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The Royal Society and the prehistory of peer review, 1665-1965

Research output: Research - peer-reviewArticle


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Noah Moxham, Aileen Fyfe

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Despite being coined only in the early 1970s, ‘peer review’ has become a powerful rhetorical concept in modern academic discourse, tasked with ensuring the reliability and reputation of scholarly research. Its origins have commonly been dated to the foundation of the Philosophical Transactions in 1665, or to early learned societies more generally, with little consideration of the intervening historical development. It is clear from our analysis of the Royal Society's editorial practices from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries that the function of refereeing, and the social and intellectual meaning associated with scholarly publication, has historically been quite different from the function and meaning now associated with peer review. Refereeing emerged as part of the social practices associated with arranging the meetings and publications of gentlemanly learned societies in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Such societies had particular needs for processes that, at various times, could create collective editorial responsibility, protect institutional finances, and guard the award of prestige. The mismatch between that context and the world of modern, professional, international science, helps to explain some of the accusations now being levelled against peer review as not being ‘fit for purpose’.


Original languageEnglish
JournalHistorical Journal
VolumeIn press
Early online date16 Nov 2017
StateE-pub ahead of print - 16 Nov 2017

    Research areas

  • Peer Review, Scientific journals, Scientific publishing, Royal Society, Research evaluation

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