What it was like to be peer reviewed in the 1860s

Melinda Baldwin:

In January 1861 John Tyndall, a physicist at London’s Royal Institution, submitted a paper to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. The paper bore the title “On the absorption and radiation of heat by gases and vapours, and on the physical connexion of radiation, absorption, and conduction.” After testing the heat-retaining properties of several gases, Tyndall had concluded that some were capable of trapping heat, and thus he became one of the first physicists to recognize and describe that basis for the greenhouse effect. A month after its submission, the paper was read aloud at a meeting of the society, and several months after that, a revised version of the paper was in print.

That path from submission to revision and publication will sound familiar to modern scientists. However, Tyndall’s experience with the Philosophical Transactions—in particular, with its refereeing system—was quite different from what authors experience today. Tracing “On the absorption and radiation of heat” through the Royal Society’s editorial process highlights how one of the world’s most established refereeing systems worked in the 1860s. Rather than relying on anonymous referee reports to improve their papers, authors engaged in extensive personal exchanges with their reviewers. Such a collegial approach gradually lost favor but recently has undergone something of a resurgence.