Ownership and control of scientific journals: the view from 1963

On 13 June 1963, the president of the Royal Society Howard Florey proposed a ‘Code for the Publication of New Scientific Journals’ to a meeting of officers representing 55 British scientific societies.

In the light of subsequent developments in the management and ownership of scientific journals, the Code’s insistence upon scholarly control of academic journals is notable. It was written at a time when the growing involvement of commercial publishers in academic publishing was becoming visible.

“The present tendency for commercial publishers to initiate new scientific journals in great numbers is causing concern to many people. With the expansion of established sciences and advances into new fields and disciplines it is evident that new journals are necessary.”

The question was: who should have control of these new journals? The Society’s answer was clear:

“Ideally, the best body to start and run a journal is a scientific society, but if that is impossible, a journal should only be put in the hands of a commercial publisher with the following safeguards…”

Those safeguards insisted that financial policy, as well as editorial policy, should remain in academic hands:

  1. “Scientific and editorial policy should be in the hands of a board of responsible scientific editors;
  2. Financial policy should be formulated, and altered, only in agreement with the scientific editorial board;
  3. Nomination to the editorial board should be in the hands of the scientific editors and not the publishers;
  4. Copyright should remain with the authors or be assigned to the scientific editorial board;
  5. No agreement should be signed until competent legal advice has been sought.”

It is not yet entirely clear to us what the reaction or effect of this proposed Code was. The meeting at which it was first discussed was supposed to be the first in an annual series that would create ‘more contact between the many scientific societies’. The fact that the series started with ‘Scientific Publications’ is a striking statement of the concern felt about publishing in the early 1960s. To stimulate discussion, the Royal Society offered tea and coffee, and circulated advance copies of Dr F.V. Morley’s pamphlet Self-Help for Learned Societies (Nuffield Foundation, 1963), which referred to learned society publishing as near to extinction – while also offering advice on how societies could reform their practical publishing operations.

The problem with both the Code and the Self-Help advice is that they enabled societies to reform their own practices, but had no power to affect what commercial publishers (e.g. Pergamon, Blackwell) were doing. The Code is written on the assumption that ideas for new journals would emerge from the scholarly community, and that a group of academics would then need to find a way to work with a publisher, while retaining ownership. In fact, plenty of new journals in the 1960s and 1970s were created from the big publishing firms, who then found academics to work with them (for the wider context, see our Untangling Academic Publishing, 2017).

Journals created by commercial publishers did indeed seek scholarly respectability by appointing boards of academics to oversee ‘scientific and editorial policy’. But with ownership of the journal resting with the publisher, such boards had little or no involvement in financial policy.

That insistence that copyright be retained by authors (or by editorial boards, as representatives of the academic community) is also intriguing in the light of subsequent developments. It is not yet clear quite when publishers of academic journals became so determined to control copyright, but it is a phenomenon of the later twentieth century. The Royal Society changed its policy in 1990 (asking authors to transfer copyright, rather than holding copyright jointly between author and the Society). The Society was unlikely to be a pioneer in this, but was likely to be reflecting general trends in the publishing industry. Its justification was framed in the light of seeking ‘maximum protection’ from the recent 1988 Copyright Act; owning copyright would give the Society control over ‘secondary rights, such as reprinting, reproduction and electronic document delivery’. This attitude reflected the fact that – in contrast to the 1960s – journal publishing had come to be managed as a potential source of income for the Society, rather than a service to the scholarly community. (Note, the Society has now changed to a licence to publish).

In the twenty-first century, we might usefully look again at these 1963 ideas. Their argument about the importance of governance and ownership of academic journals seems timely.

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.

Historically, the Royal Society had taken a relaxed attitude to copyright, encouraging the reprinting (with attribution!) of its articles throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (as we will show in a forthcoming article). In the 1950s, the Society had led the organisation of a voluntary code of conduct among learned publishers, to permit educational photocopying of articles; and in the 1960s, it had insisted that copyright should be retained by the author (or perhaps by a board of academics, representing the scholarly community – but certainly not signed over to a commercial publisher).

The 1990 recommendation arose from the Society’s Publications Management Committee (PMC), a newly established committee to which the Society’s Council now delegated strategic decisions about the journals and future of publications.

The justification was framed in the light of seeking ‘maximum protection’ from the recent 1988 Copyright Act. It was believed that owning copyright would give the Society control over ‘secondary rights, such as reprinting, reproduction and electronic document delivery’. This attitude reflected the fact that journal publishing had come to be managed as a potential source of income for the Society, rather than a service to the scholarly community. And new technologies, along with new legislation, made it possible to make income from publications in a range of new ways.

Since then, the Society’s increasing involvement in the open access movement has led to a change of policy, and the use of a licence to publish (rather than copyright transfer). Currently, authors either publish under a CC-BY licence; or retain their copyright while granting the Society exclusive rights to publish/distribute the article.

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.

Untangling Academic Publishing: responses

Untangling Academic Publishing was launched on May 25, 2017 (see previous post for a report of the launch).We are using this page to collate the responses and reactions. Please add your comments using the ‘Leave a reply’ function (above), or link to your own blog (etc).

John Elmes, “Academics ‘should not sign over research copyright to publishers“, Times Higher Education (25 May)

Ernesto Priego’s blog (25 May): “A significant contribution of this report is its historical perspective… I hope that everyone interested in scholarly publishing reads the complete report, but I would like to copy and paste below a selection of the recommendations that I believe we should all work harder to communicate (and, of course, actively embrace) within our own professional and disciplinary networks”.

Kat Steiner’s blog (30 May): “The report itself is a really good read, and even as someone with a fair amount of history of science knowledge, and a librarianship degree, there was lots I didn’t know. It’s not too long either.”

A view from the other side of the Atlantic, as Shawn Martin wonders if the history of US academia makes a difference to US attitudes to OA in his ‘History of Scholarly Communication’ blog (31 May)

A non-profit provider of publishing services (Veruscript) finds lots to like in our recommendations… (1 June)

Uta Frith: “Thoughtful analysis of past & future of science publishing. We don’t have to buy the for profit model” (Twitter 2 June)

Anne Nolan reflected on the launch event (2 June) and said ‘My takeaway from the evening was that publishers do have a valuable role to play, but need to keep an eye on what scholars and their institutions value.’

The British Library Science Team summarised our report nicely (8 June), and drew attention to ‘diamond open access’ – something that really should be more talked about! (On diamond OA, see Fuchs & Sandoval, 2013)

Thanks to Beth Hall, for letting us know that Danny Kingsley (Cambridge, @dannykay68) was recommending our report to the delegates at the CONUL conference of librarians in Ireland (30-31 May)!

Jo VanEvery (12 June) expresses disappointment ‘that it downplays the political shifts that happen over the same period, which are only visible by the traces they leave in higher education policy.’ But she also urges scholars to think about ‘what all this might me for you as a scholarly writer submitting your work for publication’ and to ‘Reflect on your own practices and examine the values embedded in them and their alignment with your own scholarly values.’

Alastair Horne, writing for BookBrunch (20 June), noted that it has been a busy month for reports on academic publishing – with the ‘Academic Book of the Future’ project reporting shortly after UntanglingAcademic Publishing was launched. He (rightly!) notes that Untangling  ‘may make more concerning reading for publishers’.

Herman Rucic brought our comments about copyright to the attention of those campaigning for copyright reform, at CopyBuzz.com (22 June). He noted our recommendation that academics should retain copyright, and not transfer it to profit-oriented third-parties, but curiously didn’t comment on the UK-SCL proposal.

Delighted to see the Oxford OA team (26 June) using our report as recommended reading for training researchers about OA and copyright!