometimes contrasting needs of openness, speed, and quality assessment in the publication of new scientific knowledge.
The author is Research Scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and Visiting Scholar in the Research Program on the History of the Max Planck Society. After receiving a M.Sc. degree in physics, he earned a Ph.D. in international history at the University of Milan (2011). From 2011 to 2013, he was a postdoctoral fellow in the Program on Science, Technology, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has published extensively on the history of relativity theories, on the transfer of quantum theory, and on the evolution of editorial practices.
5. Lalli, R. ‘Dirty work’, but someone has to do it: Howard P. Robertson and the refereeing practices of Physical Review in the 1930s. Notes and Records: the Royal Society journal of the history of science 70, 151–174 (2016).
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