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 This long tradition still holds true in the digital world, when printed copies have been replaced by PDFs, but most publishers will still supply authors with a PDF for circulation through their networks.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

Offprints were originally known as ‘separate copies’; by the 1880s, the terms ‘reprint’ and ‘author’s copy’ came to be used. (We are not, however, talking about ‘pre-prints’: this post concerns copies of papers that had been approved for publication in one of the Royal Society’s journals.)

Separate Copies in the Eighteenth Century

‘Separate copies’ of papers originated as private arrangements between the author and the printer, with the author paying the cost of additional copies. Surviving copies suggest that this practice was in existence for the Philosophical Transactions at least as early as 1708 (see comment below from Gregory S. Girolami).

Such arrangements continued to exist once the Royal Society took over the management of the Philosophical Transactions in 1752. The earliest mention of them that we have found in the archive is from 1786, when the Society’s secretary informed Erasmus Darwin that his son Robert’s request for separate copies of his paper had arrived too late (RS CB/2/34 – Blagden to Darwin, 14 Sept. 1786).

This correspondence between Blagden and the grandfather of Charles Darwin reveals that:

·         Requests for separate copies needed to arrive promptly, so that the printer could print additional copies at the same time as the main run (because the type would be distributed for use in other projects);

·         Blagden wrote, ‘The business of separate copies is a private transaction between the Author & the Printer… (as it presumably had been before 1752);

·         But he went on: ‘…in which the Society does not interfere any further than to prevent the printer from striking off more than 100 copies’. This gives us an indication of how many separate copies might be in existence. The print run of the journal was at that time 750.

Separate copies, if purchased, were available to the author as soon as printed. They were thus often the first way in which the paper circulated, as the copies for the formal edition could sit for several months awaiting collation into one of the published ‘parts’ of the Transactions (usually issued in autumn and spring).

Thus, people in the author’s correspondence networks could get advance access to forthcoming papers. For instance, in 1838, Michael Faraday wrote to a Genevan correspondent that he was sending him, through the kindness of a mutual friend and traveller, ‘a copy of a paper on Induction which though printed is not yet published’ (Faraday correspondence, letter 1080).

Separate Copies in the Nineteenth Century

During the nineteenth century, the numbers of separate copies provided, and the ways in which they could be used, were often discussed.

In 1802, there was a contretemps between the president, Joseph Banks, and William Nicholson, the editor of Journal of Natural Philosophy about whether it was legitimate to reprint material from the separate copies of Transactions papers. Banks said not. As a result, the wrappers of separate copies began to carry a message:

‘Gentlemen who are indulged by the Council of the Royal Society with separate Copies of their Communications are requested to use their endeavour to prevent them from being reprinted till one Month after the publication of the Part of the Volume of the Philos: Transactions in which they are inserted.’ (RS CMO/8, 15 July 1802)

[For more on the Banks/Nicholson episode, see Iain Watts’s 2014 article]

At some point in the early nineteenth century, the Society began to cover the cost of separate copies to authors. In 1849, the number of such free copies was set at 100 (RS CMP/2, 20 Dec. 1849). However, authors wanting more copies were still able to pay for them, on two conditions:

·         That the author ‘defrays the expense of the paper and press-work of the additional copies’ (i.e. separate copies were not charged full-price; there was no allowance of the cost of illustrations or typesetting);

·         And the copies could only be used for ‘gratuitous distribution’ (i.e. these copies were not to be sold for profit). (RS CMP/XX, 24 Feb. 1859)

No longer just for private circulation…

Until 1875, all the ‘separate copies’ in existence were for the authors’ private use. But in that year, apparently as a result of a suggestion from Charles Darwin to his friend, Joseph D. Hooker (then President of the Royal Society), a small number were made available for commercial sale by a bookseller. It was hoped this would make the articles in Transactions more ‘accessible to students’. (RS CMB/47/3, 25 Feb. and 1 June 1875).

In March 1875, the Council resolved that:

·         ‘The author of a paper be informed by a printed notice affixed to the proof that the Society will supply him with 50 copies for gratuitous distribution, which number would, however, be increased to 100 on application…’

·         ‘…and that any further number not exceeding 150 copies might be supplied at cost price, at the author’s expense, it being understood that they were for gratuitous distribution only…’

·         ‘That he be further informed that a certain number of copies, to be fixed at the discretion of the Officers, will be placed with a bookseller for sale.’ (RS CMP/4, 18 March 1875).

Bookseller Nicholas Trübner got the contract to sell the separate copies, and was initially optimistic about potential sales in Britain and ‘in the principal cities of Europe’. (This is also significant as the first time we have found the Royal Society making any efforts to enhance circulation of its research by working with the commercial book trade, i.e. working with booksellers or distributors, not just with printers.)

However, in 1883, Trübner returned ‘a large quantity of unsold stock of separate papers from Phil Trans’ and reported that he now believed ‘that not more than ten copies, instead of twenty-five’, of each article, would be sufficient to meet public demand. (RS CMP/5, 24 May 1883).

Trübner’s successor firm, Kegan Paul, continued to sell separate copies of the Transactions until 1894, when the contract was transferred to Dulau & Co (who specialised in distribution to continental Europe) (RS CMP/7, 25 Oct. 1894). In 1906, the contract for distribution of all formats of the Society publications was moved to the Society’s printers, Harrison & Sons. It then shifted, with the printing contract, to Cambridge University Press in 1936.

What about the Proceedings?

Separate copies had initially been provided only for Transactions, but in the 1860s, the question was raised of separate copies for the ‘abstracts’ and short papers that appeared in the Proceedings. In 1871, it was agreed that Proceedings authors would be furnished with 50 copies of a paper, and 25 copies of an abstract, free of charge (RS CMP/4, 16 Feb. 1871). By the 1880s, separate copies of Proceedings papers were provided under the same terms as Transactions papers.

In the Twentieth Century

It is also clear that the theoretical limit of 100 free and 150 paid-for copies could be breached, despite regular reiterations of the rule in early twentieth-century Council meetings. In 1910, for instance, Frederick Mott was granted permission to purchase 500 additional copies of his Transactions paper on human trypanosomiasis, so that they could be bound into volumes representing the work of staff employed by the laboratory where he worked. (RS CMP/10, 8 Dec. 1910). The Society was, however, concerned that such large-scale use of its offprints by other research institutions might interfere with the circulation of the Society’s own print run. Requests of this nature were still coming in in the 1950s, and the Society was inconsistent in whether it granted them or not.

During the First World War, the number of free copies had been restricted to 50; but at some point this must have risen, because in 1973, it was again restricted to 50 (RS CMP/11, 16 March 1916 and CMP/24, 12 July 1973). The concern was always the cost to the Society: both the direct cost of providing the copies, and the potential impact on sales income.

Another cost-cutting measure was to print the free copies on cheaper paper: this appears to have been happening in the 1920s, judging by a 1934 decision to print future offprints of Proceedings papers on ‘a better quality esparto paper’. (CMP/14, 5 July 1934).

That same 1934 Council meeting agreed that there should henceforth be ‘no offprints of Philosophical Transactions’. However, this did not mean that authors did not get free copies of their papers. What it meant was that the copies provided to authors were not printed off specially or separately.

By the 1930s, ‘separate copies’ had in fact become the main form of issue of papers in Transactions, both for commercial sale and for non-commercial circulation.

Whereas each monthly issue of Proceedings contained several papers, the longer papers approved for Transactions were now issued as separate pamphlets as they became available from the printer. This system had originally been introduced for the free copies issued to fellows in the 1880s, and was extended to the free copies sent to learned institutions in 1902. By the early twentieth century, all discussion about the circulation of Transactions concerned 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).

Thus, by 1934, it made little sense to describe the author’s copies as if they were something different from the main print run: all the copies of Transactions papers were in some sense ‘separate copies’. The change in 1934 was that authors were to be ‘supplied with the usual edition copies’, i.e. from the main print run, rather than printing extra copies.

This situation must have changed (we have found no archival discussion as yet) by the 1960s, when the ‘thematic issue’ became increasingly common in Transactions. When a set of papers – usually arising from a ‘discussion meeting’ of the Society devoted to a specific topic – were published as a single issue of Transactions, we assume that authors would get separate copies (i.e. offprints) of their own papers.

As far as we currently know, offprints of Proceedings papers continued to be issued, gratis, to authors throughout the twentieth century.

We are not yet sure when the first digital offprints were issued, nor when the last paper offprints were supplied. We will update this post with further information: do please comment below, or email, if you can help!

[You will be able to read more about offprints in some forthcoming articles by the team due to appear in Victorian Periodicals Review (Dec. 2018) and in an edited volume hopefully forthcoming in 2018]

3 Replies to “Did authors get offprints?”

  1. Further hunting reveals an offprint dating from 1708 of a Phil. Trans. article by John Keill “Epistola ad Cl. virum Gulielmum Cockburn, medicinae doctorem in qua leges attractionis aliaque physices principia traduntur.” The signatures are designated with asterisks and daggers, which were used to hold the place of the signatures eventually used in the journal issue. A copy of this offprint is present in the MIT library.

  2. One correction: the article should state, “From at least the 1740s the Royal Society had been allowing authors to acquire copies of their papers….” The earliest Phil. Trans. offprint I know of – although there probably were earlier ones – is one by Turbervill Needham, entitled “A Summary of Some Late Observations upon the Generation, Composition and Decomposition of Animal and Vegetable Substances,” published in the Phil. Trans. in 1748. Starting in about 1802, offprints from the Phil. Trans. bore the admonition: Gentlemen who are indulged with separate Copies of their Communications, are requested to use their endeavour to prevent them from being reprinted, till one month after the publication of that part of the Philosophical Transactions in which they are inserted.

    1. Technically, you’re not quite right, because the Royal Society did not own/manage the Transactions until 1752, so it did not ‘allow’ things in the 1740s. Nonetheless, you’re right that offprints surely existed earlier – and thank you for your examples! At this stage, they were presumably the result of private arrangements with the printer.

      You are, however, right that there was a typo in the original draft of this post: it should have said 1780s (not 1870s), because the earliest example we have found in the Society archives of any mention of separate copies is 1786. At that point, it was still a ‘private transaction’ between author and printer.

      I’m in the process of rewriting this post, both to correct the typo and to add in more information about the later history. Now, I can add some earlier history, too…!

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