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The Royal Society opens up permanently

Front cover of the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions journal in 1665.

The Royal Society's publication of its first journal  Philosophical Transactions was in 1665.

The Royal Society, publishers of the World’s oldest peer-reviewed journal, have made their archive permanently free, with 60,000 historical scientific papers available online and downloadable by pdf. This collection includes some of the greatest works in science spanning some 350 years.

“By opening our online archives we have considerably widened access to the journal archive and also provided the benefit of a powerful search engine so articles are much easier to find. The release of these papers opens a fascinating window on the history of scientific progress over the last few centuries and will be of interest to anybody who wants to understand how science has evolved since the days of the Royal Society’s foundation,” said Stuart Taylor, Commercial Director of the Royal Society.

The Royal Society was established in London in 1660, as a learned society for research and discussion, a World first at the time, with the support of a charter made by the King of England, Charles II. This was a time when the modern concept of ‘science’ and ‘scientists’ did not exist, with the term ‘natural philosophy’ and ‘natural philosophers’ used instead.

Before the Royal Society permanently opened access to its archives, anybody interested in the Society’s research had to pay to access the material online. To view the material free of charge, people had to visit the Society’s premises in London or any other library that stocked its journal hard copies.

Now, anyone – provided they have access to the web – has a chance to discover hidden scientific gems from the comfort of their own chair.

These gems include the geological work by a young Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin’s account of his electrical kite experiment and the first peer-reviewed scientific journal published by the Royal Society in 1665: Philosophical Transactions. Coincidentally, 1665 was also the same period of the Great Plague of London and one year before the Great Fire of London.  

However, the Royal Society’s decision to make their content freely available today is not a new one. Last year, the society received positive feedback after publishing its archive freely for a limited period. This included its Trailblazing resource, which went online at the start of the society’s 350th anniversary last year. 

“Trailblazing, an interactive online feature exploring some of the highlights from nearly 350 years of Royal Society publishing, got such great feedback that we took the decision that it was time to permanently widen access to our archives,” said Taylor.

This archive material includes everything that falls outside the 70 year copyright rule in the UK, which expires 70 years after the death of an author. But, all of the Royal Society’s journals also offer free access to more recent papers that were published more than one or two years ago. This is part of the Royal Society’s ongoing commitment to open access in scientific publishing and comes soon after it announced its first fully open-access journal about biology at the molecular and cellular level: Open Biology.

Taylor said, “it is not just historical papers from Philosophical Transactions that have been made free to access – the archive also includes historical papers from Proceedings of the Royal Society. In terms of future plans, the Royal Society is one of the most ‘open-access’ friendly of the established science publishers and we are regularly reviewing how we can maximize access to our publishing output.”

- Adrian Giordani

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