Errors of the Royal Society

It is clear that any refereeing process for publishing papers will lead to important work being rejected (and sometimes poor work being published). We quote a few criticisms of the Royal Society for mistakes it made in the first half of the 19th century. First a general criticism made by De Morgan in 1854:-

It appears to me that the Royal Society, during the present century, has shown great lack of power to appreciate improvements in calculation of results: and I am afraid I must add, that the University to which I owe my own education has been one cause of this exhibition. I think that for fifty years there was a growing tendency at Cambridge to neglect, in teaching, all that follows the resulting formula or the final equation; though I suspect that this tendency has passed its culminating point.

Francis Baily submitted a paper to the Royal Society in 1811 which was rejected. De Morgan writes:-

The rejection of Baily's paper on Barrett's method by the Royal Society is one of those unfortunate instances which create a fear lest there should be other communications, as valuable, which have been rejected, but have never found such a champion as Baily. It is usual to attribute this rejection to the late William Morgan, who was at that time a member of the Council. ... But it must not be forgotten that the celebrated Thomas Young, an acute writer on annuities, was also on the Council, and as probably on the Committee. Baily ... was afterwards, as it happened, in open question to Young on the question of the Nautical Almanac.

Another case was that of J J Waterston who submitted a paper on the kinetic theory of gases to the Royal Society in 1845 but had it rejected. Lord Rayleigh, in 1892, stated that:-

... the memoir marks an immense advance in the direction of the now generally received theory. The omission to publish it at the time was a misfortune which probably retarded the development of the subject by ten or fifteen years. ... It is difficult to put oneself in imagination into the position of the reader of 1845, ... but it is startling to find a referee expressing the opinion that the paper is nothing but nonsense, unfit even for reading before the Society.

Lord Rayleigh then goes on to advise young authors to avoid publishing in the journals of scientific societies. Do you think his advice still holds good today? One has to hope that today referees may be more enlightened:-

The history of this paper suggests that highly speculative investigations, especially by an unknown author, are best brought before the world through some other channel than a scientific society, which naturally hesitates to admit into its printed records matter of uncertain value. Perhaps one may go further, and say that a young author who believes himself capable of great things would usually do well to secure the favourable recognition of the scientific world by work whose scope is limited, and whose value is easily judged, before embarking upon higher flights.

JOC/EFR March 2006

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