Did authors get offprints?

In the days before photocopiers, getting hold of an offprint from the author was a useful way of getting a copy of the text, tables, images and formulae of a scientific article without having to copy it by hand from a library volume. The ways in which offprints circulated – whether requested by authors in locations where the journal was not available, or distributed strategically by the author to people s/he wanted to impress – is an intriguing element of the sociology of scientific communication.

The history of offprints also illustrates the long history of out-of-commerce circulation of scientific knowledge. Even when the issues, parts or volumes of the published journal were available for public sale, authors could send their private supply of offprints to colleagues, friends and potential sponsors. This long tradition still holds true in the digital world, when printed copies have been replaced by PDFs, but most publishers will still supply authors with a PDF for circulation through their networks.

As well as providing an out-of-commerce route for circulation, offprints also (in certain historical periods) provided a route for more rapid circulation. They were originally available more quickly than the collated issues or bound volumes of the journal in which the article formally appeared.

In this post, we will discuss what the Royal Society’s archive can reveal about the history of offprints.

Continue reading “Did authors get offprints?”

How often was the Philosophical Transactions issued?

Henry Oldenburg’s Transactions (1665-77) were issued monthly, but it was not until the late twentieth century that that periodicity was regained. The editors who followed Oldenburg struggled to maintain any regular periodicity; the early eighteenth-century volumes were sometimes annual, sometimes every two years, and often late.

Once the Royal Society took over the management of the Transactions in 1752, it was usually issued in two ‘parts’ a year, roughly in November and February. Authors received separate copies of their papers as soon as they had been printed, so these separate copies were often available (via private correspondence networks) more rapidly than the published ‘parts’.

Annual volumes were also issued, and this appears to have been the format that was used in the European book trade, and for non-commercial distribution to learned institutions in Europe and beyond.

Proceedings was launched in December 1831, originally to get the abstracts of Transactions papers into print more rapidly; it appeared roughly monthly, but only during the months the Society was in session (October to June). From the 1850s onwards, it was regularly suggested that it would be desirable to issue it at more defined intervals, and over the summer recess – but no changes were made.

The periodicity of Transactions is difficult to define by the late nineteenth century, because its main mode of issue had become separate papers. Whereas each monthly issue of Proceedings contained several papers, the longer papers approved for Transactions were issued as separate pamphlets as and when they became available from the printer. This system had originally been introduced for the free copies issued to fellows in the 1870s, and was extended to the free copies sent to learned institutions in 1902. By the early twentieth century, even the commercial issue of the Transactions seems to have been done as separate copies. Six-monthly parts were no longer issued, and annual volumes do not appear to have been supplied by the Society (though libraries could of course bind them if desired).

The Transactions papers were numbered, and were nominally associated with an annual volume. In some cataloguing systems, and for some periods, each paper is counted as an ‘issue’: thus, from the late 1930s to the 1990s, it can appear that issues of both series A and series B of the Transactions appeared anything from 12 to 30 times a year.

In 2001, both series of Transactions became monthly; and in 2008, they both became fortnightly, with 24 issues each per year.

1936: LNG Filon on the importance of journal reputation

“Research qualifications are now more and more insisted upon for appointments to academic and other posts, and appointing bodies have often no means of discriminating between important and trivial research, except the particular medium of publication. The publications of the Society have always been recognized as of exceptionally high standard, and special significance has been attached to papers published in them. Should such discrimination between publications become obsolete or even weakened, a spate of trivial papers may easily outweigh, in the minds of lay persons, a few really valuable contributions, with results ultimately detrimental to the best interests of Science.”

So wrote mathematician (and fellow of the Royal Society) Louis Filon, in the summer of 1936.

Continue reading “1936: LNG Filon on the importance of journal reputation”

The unprofitability of scientific journals, 1750-1900

Income/Expenditure on the Transactions, 1750-1900 (adjusted for inflation to 1900£)

This graph shows as much information as we have about the Royal Society’s expenditure on publications, and income from sales of publications, from 1752 (when the Society took on the ownership of the Transactions) until 1920.

Continue reading “The unprofitability of scientific journals, 1750-1900”

Submissions in life sciences vs physical sciences, 1927-1989

Submissions to the Royal Society, 1927 to 1989

This graph shows the number of papers submitted to the Royal Society over the course of (roughly) the twentieth century. It includes papers that would ultimately be published in both Transactions and Proceedings, as well as papers that were never published.

Continue reading “Submissions in life sciences vs physical sciences, 1927-1989”

How much money did the Philosophical Transactions make?

Although Henry Oldenburg hoped to make money from the Transactions, it was never as lucrative as he had hoped. And he appears to have been the only editor who made any money from it: Hans Sloane claimed to have spent £1,500 of his own money running the Transactions while he was secretary. Like almost all the other pre-1752 editor-secretaries, Sloane was wealthy enough to bankroll a periodical.

From 1752 onwards, the costs of running the journal were borne by the Royal Society. It was part of the Society’s mission to circulate knowledge (and the Society wasn’t doing much else with its income, from membership fees and investments, in the late eighteenth century). Throughout the nineteenth century, it was taken for granted that it was impossible for specialist scientific research journals to be run on a commercial, profitable basis: they were expensive to produce, and had inevitably limited sales. [See the graph]

By the 1890s, the Society’s was publishing more and more papers (with generous wide margins and lots of illustrations), and the increasing cost was becoming a problem for the Society’s finances. Lord Rayleigh, as secretary, successfully convinced the British government in 1895 to award a ‘grant-in-aid’ of scientific publications to the Royal Society (for itself and to aid other learned societies). For the next half century, this underpinned learned society publishing in the UK.

Things changed in the mid-twentieth century, when commercial publishers such as Pergamon Press (Robert Maxwell), discovered a way of making scientific journals profitable. In the 1950s and 1960s, learned societies learned from their commercial competitors: they paid more attention to efficiencies in the office and production side of things; and they paid more attention to sales and marketing, particularly in the USA. The Royal Society significantly cut back its free distribution programme in the mid-1950s: with fewer institutions receiving the Transactions for free, sales went up.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Royal Society’s publishing division was learning how to breakeven. Being able to do this successfully meant that the government grant-in-aid was no longer needed for publications; and that the Society’s finances were freed up for other aspects of the mission.

Since the 1970s, publishing has regularly generated a surplus for the Society. By the 1980s, this had become conscious policy: income-generation had joined the dissemination of knowledge as the ‘twin goals’ of the Royal Society publishing division. The annual surpluses actually fell in the 1990s (partly because of capital investment in new technology), but by the early 2000s, they were rising again.

In 2010, Royal Society publishing made a surplus of about £1.4m. This was about 10% of the Society’s annual income stream and, more importantly, a very high proportion of its unrestricted income stream. As unrestricted income, it offers useful flexibility to the Society.


The story of the eighteenth and nineteenth-century finances is discussed in more detail in:

A. Fyfe, Journals, learned societies and money: Philosophical Transactions, ca. 1750–1900, Notes and Records of the Royal Society (2015) DOI: 10.1098/rsnr.2015.0032

How did the Royal Society cope with increasing specialization?

Throughout the nineteenth century the number of people conducting scientific research, or working in a scientific job, was increasing rapidly. One of the impacts on the Society was the greater volume of papers received for publication in its Transactions (and, by the end the century, Proceedings).

At the same time, scientific research was becoming more specialised and, thus, more fragmented. Researchers were less likely to read widely beyond their own sub-field, and more likely to communicate principally with other researchers within their sub-field. They could do this in the pages of specialist journals, such as those produced by discipline-based learned societies (from the early 19th century), as well as those launched by university professors and research institutes (towards the end of the century). The Royal Society, however, maintained its generalist tradition.

The Royal Society made some acknowledgement of more specialised reading habits, when it split the Transactions into two series in 1887. Continue reading “How did the Royal Society cope with increasing specialization?”

Workshop: Editors and the Editing of Scientific Periodicals, 1760-1910

Editors and the Editing of Scientific Periodicals:
Constructing Knowledge and Identity, 1760s-1910s

University of St Andrews, January 18th & 19th, 2018
School of History, South Street, St Andrews

Organised by Anna Gielas (amg23@st-andrews.ac.uk) and Aileen Fyfe

Scientific periodicals have been important means for scholars to communicate observations and findings, claim credit, and build communities since the late seventeenth century. From the 1770s in the German-speaking lands and in France, and from the 1790s in Britain, a flood of new periodicals were established. In contrast to the long-running periodicals sponsored by learned institutions, these new periodicals were independent, and had to try to make their way on a commercial footing. This workshop will analyse the rich variety of editorial processes and strategies used in different places, times and contexts.

Speakers include: Jon Topham (Leeds), Sally Frampton (Oxford), Dominik Huenniger (Goettingen), Martin Gierl (Goettingen), Noah Moxham (Kent), Marco Segala (L’Aquila), Adam Dunn and Aileen Fyfe (St Andrews), Matthew Wale (Leicester), Bill Jenkins (Edinburgh), Jenny Beckman (Uppsala), Alrun Schmidtke (Humbold Uni).

The workshop will begin at 13:45 on Thursday 18th, and end at 18:30 on Friday 19th January.  A draft programme is available. There will be an organised dinner on Thursday evening.

Anyone interested in attending should contact Anna Gielas (email above); there will be a modest registration fee to cover catering.

A map showing the location of the School of History’s buildings on South Street (#66) is downloadable as PDF: the Mediaeval History reception is number 71 South Street (with columns and a little portico), but best to enter via number 65 (open archway with iron gate: look for our workshop poster!)

Untangling Academic Publishing: responses

Untangling Academic Publishing was launched on May 25, 2017 (see previous post for a report of the launch).We are using this page to collate the responses and reactions. Please add your comments using the ‘Leave a reply’ function (above), or link to your own blog (etc).

John Elmes, “Academics ‘should not sign over research copyright to publishers“, Times Higher Education (25 May)

Ernesto Priego’s blog (25 May): “A significant contribution of this report is its historical perspective… I hope that everyone interested in scholarly publishing reads the complete report, but I would like to copy and paste below a selection of the recommendations that I believe we should all work harder to communicate (and, of course, actively embrace) within our own professional and disciplinary networks”.

Kat Steiner’s blog (30 May): “The report itself is a really good read, and even as someone with a fair amount of history of science knowledge, and a librarianship degree, there was lots I didn’t know. It’s not too long either.”

A view from the other side of the Atlantic, as Shawn Martin wonders if the history of US academia makes a difference to US attitudes to OA in his ‘History of Scholarly Communication’ blog (31 May)

A non-profit provider of publishing services (Veruscript) finds lots to like in our recommendations… (1 June)

Uta Frith: “Thoughtful analysis of past & future of science publishing. We don’t have to buy the for profit model” (Twitter 2 June)

Anne Nolan reflected on the launch event (2 June) and said ‘My takeaway from the evening was that publishers do have a valuable role to play, but need to keep an eye on what scholars and their institutions value.’

The British Library Science Team summarised our report nicely (8 June), and drew attention to ‘diamond open access’ – something that really should be more talked about! (On diamond OA, see Fuchs & Sandoval, 2013)

Thanks to Beth Hall, for letting us know that Danny Kingsley (Cambridge, @dannykay68) was recommending our report to the delegates at the CONUL conference of librarians in Ireland (30-31 May)!

Jo VanEvery (12 June) expresses disappointment ‘that it downplays the political shifts that happen over the same period, which are only visible by the traces they leave in higher education policy.’ But she also urges scholars to think about ‘what all this might me for you as a scholarly writer submitting your work for publication’ and to ‘Reflect on your own practices and examine the values embedded in them and their alignment with your own scholarly values.’

Alastair Horne, writing for BookBrunch (20 June), noted that it has been a busy month for reports on academic publishing – with the ‘Academic Book of the Future’ project reporting shortly after UntanglingAcademic Publishing was launched. He (rightly!) notes that Untangling  ‘may make more concerning reading for publishers’.

Herman Rucic brought our comments about copyright to the attention of those campaigning for copyright reform, at CopyBuzz.com (22 June). He noted our recommendation that academics should retain copyright, and not transfer it to profit-oriented third-parties, but curiously didn’t comment on the UK-SCL proposal.

Delighted to see the Oxford OA team (26 June) using our report as recommended reading for training researchers about OA and copyright!

Untangling Academic Publishing: Launch

Academics should take back control of the communication of research, according to a briefing paper launched on May 25 by a team led by St Andrews researchers. ‘Untangling Academic Publishing: A history of the relationship between commercial interests, academic prestige and the circulation of research’ examines the recent historical changes in academic publishing, and highlights the disconnect between traditional scholarly ideals of circulation and the current commercially-motivated system. It argues for the importance of considering academic work cultures – particularly the emphasis on publishing in certain prestigious venues – when trying to drive changing practices.

The paper was launched with a talk at the British Academy by Dr Aileen Fyfe, lead author, and reader in History at St Andrews (Untangling Launch slides PDF). Aileen outlined the huge change in models of academic publishing that took place around 1950, and asked why similarly large changes had yet to take place despite known problems such as the constraints on library funding, and the arrival of online publishing.  She argued that learned societies and universities- as organisations representing communities of academics, and with an intrinsic commitment to promoting research and scholarship – ought to take the lead in creating cost-efficient, prestige-bearing venues for online communication of research.

David Sweeney, Executive Chair Designate  of Research England (pictured with Aileen), responded to the talk, saying it had raised many key points about the value of academic publishing and its relationship to academic prestige culture. He welcomed the briefing paper as a ‘constructive and thoughtful’ contribution to the debate about the future of academic publishing. He praised it as ‘pleasingly free – almost! – from polemic’, noting that is all too rare in an area where the strong feelings on both sides often led parties to demonize the other, rather than seeking to work together to a future arrangement that offered value for all.

The report is available at https://zenodo.org/record/546100

The launch was accompanied by opinion pieces in the HE media:

Tweets from 25 May have been storifyed. We are collating the responses in a separate post – please do add your comments to it!