1925 Printed referee report forms (used since the 1890s)

In the 1890s, the Royal Society had introduced a set of 7 questions for referees, in the hope of structuring the reports (which were sometimes extremely long-winded!). These were originally hand-written into the covering letter, but were quickly turned into a printed standardised report form, sent to each referee with the manuscript to be evaluated. Referees were encouraged to return their reports within 14 days – a deadline that was routinely breached.

By the early twentieth century, these report forms included clear instructions for referees, including advising them of the confidentiality attached to the papers referred to them (see image). It was routine for the author’s name to be written on the form: refereeing was single-blind, not double-blind. At this time referees were always Fellows of the Society (and their names and reports were kept confidential), but the majority of papers came from those outside the Fellowship.

The report forms made it possible for a referee to present an extremely succinct report, as was the case with Professor H. Lamb’s report on this 1925 paper by ‘Mrs. H. Ayrton’. Hertha Ayrton’s work in electrical engineering had previously been published with and exibited to the Society, but her status as a married woman had prevented the Royal Society accepting a fellowship nomination certificate in her name in 1902. (Her husband was also a well-known electrical engineer, and Fellow of the Royal Society, William Ayrton.)

The printed forms were also an attempt to standardize the refereeing process, or to at least advise referees on how to write an effective report. The Society never officially instructed referees until this date; referees were automatically expected to know how to write a report. Guidance on this continued to develop. By 1926, ‘Instructions to Referees’ was part of the Society’s Standing Orders.

Source: Box RR, 1925-1926, Royal Society Archives, London.

Could anyone submit a paper to the Society?

Until 1990, to submit a paper to the Society one had to be a Fellow or be acquainted with a Fellow who was willing to communicate a paper on your behalf. The communicators’ role was therefore the first check on whether a paper was appropriate for the Society – to be read and published. The Society was therefore not accessible to everyone. Before the mid nineteenth century when there were reforms that meant Fellows had to be active in scientific research, the Royal Society was akin to a gentleman’s club. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Society’s members were often men of wealth and station, few of whom depended on scientific work for income. As the nineteenth century progressed, the nature of working as a man of science changed: it was possible for people conducting scientific research to make a living from working in university departments, or in governmental positions. Those who attended university, namely, the rising middle classes, could increasingly survive as a professional man of science. To reflect this, the Society underwent reforms in the early nineteenth century to reduce the number of Fellows who were not active researchers. From this point the Society became a group of men in pursuit of scientific discovery and development.

While there were no Female Fellows until 1945, the Society was open to women who were conducting scientific research. Before 1945, women were publishing papers in the Society’s journals, attending the Society’s weekly meetings upon invitation, and even delivering papers at the meetings of the Society. The earliest paper by a woman is a short letter from Caroline Herschel to …. [add in details on this, access through her brother]. The mathematician Mary Summerville submitted a paper to the Society in 1826, which was published in the Transactions. But despite requests to be made Fellows earlier, women were denied the privilege. The electrical engineer Hertha Ayrton, whose husband was a Fellow of the Society, attempted to become a Fellow in 1902 [check], having the support of several Fellows, who had to sign her election certificate, which listed her publications to date, one of which was a paper in the Transactions. The Society considered the certificate very carefully, but came to the conclusion that while it was not against the Society’s laws to elect a female Fellow, it was illegal to elect a married female Fellow. As a result, it would be another forty three years before the first female Fellow was elected. In 1945 the biochemist Marjory Stevenson, and the biochemist Kathleen Lonsdale became Fellows.

1920 Emergency Finance Committee

In 1920, the Society was once again anxious about the cost of publishing, and the ongoing deficit in the publishing account. This year it was particularly heightened owing to the aftermath of the war, which meant increases to printing costs and salaries, whilst the income of the Society remained static. As a result, the Council appointed an Emergency Finance Committee.

Several Fellows were appointed committee members, including James Jeans, who was current Secretary of the Society (1919-1929). The suggestions to counter the impending deficit on the Society’s general account that were adopted by Council included: transferring unexpended balances from government research grants to the general account; raising Fellows’ annual subscriptions to £5 (from £4); increasing new Fellows’ entrance fees to £20, (from £10; £1 covered by Fee Reduction Fund), £10 of which to be covered by the Society’s Fee Reduction Fund; allowing Fellows to receive A or B of Transactions and Proceedings only (except when approved by Council), rather than both A and B; raising the cost of public subscription to the Society’s publications by 50%; cutting the list of institutions receiving Society publications for free; limiting the expenditure for the Library Committee (for purchasing books); and making ‘an appeal to private generosity’. One of the biggest pressure on the Society’s finances was printing. This was partly owing to the work done on the International Catalogue, and on the Catalogue of Scientific papers – both of which involved collating a record of scientific papers alphabetically [or chronologically?], and were extremely expensive in terms of printing. Yet, the Society’s journals were also to blame. The Emergency Committee therefore suggested that ‘every possible economy be effected in the Society’s publications consistent with their maintaining their present scope and character’. The Society was unwilling to drastically change the Transactions, for instance by imposing strict page limits; this was seen as an unnecessary risk to the purpose and scope of the journal.

This episode in the Society’s history is important, not because of the effect these changes had on income – the Society continued to lose money on its publications – but, rather, because it signified a slight change in the Society’s attitude to finances. While the Society had historically relied almost completely on donations and grants in order to cover costs, never paying much attention to its income stream, it was now attempting to increase its income by raising Fellows’ contributions and the sale price of its journals. The results were not enough to propel the Society into an income-generating model, but they were a sign that some at the Royal Society were willing to think more commercially about the Society’s publishing activities. Commercial agendas would not have any great effect on the Society’s finances until much later in the twentieth century.

Source: CMB/86b Emergency Finance report, 20 July 1920, Royal Society Archives, London.

Crossword puzzles and gee-whizz factor: The Royal Society and BA journal Science and Public Affairs in the 1980s and 90s

The history of the Royal Society’s publications in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, has been one of immense fiscal growth.[2] From a publication system that did not concern itself much with the finances of its journals, the Society is today concerned with optimizing its “products.”[3] Like the histories of so many scholarly journals in these decades, the Society’s journey from benevolent publisher to professionalised semi-commercial status has followed the pace and direction set by commercial publishers in the West. It is a history of changing ideologies and perspectives, of experiments and risk-taking, but it is also a story of exploring public engagement through publishing. Today, the Royal Society actively tweets and emails about its published material, ensuring large coverage in the mainstream media. But it was before this time, that the seeds of its modern interest in communicating with the public were sown through the experiment that was Science and Public Affairs, a journal with direct support from COPUS. In this essay I explore the behind-the-scenes story of the journal, edited by Sir Walter Bodmer, which became a magazine.

A new journal and a makeover

As the Society explored commercial ventures in the late 1990s, it had yet to start competing by way of creating new products. This became a problem in the late-twentieth century, as commercial publishers flooded the market with exactly this.[4] The last time the Society had created new publications had been in the 1930s, first with the Biographical Memoirs of the Fellows of the Royal Society (containing mostly obituaries and annually published) in 1932, and the science historical journal Notes and Records in 1938 (containing mostly history about the Society and its fellows). Both were aimed at the fellowship, and did not carry scientific content. As the millennium approached the Society became more interested in competition, and started to explore new product avenues. Like before, it did so with a non-scientific journal, but this time it was aimed towards the general public and policy-makers. The first new product to be created since the 1930s was Science and Public Affairs (SPA) in the mid-eighties. At first SPA was a depositary-style journal for material that did not go into the Society’s other journals for various reasons, and was published jointly with the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS; British Science Association since 2009). Its first editor was Bodmer, who had chaired the committee that wrote the Royal Society report “The Public Understanding of Science” (sometimes known as the Bodmer report) in 1985.[5] At the time, a committee that was semi-independent from the Society’s Council, the Publications Management Committee (PMC), oversaw the general development and finances of all the institution’s journals, whereas a dedicated SPA editorial committee met to discuss the future of the journal. It was in the years between 1985 and 1990 that the Society decided to revamp all of its published journals, including editorial processes, finances, staff, and the visual look of each volume. As part of this makeover, it was suggested that SPA could perhaps take on a new role, from small depository journal to glossy magazine for the educated masses.

Not the the New Scientist

The PMC envisaged the new SPA as a widely available publication, possibly even sold through newsagents, a first for any Society publication. Older society publications dated back to the 17th century, when the flagship publication the Philosophical Transactions was first published. Since then, the Transactions had been joined by the shorter-format Proceedings. However, both publications were distinctly research-focused, and developed for and read by academics. The Society had seldom before been concerned with public engagement by way of journal or magazine publishing, which makes the case of SPA so unusual, and possibly is also an explanation for its short-lived status. During discussion of what would become the makeover of SPA, the Publications Management Committee at the Society emphasised “that the intention was not the popularization of science in the sense of New Scientist, but that the journal should be seen more as a quarterly (or, eventually, monthly) review of science, with the emphasis on public affairs.”[6] One slightly sceptical member of the committee stressed the need for impartial factual articles, not based on opinion, for the benefit of major decision-makers. In other words, the Society was willing to take some risks, but not go totally ‘pop’ like the popular science magazines tended to.


On a whole, Bodmer accepted the Society’ directions by way of the PMC, but he also sought a lively style to attract readers and did not want to create a house-journal for the Society, which would perhaps have been a more traditional route to take.[7] An eclectic mix of science reviews, policy news, illustrations, glossy photographs, and entertainment followed. In one issue of SPA we can see the diversity on offer in terms of content. Cosmologist (and, later, President of the Royal Society from 2005 till 2010) Sir Martin Rees asked why the media gave a distorted view of science in the editorial, writing: “the media, understandably, tend to highlight the human angle, the politics and the gee-whizz factor.”[8] A mid-career Richard Dawkins was interviewed about the role of philosophy in the selfish gene doctrine. The article “Snap, Crack and Pop” examined “good vibrations from joints” (not of the herbal kind). Two reporters were sent out to explore what happened when 400 children hijacked the Science Museum for a night (chaos, laughter and learning). The issue was crowned by a “COPUS crossword-puzzle.” Except for Lorraine Ward (on the children piece), all the reporters, authors and journalists were male. But the editorial committee of fifteen people included one woman, Ms W. Barnaby, and ten of the twenty-one commissioning editors where female. Published quarterly and priced at £5.25 (or £20 annually) it was the Society’s most gender-balanced, cheap and accessible journal ever.

Science journalism in a learned society

The decision to give SPA a makeover and keep the tone engaging subsequently attracted a new type of editorial assistant to the journal.[9] From a role mainly to do with chasing other people’s work and deadlines, editorial concerns, working with Bodmer, and copy-editing, the editorial assistants whom worked on SPA when it became a magazine often wanted to be or become science journalists. One individual went on to work at the New Scientist, but all disappeared out of the role within two-to-three years. Bodmer remained, working with his enthusiastic editorial assistant to produce an interesting magazine for the lay reader. The only problem was that the editorial assistants also had the responsibility of all of the Society’s other non-scientific and occasional publications. Amongst these were two continuous publications of very different natures; the Biographical Memoirs and the Notes and Records of the Royal Society. The everyday work for each of these outputs thus fell to one person, who more often than not was more drawn to the glamour and contemporary feel of SPA, than the heavy, traditional and institutional nature of the other products. Furthermore, SPA was for sale everywhere (made possible by subsidized finances), whereas the Biographical Memoirs and Notes and Records were aimed towards the fellowship and their interests. For ambitious science journalists, the popular and diverse SPA became an exciting stepping-stone to a writing career.

The end of the Society connection

As SPA continued to circulate and be distributed amongst varied groups interested in scientific news and politics, it garnered more approval from its paternal keeper. In 1991, the responsibility for SPA transferred from the Society’s Publications Management Committee to its own management group, one in a series of steps towards making the magazine more independent.[10] By 1995, the Society and BAAS did some consumer-testing on their magazine, and found that SPA was indeed “highly regarded by recipients”[11]. An impressive 40% of the Society’s own fellowship opted to take SPA in lieu of the traditional journals, Proceedings and Philosophical Transactions.[12] Despite this, the Society was concerned for a number of reasons. Since 1985, the scholarly publishing field had changed enormously, and the Society was now getting serious about acquiring more surplus through its subscription models in line with what commercial publishers were already doing elsewhere. Furthermore, magazine publishing was deemed to be a different world to journal publishing, one in which outfits like Nature and New Scientists were sweeping the market, and becoming competitive on a completely different and unattainable level. Finally, the subsidizing model of SPA was no longer viable and the magazine was defined by the Royal Society to be popular, but too expensive. Worries about finances were thus frontline and centre when the Society decided to let SPA go in the mid-nineties.[13] It was suggested that BAAS could take over SPA entirely, which it did, and the Society has since focused its policy work on more traditional policy papers and public engagement.[14] Responsibility for SPA transferred from the Society to BAAS on four conditions: the journal should be collaborative publication with BAAS, a sponsor should be found to pay for 1,000 free copies, COPUS should agree to provide £10,000 toward the publishing costs for the first year of the new-style publication, and that the design changes should be made by 1992.[15] BAAS and COPUS agreed, and the move was made. Since, the journal changed shape and tone again, but never quite regained the diversity of content it had displayed while run by the Society, BAAS and Bodmer together.


The small decade in which the Royal Society published SPA can tell us something unique about the moment in time when COPUS had a genuine impact on British science. In the eighties, the Royal Society was, and some would argue still is, a traditional boy’s club affair based on tradition, hierarchy and reputation. It was vital in the COPUS movement, as were many of its fellows, but SPA reveals a playful side to the elite institution only made possible by the decades flirtation with the possibility of making science sexy. SPA carried quizzes, interviews and science journalism, and was sold to a wide market in newsstands. Furthermore, it made little to no money for the Society or BAAS, yet was kept going out of what seems to be sheer enthusiasm. Most scholars of publishing or the Royal Society may agree that that moment has now passed. Nothing has been published at the Royal Society without a secure financial plan in place first since the mid-nineties. In fact, publishing is today one of the top sources of surplus for the institution, even as the profit-driven model of scholarly communication is being debated in wider academic communities. Furthermore, the moment in time where the Society published science journalism can also be said to have passed, as policy work and other public engagement projects rooted in education has taken over. The sense of fun that SPA brought with it, however, is not completely gone. Today, the Society’s YouTube channel ‘Objectivity’ showcases popular videos of treasures from the institution’s archive, and children often visit the building for a range of events (chaos, laughter and learning). The legacy of SPA can best be seen in science journalism, and although we may mourn the decade where the Society genuinely wanted to connect to the lay-reader through a magazine, I think we can all agree to be glad that the time of COPUS-crossword puzzles is gone.

[1] School of History, University of St Andrews, UK.

[2] This paper is based on research from the AHRC-funded project ’Publishing the Philosophical Transactions ’ at the University of Manchester. Project website (with forthcoming information about publications and data sets): https://arts.st-andrews.ac.uk/philosophicaltransactions/ (Accessed 4 April 2017).

[3] Journals start to be described in these words in the late nineties. Meeting of the publishing board (14 January 1998), PUB/10 in Royal Society Publishing Board minutes (1996-2015), box CMB/417, Royal Society archives.

[4] Derek J. de Solla Price, in his landmark study on the growth of scientific publishing, estimated an exponential growth rate of about 5.6% and a doubling time of thirteen years from the 1950s. D.J. De Solla Price, Science since Babylon (Yale University Press, 1975).

[5] A COPUS grant scheme was set up in 1987, funded by the Office of Science and Technology and the Royal Society, with the last rounds of grants in 2003/4 (25 grants were awarded). COPUS was discontinued in 2002.

[6] Publications Management Committee minutes (28 November 1989), file C/230 (89), box PMC/26(89), Royal Society archives.

[7] PMC meeting (16 May 1990), CMB/367.

[8] Martin Rees, ”The Big Picture”, Science and Public Affairs , Autumn 1994, p.3.

[9] Interview with Chris Purdon, former member of publishing staff at the Society, by Røstvik, via Skype, 12 April 2017.

[10] Publication Management Committee meeting (20 June 1991), box CMB/367, Royal Society archives.

[11] The Royal Society Publication Review Group, final report, p. 9, folder C/31(95), Royal Society archives.

[12] Publication Management Committee meeting (28 November 1989), file C/230 (89) in box PMC/26(89), Royal Society archives.

[13] Publications Management Committee minutes (28 November 1990), file C/214(90), box PMC/29(90), Royal Society archives.

[14] The Royal Society’s Policy webpages: https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/ (Accessed 26 January 2017).

[15] Publications Management Committee minutes: 20 June 1991, file C/123(91), box PMC/32(91), Royal Society archives.

1914 Proceedings recognised as a research journal

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Philosophical Transactions was the Society’s only publishing organ. This changed in 1832 when the Proceedings was established, first as a retrospective record of all papers published by the Society, and then soon after as a record of all papers read before the Society. Thus, if an author got their paper read before the Society, they were guaranteed a short abstract published in Proceedings. The Proceedings, however, was at times the location for full research papers, usually those too short to be considered for Transactions but longer than abstract length. This became an increasing practice towards the end of the nineteenth century. By 1914, the Standing Orders of the Royal Society were changed to reflect the different purpose of Proceedings. Now it would contain abstracts of papers published in the Philosophical Transactions, but the main content was papers ‘of approved merit not more than twenty-four pages in length, and not containing numerous elaborate illustrations’. The Philosophical Transactions was for ‘papers of approved merit which contain numerous or elaborate illustrations, or which cannot without detriment to their scientific value be condensed into the space reserved for papers in the Proceedings’. The other distinction was that papers for Transactions should be sent to two referees, while Proceedings papers <24 pages in length could be passed for printing without being referred.

The new Standing Orders simply formalised what had been the usual practice for several decades. They also marked, however, an important development which meant that the Proceedings was increasingly an attractive alternative to Transactions because of its shorter lag-time between submission and print due to the speedier decision making process that generally avoided referees. Some scientists were keen to take advantage of it, choosing the Proceedings to publish papers they would have submitted to Transactions fifty years earlier. In reality, some Proceedings papers were refereed, and increasingly so as the twentieth century progressed [some figures from Aileen’s peere paper?]. But initially, Proceedings remained less tied to the long refereeing process. The Proceedings was also attractive because it appeared in print more frequently than the Transactions, which was published biannually. By the 1920s Proceedings was monthly, although the publishing date remained unfixed. This meant that a paper could be submitted, read (even just its title), and sent to the printers within a few days, available in print within a few weeks, rather than a few months as was often the case with Transactions papers. The Transactions was therefore no longer the Society’s main publishing organ; the Proceedings was becoming a popular site for speedier publication. While the Transactions was attractive to authors because of its elaborate illustrations, the Proceedings provided a way to publish with the Society without sacrificing speedier publication.

Source: CMP/10, 21 May 1914, p. 428-440, Royal Society Archives, London.

1907 Fellow’s memorandum on changing the Society’s publishing practices

Up until the late twentieth century, the Society had rarely, if ever, made a profit on its publications. It frequently transferred funds from its general account, and from special grants, to cover the cost of production for the Philosophical Transactions and the Proceedings. Fellow of the Society, and zoologist, E. Ray Lankester attempted to reduce the financial burden on the Society from publications by suggesting ways of lessening cost. Lankester believed more ‘stringent selection of papers to be published’ was necessary, and that an estimation of the cost of each paper before publication would help to curtail rising costs. His more unusual suggestions included allowing Fellows to automatically publish short (1 ½ pages) papers in the Proceedings without refereeing or even approval by the Committee of Papers; he also thought having a fixed monthly publishing date would make Proceedings more effective. With regard to any other papers in the Proceedings, they could not exceed six pages in length. The Philosophical Transactions, on the other hand, was to be the location of full research papers with limited restrictions. The division of labour between Proceedings and Transactions was not far from the actual situation in 1907 when increasingly Proceedings was the site of short (12 pages) research papers, rather than just abstracts of papers in Transactions, as it had begun. By 1914, Proceedings had become a research journal on a par with Transactions, papers limited to 24 pages in length. Lankester’s memo. was not far from reality, but his proposal to allow Fellows to publish anything they wished at short notice in the Proceedings was, perhaps unsurprisingly, never adopted.

Estimating the cost of papers, however, was something the Society did trial between 1907 and 1914. The length of paper, number of illustrations, unusual type-setting, and graphical images were all taken into consideration. While this did not become standard practice post-1914, by the 1920s the Society was sending the estimated cost of papers to referees along with the referred paper. In this way the cost of publishing became a measure of the suitability of a paper for the Society’s journals.

Source: Lankester’s Memo Committee of Papers CMB/90/5, 24 October 1907.

1895 The Society’s request for a Government Grant in-aid of publication

The rising costs of publishing the Philosophical Transactions was causing considerable anxiety at the Royal Society. In 1895, the Senior Secretary, physicist Lord Rayleigh (John Strutt) took steps to increase the Society’s capacity to finance its publication. He wrote to Her Majesty’s Treasurer describing ‘the financial difficulties attending the adequate publication of scientific papers’. Scientific journals and their publishers were finding it almost impossible to be commercially successful. There was limited readership owing to the specialization of science, which meant that readers were unlikely to buy publications, like the Philosophical Transactions, covering the whole of science. The cost of illustrations was also very high, but Rayleigh considered them essential for effective scientific communication. The Society had struggled so much that in some cases it had even rejected papers despite them being worthy of publication. It was not only the Royal Society that was struggling to meet costs, but all scientific publishers, including learned societies, specialist societies, and even commercial publishers. Learned societies bore much of the burden so Rayleigh proposed a grant of £2000 or £1000 annually to aid not only the Royal Society’s activities but those of other societies. A grant of £1000 was given, and the Society began to administer it to needy Societies and publications, as well as using it on its own publications. In 1925 H. M. Treasurer asked the Society to receive an increased grant of £2500 annually, administering it to other Societies in need. The Society agreed, becoming a tool for the government’s support of scientific publishing.

The fact that the Society had to request a grant for publishing was a reflection of its financial model at this time. Rayleigh’s request was the consequence of a wider ethos of free circulation, which meant that the Society rarely made money on its publications. Every Fellow received a free copy of the journal, and authors received upwards of 100 copies of their papers. Exchange and gift lists also meant many institutions throughout the world had copies of the Society’s publications. Rayleigh wanted to maintain this generous, and even philanthropic, approach to science publishing, but the Society was struggling to do this without assistance. The grant also marked a new role for the Society: by administering the grant to other societies for their publications it meant that the Society was aiding a non-commercial approach to British learned society publishing. This atmosphere of generosity would eventually shift, but not until the late twentieth century.

Source: CMP/7, 20 June 1895, p. 179-183, Royal Society Archives.

1895 Creation of Sectional Committees

By the end of the nineteenth century the Society was facing the challenge of increasing specialization in Science, as well as the continued growth in the submission of papers to its publications. The combination led the Society to reconsider the way it managed the selection of papers. The result was the creation of individual committees, with around 10 Fellows who had expert knowledge in a particular area of science. These were called Sectional Committees; they were each led by a chairman. They consisted of the Mathematical, Physics and Chemistry, Zoology, Geology, Botany, and Physiology committees. Now, instead of papers being sent on receipt directly to referees or to the Committee of Papers, they were sent to the relevant Sectional Committee, whose members administered their refereeing, before sending a summarized report and provisional decision to the Committee of Papers. In reality, the Sectional Committees met infrequently, decisions on papers were often made through correspondence. What was important here was that the administering of refereeing was no longer simply down to the Secretary and the Committee of Papers as a whole. The creation of the Sectional Committees was to reduce the burden of work the Council faced, and to lessen the work carried out by the Secretary, who took on a lot of editorial work. There was thus a decentralisation of editing, which meant that it was now the Chairmen of the Sectional Committees, along with the Secretary, who were central to the Society’s management of its editorial practices until the decommissioning of these Committees in 1868.

Source: CMP/7, 21 February 1895, p. 146-150, Royal Society Archives, London.

How many copies of separate copies were sold?

We have limited data on the number of copies sold. We know that the numbers were small because the Society operated a free circulation model. Payment of the membership fee entitled fellows to claim a free copy of every volume of the Transactions, though they had to do this in person and within five years of publication. The copies for fellows accounted for a large fraction of the print run. For instance, in the 1840s, there were over 700 fellows, and the print run was just 1000. Thus, even though only two-thirds of fellows actually claimed their copies, several hundred copies of the Transactions – maybe even half the print run – were free to read (though an indirect contribution to the cost had been made via membership fee). As a result of the Society’s free circulation model, there were very few sales of the Transactions.

The most striking way in which the Royal Society supported the free circulation of knowledge was by using copies of the Transactions as tokens in gift exchange with other bodies. By the 1840s, the Society was giving around 60 copies each year to learned societies, observatories, academies, and universities, as well as another 20 or 30 copies as gifts to individuals. And by the early twentieth century, there were 465 institutions receiving the Royal Society’s publications for free (Year-book of the Royal Society (1908), 125-142). Within Britain alone, the number of institutions benefitting had quadrupled, and included virtually all the universities and university colleges, as well as national scientific organisations (the National Physical Laboratory), metropolitan scientific societies, provincial societies (the Essex Field Club, Glasgow Natural History Society) and public libraries in Birmingham, Manchester, and Cardiff. By 1908, over 70% of the gifts were going overseas. The majority of these went to European universities and scientific societies, but significant numbers also went to similar institutions in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa, and to the USA. A handful were sent even further afield, to the observatory at Rio de Janeiro, the university library at Caracas, the imperial university in Tokyo, and the bureau of science in Manila. In the 1930s and 1940s was participating in an international system of exchanges amongst those scholarly institutions that both published research and hosted research libraries. In addition, there was a substantial list of universities, research institutions, observatories, and public libraries which did not publish their own research journals but did have members or staff seeking access to research from elsewhere. By the 1930s, this was known as the ‘free list’, and an analysis of its cost to the Society led to the removal of most foreign universities, research institutions and libraries. All universities in the British Empire were entitled to a place on the free list, which still ran to 276 institutions in 1954 (RS OM/14(54)). After a review that year, universities were expected in future to buy the Society’s publications, and only the Queen continued to get the Transactions for free (OM/16(54)). There was an increasingly commercial agenda at the Society in the second half of the nineteenth century.

1894 Treasurer’s letter to Council on high cost of publishing

The Treasurers of the Royal Society had a difficult task. They were charged with ensuring that the Society fulfilled its activities in a financially sustainable way. How the Society historically did this was to use any returns – largely in the form of grants, bequests, and stocks – to cover its costs, the greatest of which in the late nineteenth century was publishing. In this letter to the Council, the Treasurer (John Evans) sets out the ‘present financial position of the Royal Society with regard to its publications’. The Treasurer had worked out the average cost of publishing over six years preceding November 1892. He then laid out how the year succeeding this, 1893, had been incredibly expensive, the cost of publishing Transactions rising £850 above the average (of £2322) over the six years; the Society was able to cover the excess by using the sum recovered from Income Tax over-paid. The reason for the excess expenditure was that the average length of Transactions volumes and number of plates had almost doubled in 1893. In the current year (1894), based on the papers that had been accepted for publication to date, the cost of printing and illustrations was again estimated by the Treasurer to be considerably in excess (by £800) of what he believed the Society could comfortably afford ‘with any degree of safety’.

The Treasurer’s letter is significant because it highlights the Society’s continued struggle with the cost of publishing, which was rising; at the same time, the sale of Transactions stayed relatively constant. Thus the cost of publishing was not covered by income. On the contrary, the Society was continuously having to meet the publishing deficit using other funds. In his letter, the Treasurer believed cuts to the length of papers and illustrations, and stricter gate-keeping practices could curtail rising expenditure. In reality, the Society rather casually adopted some of his suggestions, including limiting Transactions papers to 40 pages, and trying to keep the cost of illustrations per paper below £35, but exceptions to the rule were always possible if the Committee of Papers approved. And it often did. The Society’s main agenda of disseminating scientific knowledge was not sympathetic to the need to make an income; in fact, it was almost hindered by it as the Society’s finances came to breaking point by the end of the nineteenth century.

Despite the Treasurer’s suggestion, the Society never explicitly sent papers by non-Fellows automatically to referees. But the idea of encouraging referees to take seriously the need to reduce cost (by selecting some illustrations over others etc.) did become more prevalent later (see also 1907 Fellow’s memorandum on changing the Society’s publishing practices).

Source: Council Meeting Papers/7: 26 April 1894, p 87-89, Royal Society Archives, London.