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 on from an earlier, private, report by an experienced publisher, the Foundation set up an advisory committee (with support from the Royal Society), and hired Dr Frank V Morley to act as ‘a liaison officer’, due to his experience in both science and publishing. He was to ‘visit individual bedsides’ and to ‘report ailments’ (p.2).

The language of illness reflects Morley’s premise that learned society publishing was in seriously ill-health in the early 1960s. Due to the social and economic changes in the postwar world, the old relationship between societies and their printer-publishers could not continue:  ‘there was no possibility of avoiding some change of habits’. The problem he addressed was ‘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.

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, with some attention to practicalities, societies could do a lot to improve the state of their publication finances. David Christie Martin, executive secretary of the Royal Society, had made the same point in a lecture in 1957, with reference to the Society’s recent changes.

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 ]