Publishing

On the origin of peer review: The Geological Society, the evolution of refereeing and Charles Darwin’s papers

The Geological Society has been publishing content continuously for more than 200 years – beginning just four years after our inception in 1807. It’s safe to say that the content published now looks very different to that of the first issue of Transactions of the Geological Society, published in 1811. In our fourth post celebrating Peer Review Week 2018, we delve into our archives for a look at reviews of one of our most famous Fellows…

How did the peer review process differ?

George Bellas Greenough, 1778-1855

A long way from the electronic system used to manage the peer review process now, there was a ‘Committee of Papers’ at Council meetings from 1810 which ensured that ’the further selection of Papers, and the conduct of such measures as may be necessary towards the publication of the Society’s Memoirs be referred to the Committee of Papers’[1].

1812 saw the first mention of ‘communications’ being ‘referred’ to the Secretaries. George Bellas Greenough, a founder member of the Geological Society and the first President, was in fact the first to coin the term ‘referee’ in 1817 in relation to peer review [2].

By 1817 there was a set procedure where papers were read before an Ordinary Meeting, then an abstract read before Council. A member of Council would then report back on whether it was fit for publication, before a vote being taken on whether it should be published or not. From 1818 onwards there is evidence of third parties acting as ‘referees’ [3].

Darwin’s reports

The long publishing history of the Geological Society presents the opportunity to delve into the publishing careers of some of the geology greats. Here we present some of the referee reports received by Charles Darwin when submitting to the Transactions of the Geological Society.

Darwin, C. 1840. On the Formation of Mould. Transactions of the Geological Society of London, 5, series 2, 505—509 [4]

William Buckland, 1784-1856

‘Report on Mr Darwyns [sic] paper on the formation of mould.

I consider the above paper & note appended to it to be sound in all its views, excepting that which refers the origin of Chalk to the digestive powers of animals that had fed on ?coralline.

I should strongly recommend its publication in the Transactions as establishing a new and important theory to explain phenomena of universal occurrence on the surface of the Earth – in fact a new Geological Power.

Altho nearly the whole paper has been printed in the abstract of Proceedings I think the subject of sufficient importance to be printed in the Transactions with a lithograph of the drawing ?annexed to it.

I wd recommend that the author be advised to withdraw the paper relating to the Origin of Chalk – as introducing very ?disputable matter into a paper that is otherwise unexceptionable of which if established would be well deserving to form the subject of a separate communication.

William Buckland

March 9 1838

I would advise the author to be requested to add a section of the 2 very decisive cases mentioned in his appendix – they might all 3? well be contained in one quarto plate.’

Darwin, C. 1840. On the Connexion of certain Volcanic Phenomena in South America; and on the Formation of Mountain Chains and Volcanos, as the Effect of the same Power by which Continents are elevated. Transactions of the Geological Society of London, 5, series 2, 601—631 [5]

Adam Sedgwick’s report on Charles Darwin’s paper, ‘On the Connexion of certain Volcanic Phenomena in South America; and on the Formation of Mountain Chains and Volcanos, as the Effect of the same Power by which Continents are elevated.’

Adam Sedgwick, 1785-1873

‘To the President of the Geological Society. –

I have read Mr Darwin’s paper and think that it ought to be printed.

If possible the early or historical part should be made shorter.  The concluding or theoretical part is not all clearly brought out and it might be reconsidered by the author with some advantage: Not with any view of altering his theoretical opinions (for he is only responsible for them) but for the purpose of making them more definite or unequivocal.  The main facts on which the paper hinges & the immediate deductions deduced from them appear incontrovertible.  A Sedgwick.’

Charles Robert DARWIN, ’Raised beaches in Chile’ – withdrawn by author [6]

Adam Sedgwick’s report on Charles Darwin’s paper, ‘Raised Beaches in Chile’

Charles Darwin, 1809-1882 (portrait by George Richmond)

‘Darwin, Mr
Raised Beaches Chili

London July 10 1837

Gentlemen

I have read Mr Darwin’s paper On the proofs of recent elevation on the coast of Chili and decided I think that it ought to be printed.
Also a paper by Mr Caldcleugh on the same subject but which I think his memoir ?diffuse & unnecessarily expanded & if printed at all in the Society’s Transactions, that it ought to appear in condensed form.
I am gentlemen
Your faithful servant
A Sedgwick.

Mr Darwin’s was withdrawn 15th Nov 1837
Mr Caldcleugh’s ordered not to be printed 15 Nov 1837.’

 

  • Thanks go to the Society’s Archivist Caroline Lam for providing the photos, transcriptions and information contained here.
  • References:

[1] Council Minutes, 1810- (ref: GSL/CM/1)
[2] George Greenough Papers; University College London [Add. 7918/1621]
[3] GSL/COM/P/4/1-2 [earliest surviving referee reports]
[4] GSL/COM/P/4/2/47
[5] GSL/COM/P/4/2/4
[6] GSL/COM/P/4/2/49

  • If you are interested in submitting an article or want to find out more about becoming a referee, click here.

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