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)).