Comments from the departing Editor

Georgina M. Mace

My term as an Editor comes to an end with last issue of 2010. I was fortunate to inherit a successful journal from my predecessor, Sir Brian Heap FRS and I am delighted to be able to pass the role into the very capable hands of Dame Linda Partridge FRS.

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B has some very special and unusual features that I have come to understand better and tried to build upon during my term as an Editor. It is a general biology journal and so in theory covers all areas of the biological sciences. At various points in the journal's history, the focus has been narrowed to concentrate on certain subjects (e.g. neurobiology), and there have been periodic attempts to make it primarily a reviews journal. Both of these tend to place us in direct competition with some very successful subject-specific or review journals. While I am sure we could compete successfully if we chose to do so, an alternative strategy is to build a distinctive niche for the journal, ideally one that builds on existing strengths.

One key feature of the journal is that it automatically receives papers arising from the Royal Society Discussion Meetings. These are the flagship scientific meetings held by the Society, are generally of 2 days duration, cover any area of science, but aim to highlight the latest developments in a subject and to stimulate discussion among those attending. There has recently been strong encouragement for interdisciplinary subjects and emerging areas for Discussion Meetings. Issues of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B arising in this way tend to be similar to edited books, but have the added advantage of being able to incorporate the interactions that come from discussions among experts at the meeting, as well as having a relatively rapid publication time. Some of these issues and the papers they contain have become classic references. Most people who have been involved in putting a meeting together and then producing the published issue have also found it to be an extremely rewarding process. In recent years, therefore, we have tried to build on the model created by the Discussion Meeting issues.

We now invite proposals for themed issues similar to Discussion Meeting issues, but without the meeting. They should bring together the best and latest science in some emerging or important areas of biology and the life sciences. The contents and focus are devised, compiled and edited by guest editors who have identified the topic and who then invite the authors. They put together a themed issue that should be a genuine contribution to the establishment, growth or integration of the topic. In this way, the journal serves the research community by producing issues that rapidly provide a comprehensive resource to establish and cement new areas of science.

Ideally, the theme issues should be across the biological sciences. Achieving the full spread of topics has proved difficult. First, our recent history means that researchers in some areas of biology are more familiar with the journal than others. Both neurosciences, and ecology and evolution, are subjects where we have had a stream of high-quality proposals. We have found it more difficult to attract the same interest from cell and molecular biology, and from the general area of health and disease. Despite a few very successful issues in these topics [1,2], we have so far found them difficult to grow. It seems that as well as the influence of recent history, there are different publishing norms in these areas. The rapidly growing areas of cell and molecular biology and of much of biomedicine, mean these subjects are often moving very rapidly. Researchers expect and achieve very rapid publication times. As new findings, tools and techniques emerge at a high rate, so do new research findings, but with the inevitable corollary that much of their research also goes out of date more quickly. Some areas are, therefore, intrinsically more difficult to incorporate in the model we have developed for Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, though this does not mean we should give up on the goal to cover all areas. We have had a few recent and very successful issues from these topics and I am confident that these can serve as exemplars that should encourage more in the coming years. Another achievement has been a number of recent issues that include interdisciplinary topics in both environmental and social sciences.

Two significant events strongly influenced the journal during my editorship. The 350th anniversary of the Royal Society was an opportunity to celebrate the long history of the journal and its role in supporting the science for which the Society is responsible. We decided to produce an issue that looked forward more than backwards [3], and this allowed us the opportunity to bring in some new areas, such as economics and social sciences [4], as well as to highlight exciting new areas that are both societally relevant and scientifically tractable [57]. In 2009–2010 we also celebrated the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species. We could not miss the opportunity to celebrate the contribution of the one of the world's most influential scientists, and to highlight recent advances in the many areas of evolutionary biology and genetics that have grown from Darwin's ideas [8].

A final feature of the journal is the excellent support provided by the Royal Society's Publications staff. I thank them for their efficiency, professionalism and ingenuity that have made it a pleasure and a privilege to be an Editor. My thanks in particular go to James Joseph and Claire Rawlinson who have been the Publications Editors during my term. Also many thanks to the members of the Editorial Board for their hard work, good advice and guidance.