How many copies of Transactions circulated out-of-commerce?

Since 1752, payment of the membership fee entitled fellows to claim a free copy of every volume of the Transactions, though they had to do this in person and within five years of publication. The copies for fellows accounted for a large fraction of the print run. For instance, in the 1840s, there were over 700 fellows, and the print run was just 1000. Thus, even though only two-thirds of fellows actually claimed their copies, several hundred copies of the Transactions – maybe even half the print run – were free to read (though an indirect contribution to the cost had been made via membership fee).

The most striking way in which the Royal Society supported the free circulation of knowledge was by using copies of the Transactions as tokens in gift exchange with other bodies.

By the 1840s, the Society was giving around 60 copies each year to learned societies, observatories, academies, and universities, as well as another 20 or 30 copies as gifts to individuals. And by the early twentieth century, there were 465 institutions receiving the Royal Society’s publications for free (Year-book of the Royal Society (1908), 125-142). Within Britain alone, the number of institutions benefitting had quadrupled, and included virtually all the universities and university colleges, as well as national scientific organisations (the National Physical Laboratory), metropolitan scientific societies, provincial societies (the Essex Field Club, Glasgow Natural History Society) and public libraries in Birmingham, Manchester, and Cardiff.

By 1908, over 70% of the gifts were going overseas. The majority of these went to European universities and scientific societies, but significant numbers also went to similar institutions in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa, and to the USA. A handful were sent even further afield, to the observatory at Rio de Janeiro, the university library at Caracas, the imperial university in Tokyo, and the bureau of science in Manila. In the 1930s and 1940s was participating in an international system of exchanges amongst those scholarly institutions that both published research and hosted research libraries.

In addition, there was a substantial list of universities, research institutions, observatories, and public libraries which did not publish their own research journals but did have members or staff seeking access to research from elsewhere. By the 1930s, this was known as the ‘free list’, and an analysis of its cost to the Society led to the removal of most foreign universities, research institutions and libraries. All universities in the British Empire were entitled to a place on the free list, which still ran to 276 institutions in 1954 (RS OM/14(54)).

After a review that year, universities were expected in future to buy the Society’s publications, and only the Queen continued to get the Transactions for free (OM/16(54)).

With the development in the late twentieth century of ‘deeply-discounted’ and similar schemes to assist institutions in the developing world, the Royal Society could be said to have returned to its roots in the philanthropic, non-commercial circulation of knowledge.

1987-1988: The Royal Society ad hoc Publications Policy Committee

In 1987 the Royal Society recognized that the journal publishing journal was changing, predominantly due to new technologies and new commercial structures competing to milk profit from academic writing. The Society, as has been the case for most of its history, decided to discuss these topics and more by forming an ad hoc committee; the Publications Policy Committee, or PPC (not to be confused with PPC2 in the 1990s!)

The purpose of the PPC, chaired by Sir Roger Elliott (and consisting of 17 other men), was to concentrate primarily on the Proceeding and Transactions, and to address the way in which the journals could best serve the needs of the scientific community but also to consider their important financial contribution to the Society. Thus, it is in the ad hoc PPC meetings that we find the first references to potential profit making through the journal’s in modern Royal Society history.

The PPC discussed the poblems with the Royal Society’s journals’ structure in the 1970s and 80s:

  • “Despite their theoretically interdisciplinary nature, Proc And Trans concentrated on certain subject areas and omitted others entirely, and risked covering too few popular areas of science to remain viable.
  • And Trans were not automatically chosen for people’s best work, and were low on ‘impact factor’ lists
  • Long papers restricted breath of subject coverage
  • The philosophy and role of the journals was not clear to Fellows, readers or subscribers: Trans B., for example, contained very detailed reports of an archival nature on single organisms.”

These were big problems, and the PPC tried various methods for improving the journals. One was to compare the journals with others, especially the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and Comptes Rendues.

They went on to discuss possible avenues for change, including publishing more and quicker. However, some members of the committee had “concerns about the relation of very rapid publication to quality of refereeing, and about the value of such papers as properly recognizable scientific papers.”

Large parts of the PPC meetings were set aside to discuss matters of finance, journal production, distribution and marketing. It was found that: “The net income to the Society from the journals was not high by current standards, but it could not be increased by raising the prices”. The solution was to be found in revamping the editorial structure of the journals, introducing a editor for each publication:

Outline of the new model (came into effect in 1990):

  • Proceedings A would continue at its present issue size and frequency, with a section given to ‘rapidly-published short papers’ (4–6 pages) in defined subject areas.
  • Proceedings B would be changed to publish only substantive papers of up to 12 pages in length (present average 18 pages). Aim to publish all papers within three months of receipt. Streamline refereeing procedure required.
  • Transactions A would become a specialist themes journal, comprising A-side discussion meeting reports, review lectures and groups of (review) papers on specific topics.
  • Transactions B would consist of longer original papers together with the B-side discussion meeting reports and review lectures.

The case for the model was that the PPC considered the Council’s concern “over the vulnerability of the income from traditional broad-coverage journals in a market place increasingly oriented to specialist journals”, and the Society’s objective of disseminating scientific knowledge. Thus, at the heart of the changes were concerned both of the Society’s first publication-related goal; dissemination; – and finances. These became the “twin goals” of Royal Society publishing henceforth.

(From CMB/328b, Ad hoc Publishing Policy Committee 1987-1988, Royal Society Archives).



1936: Royal Society and Cambridge University Press

The Royal Society have used a number of printers since the beginning of its journals. In the early 1930s the Society had started exploring new printers again, after years with Harrisons. After a tender competition in 1935, the Society hires Cambridge University Press (CUP). The fellowship had many links with CUP, including FRS and Biological Secretary Archibald V. Hill. Our research shows that Hill was very involved in the decision to move printers, and that he took control and showed interest in publishing at a time when other officers did not. The documents below show the Publications Committee’s decision to hire CUP.

Click on the images to enlarge.

1963: ‘Self-help for Learned Societies’ pamphlet

In 1963 the Royal Society coordinated a meeting of representatives from 55 British scientific societies. The topic for discussion was ‘Scientific Publications’, and to stimulate the discussion, there was some pre-circulated reading material: Dr Frank V Morley’s pamphlet Self-Help for Learned Societies (Nuffield Foundation, 1963).

The pamphlet was commissioned by the Nuffield Foundation at a time when those involved in learned society publishing were worrying about the state of their own finances, and wondering about the apparent competition from commercial publishers. Following a 1955 report by an experienced publisher, the Nuffield Foundation and the Royal Society set up an advisory committee to further investigate the challenges facing learned societies. The Nuffield provided funding to hire a publishing consultant to visit individual societies.

From 1957, Dr Frank V Morley was that ‘liaison officer’. He was a Pennsylvanian-born Rhodes scholar, with a DPhil in mathematics from Oxford; but he was also an author and an experienced publisher, having been a director of Faber & Faber in the decade before the war (alongside T.S. Eliot) and then heading Harcourt Bruce in New York during the war. Back in Britain in the 1950s, he seemed to have the ideal combination of experience in science and publishing.

In 1963, he wrote up his experiences of visiting ‘individual bedsides’ of ailing patients. The language of illness reflects the premise that learned society publishing was in seriously ill-health in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Morley described 1955-63 as having been ‘lean years’ for learned society publishing.

Due to the social and economic changes in the postwar world, the old relationship between societies and their printer-publishers could not continue. There had been a lot of goodwill and generosity, but ‘there was no possibility of avoiding some change of habits’.

Morley saw the problem as ‘the general problem of production and distribution of those periodical publications which were essential for the encouragement and communication of original research, which nobody wished to go out of existence, but which without some kind of help were on the way to extinction’ (p.1)

As the contents page reveals, he investigated the practicalities of editorial practices and production processes, the challenges of circulation (referred to as ‘promotion’ of the journal), and the long-term challenge of financial sustainability. His key message was that societies needed to pay more attention to sales income, so that they could make their journals self-supporting. (It’s worth remembering that learned society publishing before the war had usually been supported by a mixture of society funds and external grants, some from government, some from industry, others from private donors).

Morley urged societies to pay more attention to ‘practical publishing matters – some of them trivial and some by no means trivial’. As his title said, he was convinced that societies could do a lot to improve the state of their publication finances without needing to look to outside help, whether from government, private donors or arrangements with commercial publishers. David Christie Martin, executive secretary of the Royal Society, had made the same point in a lecture in 1957.

Morley was famously charismatic and funny, though some of the delegates at the June 1963 meeting found him pompous in person. We are still investigating the responses to the pamphlet: some found it patronising, but others found it helpful. (Do get in touch if you can help with this!)

Self-Help urged societies to learn how to run their journals more along the lines of commercial publishers; but it did not help with the question of the involvement of commercial publishers in setting up and owning their own journals. With regard to this question, the Royal Society proposed a Code for the Publication of New Scientific Journals at the same 1963 meeting.

[Images come from the copy of the pamphlet in the Howard Florey papers at the Royal Society, 98HF.160.2.8 ]

1990: A note on copyright and licensing

In 1990, the Royal Society reacted to the 1988 Copyright Act by changing its approach to copyright: rather than holding copyright jointly between author and Society, it would begin to require authors to transfer copyright to the Society.

Given the nature of the Society as an organisation, this should not be understood as the Society pioneering a shift towards copyright transfer. Rather, the Society was following wider trends in academic publishing.

Continue reading “1990: A note on copyright and licensing”

1945+: Papers delayed till after the Second World War

The Second World War brought paper and labour shortages to the Royal Society’s publishing efforts. Despite the problems, a handful of dedicated publishing staff managed to keep both the Transactions and the Proceedings going, albeit on a reduced run, throughout the international conflict. Submissions deemed ‘helpful to the enemy’ were stored in the Society’s archives and all referees were asked (via a red-typed note stapled to each Referee Report Form) if the information should be quarantined.

This document shows some of the issues the Society dealt with after the war, and as late as the mid-fifties. The paper shows that the Society’s biological sciences journal Proceedings B was still struggling to increase submissions, whereas other journals like Journal of Physiology had been increasing since 1945. The document spells out some of the possible reasons for these issues, and solutions to the problem. Note also that the Society was aware that their journal covered “too many fields and therefore has no strong appeal to any.” Historians of publishing may recognize this as a turn towards specialization, which would benefit commercial publishers greatly in the coming decades.


Click on images to see more.

1963: The Royal Society Publishing Code

Questions about the ethics, governance and profitability of academic publishing are widespread in 21st-century academia and beyond (even reaching the mainstream print media) It turns out that these concerns are not as new as we thought…

This 1963 document outlines the Royal Society’s proposed ‘Code for the publication of new scientific journals’.

The Society’s code for publishing, 1963

It was created by the Royal Society’s committee on ‘scientific information’, and presented by the Society’s president, Howard Florey, to a meeting of officers of 55 British scientific societies in June 1963. (This meeting also discussed advance copies of Morley’s Self-Help for Learned Societies, which discussed the organisation and financing of society journals.)

The Code was written at a time when the presence of commercial publishers was becoming more apparent in the world of scientific journals, and concerns were being raised over ownership and control.

The Code insists that the ideal body to run a journal is a scientific society, but if that is not possible, then editorial and financial policy should be in the hands of academics, and that copyright should be retained by authors.

It is not (yet) entirely clear to us what happened to the Code after 1963. The Royal Society was trying to provide leadership to other societies, in publishing and other matters. The meetings with other societies continued for at least a few years; and meetings of journal editors were emerging in the USA around the same time.

1951: Rosalind Franklin at the Royal Society

Rosalind Elsie Franklin (1920-1958) is becoming more known for her contribution to X-ray crystallography and the discovery of the DNA double helix. Brenda Maddox’ excellent biography, ‘The Dark Lady of DNA’ is key reading for anyone interested in Franklin, women in science, or the DNA-discovery saga. But because Franklin was never made an FRS, her times at the Royal Society have often been overlooked. In fact, she both visited, spoke and published with the Royal Society, as this example of a 1950s referee report shows. Note the questions referees are asked, and that the referees in question are JD Bernal and Dorothy Hodgkin, both huge names in the field by 1951. Franklin’s paper was well received by both, as you can see, and published by the Royal Society. Today, a photograph of a young, smiling Franklin hangs to the right of the main staircase when you walk into the Royal Society. Despite her lack of FRS status, her work was recognized by the Society in the fifties; – and today through the Rosalind Franklin award and lecture.

JD Bernal writes in support as a referee. Click for a larger version.
Dorothy Hodgkin writes in support as a referee. Click for a larger version.

Politics in academic publishing: past to present

[This post by Anna Gielas first appeared on TheStudentBlog at PLOS on 14 June 2016]

“Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist”. This is the title of a Guardian opinion piece from 2011– and it is hardly the strongest critique of the academic publishing industry. Academic publishing tends to stir up controversy within scholarly and scientific communities. Sometimes it provokes individuals, like graduate student Alexandra Elbakyan, to take matters into their own hands. Elbakyan created Sci-Hub, a database of pirated academic articles, and is now facing charges for copyright infringement.

This lawsuit has fueled more discussion about how to change and improve upon the current publishing system. An example of a common argument from critics is that the current publishing system pressures academics into hastily publishing novel, attention-garnering studies instead of working toward lasting contributions to scientific and scholarly knowledge. Misconduct such as data falsification is but one of the worrying consequences of the ‘publish or perish’ climate in modern research. In turn, universities and libraries face financial barriers that stem from expensive publishing costs and high subscription rates.

Proponents of the status quo maintain that traditional academic publishers such as Elsevier, Springer,Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, and Taylor & Francis shield academics from “predatory” journals whose numbers have increased throughout the last years. The phrase “predatory” refers to publishers that charge the scientists expensive fees to publish their research in a particular journal without providing the usual services such as peer review and extensive editing services, among other things.

Coming together to examine (overlooked) challenges in publishing

Recently, an interdisciplinary group of scholars, publishing executives, and education researchers convened at the Royal Society of London to look beyond the common critiques of academic publishing and also examine lesser-known issues. The group discussed past and present structures of scholarly publishing—as well as their roots and broader implications, and I was able to attend the event.

“The Politics of Academic Publishing, 1950-2016” workshop was organized by the ‘Publishing the Philosophical Transactions’ project at the University of St. Andrews, and was led by Aileen Fyfe, Camilla Mørk Røstvik and Noah Moxham. The workshop’s comprehensive review of the history of academic publishing allowed the group to take a step back and gain a sense of how academic publishing has changed in the last six decades. The present situation became a point of reference for the participants to ask what academic publishing has gained and lost over the last 66 years.

The spread of academic publishing over time

Jack Meadows (Loughborough University) kicked off proceedings by placing the expansion of learned publishing in the 1950s in the context of the scientific race between the East and West. He used thePergamon Press as an example of how the global race for scientific innovation fueled publishing. Twelve years after its commencement in 1948, the Oxford-based publisher hosted 40 academic journals. Ten years later, Pergamon Press had expanded even further to include 150 .

Stefan Collini (Cambridge University) examined academic publishing in the 1960s and 1970s, stating: “Universities were much less in the business of justifying themselves to the self-appointed representatives of the public interest, and scholarship was seen as something that chiefly concerned other scholars.” Collini mentioned well-respected academics from the 1960s and 1970s who published their first monograph years after they were tenured and managed to gain renown despite having less than a handful of journal articles to their name. This presents a stark contrast to today’s situation in which article publications are a crucial means for furthering and sustaining one’s career.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the academic journal still struggled to make a profit. Publishers had to rely on other ways to finance their academic activities—such as the textbook market in former African colonies, as Caroline Davis (Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies) explained. “In the book trade – both in Britain and in many of its former colonies – the structures and hierarchies of imperialism long survived the demise of colonial rule itself,” said Davis. “After decolonization, British academic publishers continued to regard book markets in former colonies as their prerogative.”

Davis pointed out that British publishers have undermined the establishment of African ones. “Some people view this as a reason for today’s South-North-gap in academic publishing,” she concluded. The lack of highly regarded African journals is just one of the current challenges in academic publishing that tends to be overlooked, but was brought up by the interdisciplinary group.

Academics encounter gender-based hurdles to publishing

Kelly Coate (Director of King’s Learning Institute) turned the audience’s attention to another problem, namely the obstacles that female academics face in the academic publishing world. “Women encounter notably more implicit and explicit biases (to publishing),” Coate said. She said male academics, for example, tend to cite each other—and much less their female peers.

Camilla Mørk Røstvik, who studies the editorial archives of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, reported that female researchers in the 1950s faced similar prejudices toward their work. “The first names of male authors were usually initialed. But articles written by female researchers included the women’s full first names, suggesting essential differences in studies conducted by women and men,” Mørk Røstvik said.

Despite facing gender-based prejudices, female scientists acted as peer reviewers throughout the 1950s. While doing so, “they were generally – and knowingly – addressed as “Sir””, Mørk Røstvik added.

Though publishing has improved for female scientists since the 1950s, decades of gender bias and inequality remain deeply ingrained in the infrastructure of academic publishing. “Women themselves are influenced by implicit biases—which make them just as likely as men to make biased judgments that favor their male peers,” Coate said.

How to improve academic publishing

What can be done to address systemic gender disparities in academic publishing? Workshop participants discussed the double- and single-blind models of peer review as one of the means to actively counter the problem. The French sociologist Didier Torny (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique) explained that these reviewing strategies have been discussed and shaped from the 1950s onward. But, Torny added, the terms were adapted from the mid-1980s clinical trials vocabulary.

“If you see peer-review as making an article better, then retractions are terrible and demonstrate considerable problems with the system of reviewing,” Torny said, suggesting that post-publication peer review could be a better, more promising approach. “Readers become a community which works together to steer findings in the right direction—the audience is actively contributing to the production of knowledge.”

Sue Clegg (Higher Education Research at Leeds Metropolitan University) was also highly critical of the current peer review model. “This practice is inclined towards conservatism,” she said. “Criteria for journal inclusion are far from transparent—they are oftentimes very murky.”

Clegg also brought up gender biases and cautioned her audience to pay closer attention to questions of: (1) Who is most likely to become a peer-reviewer? (2) Who is most likely to be admitted to journal boards? Clegg agreed with Torny, and emphasized: “We should consider how we can reconfigure peer-review as a more open-community practice.”

Throughout the workshop one topic resurfaced several times: disciplinary differences. The participants agreed that journals play different roles in different fields. For example, while physicists make intense use of academic journals, scholars of economics more commonly publish working papers. In some fields, journal authors have to pay word-fee, while in others they do not. Therefore, initiatives to improve academic publishing should consider these disciplinary differences.

I felt this workshop was beneficial in that it looked beyond the usual catalogue of grievances and challenges in publishing. By applying a historical lens, the panelists were able to reflect new developments in academic publishing comparatively—and more critically. The lessons from history—as well as the disciplinary differences in academic publishing—will be key elements of the position paper that is currently being developed by the St. Andrews team.

Anna Gielas is a PhD Student in History of Science and Science Communication at the University of St Andrews

Aileen Fyfe was recently interviewed on the PLOScast about the history of scientific publishing.

Mathematical musings from the sickbed

Have you ever written a letter to yourself? This is exactly what James Hopwood Jeans (1877-1946) did in 1902 as he lay in a sanatorium at Ringwood, Hampshire.


Portrait of James Jeans FRS, 1924, by Philip de László © The Royal Society


Jeans was a mathematician and astronomer, born in Lancashire and spending most of his early adult life studying mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge. Apparently, he could tell the time at the age of three. This natural inclination towards arithmetic was evident during his battle, from c.1898, with tuberculosis of the knees and wrists.

Despite spending considerable time in seclusion until he was cured in 1903, Jeans was not cut off from the burgeoning expertise and intellect of his colleagues and friends at Cambridge. It was during this time that he established himself as a prestigious mathematician. He was awarded a first class degree, followed by an Isaac Newton studentship and a Smith’s prize. His success continued after his health was restored and in 1906 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at the early age of 28.

On 19 April 1902, having spent a long duration at Ringwood, Jeans employed an interesting technique to lift his spirits above the dismal condition of his body: he wrote a letter to himself.

Jeans pondered the fact that ‘this confinement at Ringwood has told somewhat upon your [Jeans’s] spirits – as how should it not?’. Yet Jeans was hopeful: ‘your anxiety is now over: you have every reason to feel hopeful: you have freedom from actual pain’. Parts of the letter are poetic representations of Jeans’s improving condition: ‘The clouds race over the brink of your valley; the birds have begun to chatter about nest-building; and the trees are pushing on with their budding, & give the birds their leafy secrecy’.

Jeans’s letter was reciprocated a few days later. The writer (Jeans) confessed to Jeans: ‘I read your letter with mixed feeling’. In fact for Jeans, replying to the first letter, the language used therein was ‘too childish. What is the talk of birds (gracious powers!) and clouds (good God!)? What sickly sentimental stuff!’. Jeans also rejected the positive tone expounded in the initial letter, rather, describing his debilitated state at Ringwood as ‘perfectly disgusting’. Yet, an inward (and outward) struggle between despair and hope over his current health is apparent as Jeans admitted, ‘I am secretly more optimistic’.

In these communications Jeans’s reliance on the ‘sympathy’ of his friends at Cambridge is also apparent. Not able to see them in person at Ringwood or return to Cambridge, one way Jeans maintained contact with his colleagues and friends was through the Philosophical Transactions, the long-running scientific journal of the Royal Society.


Photograph of G H Hardy FRS, from the Archives of the Royal Society


Godfrey Harold Hardy (1877-1947), who was a fellow mathematician at Trinity College, wrote to Jeans during his time at Ringwood, relaying the sentiment that he ‘was very glad to hear such an encouraging report and suppose we may really expect you up [in Cambridge] next term’. Yet he confessed to Jeans that the real reason for his writing was less altruistic: ‘I was really writing to ask for a copy of your latest paper, which seems to me to be rivalling Whittaker’s in notoriety’. The said paper was ‘The Distribution of Molecular Energy’, printed in Phil Trans in 1901, during which Jeans was laid up in Ringwood. Edmund Taylor Whittaker’s (1873-1956) paper, which Hardy referenced, was ‘On the Connexion of Algebraic Functions with Automorphic Functions’, published in Phil Trans in 1899.

As Jeans came to the end of his respite in April of 1903, Arthur Robert Hinks (1873-1945), who was at this time astronomer at the Observatory in Cambridge, thanked Jeans for his ‘most interesting paper’ (‘On the Vibrations and Stability of a Gravitating Planet’ published in the Phil Trans in the same year). Hinks also knew of a 1902 paper by Jeans in Phil Trans on the ‘nebula’: ‘Have you a copy you could spare? I should value it greatly’.

Despite Jeans’s ostensibly prohibitive condition, he continued to communicate with his colleagues and to distribute his mathematical theories. Between his quarantine and his return to academic life Jeans published a total of five papers in the Phil Trans, in addition to the monograph he published at the same time. The Philosophical Transactions was an important medium in these sickbed communications.