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