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.

The data on sales is incomplete, but the picture is fairly clear: throughout this period, the Transactions cost substantially more to produce than it brought in through sales.

It would, however, be a mistake to consider this as evidence of ‘commercial failure’. The Royal Society was not trying to make money from its journals and, moreover, gave away a substantial fraction of the print run for free.

Rather, this graph illustrates the cost of a mission for scholarship. The gap between costs and sales represents the extent to which the Society was subsidising the production and distribution of its publications.

It also reveals how much more difficult this was becoming by the 1890s, due to the increasing number of papers being submitted.

For the shape of the Society’s finances before and after this graph, see our post, ‘How much money…?

For a fuller discussion of the period covered by this graph, see [open access] Aileen Fyfe, ‘Journals, learned societies and money: Philosophical Transactions, ca. 1750-1900′, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 69 (2015) DOI 10.1098/rsnr.2015.0032

Where do the data come from?

From the 1830s, both the expenditure and income from publications was usually recorded in the Society’s annual accounts (though sometimes sales information is missing). Prior to that, production costs can be found in the Council Minutes, but income from sales is only sporadically recorded.

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. The expectation was that researchers and institutions in the physical sciences would read series A; while researchers and institutions in the biological sciences would prefer series B. There appear to have been no particular efforts to defend the value of a generalist periodical.

Less than ten years later, the Society was struggling with another effect of specialization. The Council acting as the Committee of Papers was supposed to be able to judge, with the assistance of referees, whether a paper should be published or not. The increased rate of submissions meant that the Committee was already over-burdened; and few of its members could evaluate the significance of specialised papers. The referees could do that, but it was also difficult for the secretaries (one for physical sciences, one for biological sciences) to choose appropriate referees: they were limited by their own networks and knowledge.

In 1895, the Council decided to create individual committees with specialist knowledge to relieve Council of the burden of editorial decision-making, and to ensure specialist knowledge was appropriately involved. These were called Sectional Committees, consisting of the Mathematical, Physics and Chemistry, Botany, Geology, Physiology, and Zoology committees. (The committees were similar to the ‘scientific committees’ that had existed from 1838 to 1848.)

The sectional committees (or, usually, their chairmen) chose the referees, and made recommendations about whether and where to publish (Transactions or Proceedings). These were generally rubber-stamped by the Committee of Papers, which only became directly involved if there was a dispute or a difficulty of some kind.

This marks an important decentralisation of editing at the Society. Working with the Secretary on the A or B side, the chairmen of the Sectional Committees became important figures in publishing at the Society. While meetings were held by the Sectional Committees several times per year, the majority of decisions were made by the chairman and the Secretary, at times seeking members’ opinions via correspondence. In the 1960s, this editorial role was deemed to be so important that it was separated from the other work of the sectional committees (e.g. in fellowship nominations), and allocated to Fellows designated as Associate Editors (from 1969). The sectional committees continued to exist, but were no longer involved in publication decisions.

Meanwhile, the question of generalist journals in an age of specialisation remained fraught. In the early twentieth century, there had been suggestions to split Proceedings along similar lines to Transactions. This had been opposed by some prominent fellows, on the grounds that there was value in a generalist journal which would let researchers see what was going on in nearby fields. The chemist, Henry Armstrong, argued in 1902 that the Society’s generalist stance could make it a uniquely ‘favourable.. platform for the discussion of borderland problems’. But this was not pursued. And Proceedings was indeed split in 1905.

There were abortive discussions about creating a series C at various points in the twentieth century: perhaps for Chemistry; or for Applied Science.

At the start of the twenty-first century, the Royal Society returned to Armstrong’s idea of interdisciplinarity, and launched Interface specifically to deal with research that spanned the A and B series.

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.

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.

1892: Changes to the reading of papers

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the weekly meetings of the Royal Society were important sites for the communication of scientific knowledge. The papers presented at the meeting were almost all published in the Society’s Transactions, and from the 1850s they were at least all printed as abstracts in the Proceedings of the Society. The interplay between the meetings and publication was important as the meetings were the first public presentation of a paper, which might not appear in print for several months. Thus, those attending the meeting were aware of the results of new experiments or hear first about a new species before any formal publication. Scientific weeklies and newspapers might have communicated in short what was presented at the Society’s meeting, providing a condensed version of a paper read. The actual published paper in Transactions was thus potentially preceded by considerable interest and discussion. Despite the fact that there was increasing pressure to reform the meetings due to competition from other modes of scientific print, Society meetings retained their primacy throughout this period. This changed in 1892 when the Society’s Standing Orders stated that even if a paper’s title was read only, a paper could be considered for publication. Of the communication that would be read there was now to be a distinction between papers which ‘the author is prepared to illustrate by experiments, diagrams &c., or which is likely to give rise to discussion’. This marked a shift since it meant that a proportion of the papers accepted for publication would be read at a meeting, rather than a proportion of the papers read at the meeting being published, as was the previous practice. This was an important moment, representing a tacit acknowledgement of the subordination of meetings and the primacy of print publication.

Source: Council Meeting Papaers/6: 18 February 1892, p. 398-400, Royal Society Archives, London.

1886-1887: Changing the way the Philosophical Transactions is published

The publishing of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions underwent considerable transformation in 1886 when a Publications Committee was appointed ‘to consider and report to the Council upon the mode and regulations of publication at present adopted by the Society, and what changes, if any, may be advantageously introduced’. The Society was facing increasing specialization in science and continued growth in submissions. The Committee consisted of the Officers of the Society (President, Secretaries, and Treasurer), as well as several past presidents. Advice was also garnered from the Presidents of the Linnean, Geological, Zoological, and Chemical Societies.

Three months later, the Committee returned with recommendations. After months of discussion by the Council, they adopted several of its changes. The most significant was that the Transactions was to be split into two separate series, one physical (A) and one biological (B). The motivation was not stated, but it seemed that the Society was struggling to keep on top of the growth in submissions, and the increasing specialization of science. Splitting the journal made sense if the Society hoped to attract authors who were eager to publish in a more specialized journal. Yet, splitting in two still meant the Transactions maintained its relatively unique attraction as a general research journal. It also meant that Fellows could now receive one series of the journal depending on their research and interests. In fact, papers were from this date published separately (and only later in volumes), meaning that by the late nineteenth century the separate paper had surpassed the published volume to become the main mode of scientific communication.

Source: Council Minute Papers/6: 2 February 1887, p123-124, Royal Society Archives, London.

1875: A new scheme of selling separate copies [CMB/47/3 1 June 1875]

Before 1875, if one wanted to buy the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, it was available as bound volumes, but only when all papers for the current volume were printed – which took several months. Authors received separate copies of their papers that were available shortly after a paper was passed for printing by the Committee of Papers. These copies, however, were generally circulated amongst authors’ close acquaintances only, thus meaning anyone else who wanted to read a Transactions paper had to wait for the full volume to be published, which could take several months. In 1875, the Society trialled a new scheme with the London based bookseller, Trübner. Separate copies of the Transactions would be sold through the book trade. The significance of the trial was that it marked a change in the dissemination of scientific papers. The bound volume was no longer the main product. In reality, however, the financial results were not exceptional; in fact, Trübner reported in 1883 that no more than ten copies would be needed of future papers. This was not a great surprise or concern to the Society, which at this time valued the free circulation of scientific papers over generating income from sales.

(On Trübner (later part of Kegan Paul), see L. Howsam, Kegan Paul, a Victorian Imprint: publishers, books and cultural history (Toronto: University of Toronto Press and Kegan Paul International, 1999)).