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 This long tradition still holds true in the digital world, when printed copies have been replaced by PDFs, but most publishers will still supply authors with a PDF for circulation through their networks.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.

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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”

What did the Philosophical Transactions look like?

If you visit our home page, you can see the visual changes over time. First, the journal was of course black and white, with illustrations inside the journal rather than on the front page. From the 1990s, visual imagery on the cover became important and today glossy images draw the eye to the journal. It is interesting to note that for most of its long history, the Transactions remained visually the same, but since 1990 it changed numerous times. Today, each of the 11 journals have their own visual look, but each carries the Royal Society logo and specific fonts. Similarly, the Royal Society publishing website is becoming increasingly important as more and more readers access the journal online (where a lot of the content is also free). Images online do not always translate well from the printed page, and discussions have been had about using video and more modern tools to illustrate journal articles.

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]

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

Who read the Philosophical Transactions?

Throughout its history, mostly Fellows of the Royal Society, other societies or close acquaintances. Fellows and authors receive offprints of their own articles, and can request offprints from other authors. Fellows have also received the journal for most of its history. Today, as the Royal Society has increased its output to 11 journals, Fellows get a choice of what they want to receive for free. Increasingly the Transactions are read in parts or in themed editions online, rather than as a printed collection.

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?”

Who are the referees?

As a rule, referees had to be Fellows. Only in 1990 (earlier?) did the Society officially allow non-Fellows to referee papers. [If there are earlier examples of non-Fellows could add here.] This meant that there was a finite number of available referees. The number of Fellows changed over time but in the mid nineteenth century, after reforms to reduce the size of the Fellowship, the number of Fellows was around 400 to 500. In reality, a very small proportion of the Fellowship was involved in refereeing. Those who were most active were typically past, current or future Council members. In other words, fellows who were active in one area of the Society’s service tended to be active in other areas too. During his Secretaryship, for example, George Gabriel Stokes was the most active referee, followed by his co-secretary William Sharpey. The Society’s Fellowship in the nineteenth century, when the number of practitioners in science in Britain was growing, represented only an elite group of the scientific community. At the same time, the majority of the papers submitted were from Fellows. Refereeing was thus about judging one’s peers, rather than making judgements on outsiders. Overtime this changed, and increasingly in the early twentieth century more non-Fellows submitted papers to the Society. Refereeing was still conducted by Fellows only but now many authors were not known personally to the Society’s Officers and Council. The Fellowship had grown, and now more Fellows were involved in refereeing: in the 1880s, 8% of the Fellowship were involved in refereeing; this rose to 30% by the 1930s. The workload, however, became even more uneven. The top most active 20% of referees produced just under 40% of referee reports in the nineteenth century, while the same % group in the mid-twentieth century produced 50% of referee reports. Getting a paper through the refereeing process at the Society signified acceptance by representatives of an elite national learned body of judges