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.

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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.

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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]

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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 ( 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!)

1963: ‘Self-help for Learned Societies’ pamphlet

In 1963 the Royal Society coordinated a meeting of representatives from 55 British scientific societies. The topic for discussion was ‘Scientific Publications’, and to stimulate the discussion, there was some pre-circulated reading material: Dr Frank V Morley’s pamphlet Self-Help for Learned Societies (Nuffield Foundation, 1963).

The pamphlet was commissioned by the Nuffield Foundation at a time when those involved in learned society publishing were worrying about the state of their own finances, and wondering about the apparent competition from commercial publishers. Following a 1955 report by an experienced publisher, the Nuffield Foundation and the Royal Society set up an advisory committee to further investigate the challenges facing learned societies. The Nuffield provided funding to hire a publishing consultant to visit individual societies.

From 1957, Dr Frank V Morley was that ‘liaison officer’. He was a Pennsylvanian-born Rhodes scholar, with a DPhil in mathematics from Oxford; but he was also an author and an experienced publisher, having been a director of Faber & Faber in the decade before the war (alongside T.S. Eliot) and then heading Harcourt Bruce in New York during the war. Back in Britain in the 1950s, he seemed to have the ideal combination of experience in science and publishing.

In 1963, he wrote up his experiences of visiting ‘individual bedsides’ of ailing patients. The language of illness reflects the premise that learned society publishing was in seriously ill-health in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Morley described 1955-63 as having been ‘lean years’ for learned society publishing.

Due to the social and economic changes in the postwar world, the old relationship between societies and their printer-publishers could not continue. There had been a lot of goodwill and generosity, but ‘there was no possibility of avoiding some change of habits’.

Morley saw the problem as ‘the general problem of production and distribution of those periodical publications which were essential for the encouragement and communication of original research, which nobody wished to go out of existence, but which without some kind of help were on the way to extinction’ (p.1)

As the contents page reveals, he investigated the practicalities of editorial practices and production processes, the challenges of circulation (referred to as ‘promotion’ of the journal), and the long-term challenge of financial sustainability. His key message was that societies needed to pay more attention to sales income, so that they could make their journals self-supporting. (It’s worth remembering that learned society publishing before the war had usually been supported by a mixture of society funds and external grants, some from government, some from industry, others from private donors).

Morley urged societies to pay more attention to ‘practical publishing matters – some of them trivial and some by no means trivial’. As his title said, he was convinced that societies could do a lot to improve the state of their publication finances without needing to look to outside help, whether from government, private donors or arrangements with commercial publishers. David Christie Martin, executive secretary of the Royal Society, had made the same point in a lecture in 1957.

Morley was famously charismatic and funny, though some of the delegates at the June 1963 meeting found him pompous in person. We are still investigating the responses to the pamphlet: some found it patronising, but others found it helpful. (Do get in touch if you can help with this!)

Self-Help urged societies to learn how to run their journals more along the lines of commercial publishers; but it did not help with the question of the involvement of commercial publishers in setting up and owning their own journals. With regard to this question, the Royal Society proposed a Code for the Publication of New Scientific Journals at the same 1963 meeting.

[Images come from the copy of the pamphlet in the Howard Florey papers at the Royal Society, 98HF.160.2.8 ]

1990: A note on copyright and licensing

In 1990, the Royal Society reacted to the 1988 Copyright Act by changing its approach to copyright: rather than holding copyright jointly between author and Society, it would begin to require authors to transfer copyright to the Society.

Given the nature of the Society as an organisation, this should not be understood as the Society pioneering a shift towards copyright transfer. Rather, the Society was following wider trends in academic publishing.

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1963: The Royal Society Publishing Code

Questions about the ethics, governance and profitability of academic publishing are widespread in 21st-century academia and beyond (even reaching the mainstream print media) It turns out that these concerns are not as new as we thought…

This 1963 document outlines the Royal Society’s proposed ‘Code for the publication of new scientific journals’.

The Society’s code for publishing, 1963

It was created by the Royal Society’s committee on ‘scientific information’, and presented by the Society’s president, Howard Florey, to a meeting of officers of 55 British scientific societies in June 1963. (This meeting also discussed advance copies of Morley’s Self-Help for Learned Societies, which discussed the organisation and financing of society journals.)

The Code was written at a time when the presence of commercial publishers was becoming more apparent in the world of scientific journals, and concerns were being raised over ownership and control.

The Code insists that the ideal body to run a journal is a scientific society, but if that is not possible, then editorial and financial policy should be in the hands of academics, and that copyright should be retained by authors.

It is not (yet) entirely clear to us what happened to the Code after 1963. The Royal Society was trying to provide leadership to other societies, in publishing and other matters. The meetings with other societies continued for at least a few years; and meetings of journal editors were emerging in the USA around the same time.