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 much money did the Philosophical Transactions make?

Although Henry Oldenburg hoped to make money from the Transactions, it was never as lucrative as he had hoped. And he appears to have been the only editor who made any money from it: Hans Sloane claimed to have spent £1,500 of his own money running the Transactions while he was secretary. Like almost all the other pre-1752 editor-secretaries, Sloane was wealthy enough to bankroll a periodical.

From 1752 onwards, the costs of running the journal were borne by the Royal Society. It was part of the Society’s mission to circulate knowledge (and the Society wasn’t doing much else with its income, from membership fees and investments, in the late eighteenth century). Throughout the nineteenth century, it was taken for granted that it was impossible for specialist scientific research journals to be run on a commercial, profitable basis: they were expensive to produce, and had inevitably limited sales. [See the graph]

By the 1890s, the Society’s was publishing more and more papers (with generous wide margins and lots of illustrations), and the increasing cost was becoming a problem for the Society’s finances. Lord Rayleigh, as secretary, successfully convinced the British government in 1895 to award a ‘grant-in-aid’ of scientific publications to the Royal Society (for itself and to aid other learned societies). For the next half century, this underpinned learned society publishing in the UK.

Things changed in the mid-twentieth century, when commercial publishers such as Pergamon Press (Robert Maxwell), discovered a way of making scientific journals profitable. In the 1950s and 1960s, learned societies learned from their commercial competitors: they paid more attention to efficiencies in the office and production side of things; and they paid more attention to sales and marketing, particularly in the USA. The Royal Society significantly cut back its free distribution programme in the mid-1950s: with fewer institutions receiving the Transactions for free, sales went up.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Royal Society’s publishing division was learning how to breakeven. Being able to do this successfully meant that the government grant-in-aid was no longer needed for publications; and that the Society’s finances were freed up for other aspects of the mission.

Since the 1970s, publishing has regularly generated a surplus for the Society. By the 1980s, this had become conscious policy: income-generation had joined the dissemination of knowledge as the ‘twin goals’ of the Royal Society publishing division. The annual surpluses actually fell in the 1990s (partly because of capital investment in new technology), but by the early 2000s, they were rising again.

In 2010, Royal Society publishing made a surplus of about £1.4m. This was about 10% of the Society’s annual income stream and, more importantly, a very high proportion of its unrestricted income stream. As unrestricted income, it offers useful flexibility to the Society.

 

The story of the eighteenth and nineteenth-century finances is discussed in more detail in:

A. Fyfe, Journals, learned societies and money: Philosophical Transactions, ca. 1750–1900, Notes and Records of the Royal Society (2015) DOI: 10.1098/rsnr.2015.0032

1920: Emergency Finance Committee

In 1920, the Society was once again anxious about the cost of publishing, and the ongoing deficit in the publishing account. This year it was particularly heightened owing to the aftermath of the war, which meant increases to printing costs and salaries, whilst the income of the Society remained static. As a result, the Council appointed an Emergency Finance Committee.

Several Fellows were appointed committee members, including James Jeans, who was current Secretary of the Society (1919-1929). The suggestions to counter the impending deficit on the Society’s general account that were adopted by Council included: transferring unexpended balances from government research grants to the general account; raising Fellows’ annual subscriptions to £5 (from £4); increasing new Fellows’ entrance fees to £20, (from £10; £1 covered by Fee Reduction Fund), £10 of which to be covered by the Society’s Fee Reduction Fund; allowing Fellows to receive A or B of Transactions and Proceedings only (except when approved by Council), rather than both A and B; raising the cost of public subscription to the Society’s publications by 50%; cutting the list of institutions receiving Society publications for free; limiting the expenditure for the Library Committee (for purchasing books); and making ‘an appeal to private generosity’. One of the biggest pressure on the Society’s finances was printing. This was partly owing to the work done on the International Catalogue, and on the Catalogue of Scientific papers – both of which involved collating a record of scientific papers alphabetically [or chronologically?], and were extremely expensive in terms of printing. Yet, the Society’s journals were also to blame. The Emergency Committee therefore suggested that ‘every possible economy be effected in the Society’s publications consistent with their maintaining their present scope and character’. The Society was unwilling to drastically change the Transactions, for instance by imposing strict page limits; this was seen as an unnecessary risk to the purpose and scope of the journal.

This episode in the Society’s history is important, not because of the effect these changes had on income – the Society continued to lose money on its publications – but, rather, because it signified a slight change in the Society’s attitude to finances. While the Society had historically relied almost completely on donations and grants in order to cover costs, never paying much attention to its income stream, it was now attempting to increase its income by raising Fellows’ contributions and the sale price of its journals. The results were not enough to propel the Society into an income-generating model, but they were a sign that some at the Royal Society were willing to think more commercially about the Society’s publishing activities. Commercial agendas would not have any great effect on the Society’s finances until much later in the twentieth century.

Source: CMB/86b Emergency Finance report, 20 July 1920, Royal Society Archives, London.

1907: Fellow’s memorandum on changing the Society’s publishing practices

Up until the late twentieth century, the Society had rarely, if ever, made a profit on its publications. It frequently transferred funds from its general account, and from special grants, to cover the cost of production for the Philosophical Transactions and the Proceedings. Fellow of the Society, and zoologist, E. Ray Lankester attempted to reduce the financial burden on the Society from publications by suggesting ways of lessening cost. Lankester believed more ‘stringent selection of papers to be published’ was necessary, and that an estimation of the cost of each paper before publication would help to curtail rising costs. His more unusual suggestions included allowing Fellows to automatically publish short (1 ½ pages) papers in the Proceedings without refereeing or even approval by the Committee of Papers; he also thought having a fixed monthly publishing date would make Proceedings more effective. With regard to any other papers in the Proceedings, they could not exceed six pages in length. The Philosophical Transactions, on the other hand, was to be the location of full research papers with limited restrictions. The division of labour between Proceedings and Transactions was not far from the actual situation in 1907 when increasingly Proceedings was the site of short (12 pages) research papers, rather than just abstracts of papers in Transactions, as it had begun. By 1914, Proceedings had become a research journal on a par with Transactions, papers limited to 24 pages in length. Lankester’s memo. was not far from reality, but his proposal to allow Fellows to publish anything they wished at short notice in the Proceedings was, perhaps unsurprisingly, never adopted.

Estimating the cost of papers, however, was something the Society did trial between 1907 and 1914. The length of paper, number of illustrations, unusual type-setting, and graphical images were all taken into consideration. While this did not become standard practice post-1914, by the 1920s the Society was sending the estimated cost of papers to referees along with the referred paper. In this way the cost of publishing became a measure of the suitability of a paper for the Society’s journals.

Source: Lankester’s Memo Committee of Papers CMB/90/5, 24 October 1907.

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.

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.

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.

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1963: ‘Self-help for Learned Societies’ pamphlet

In 1963 the Royal Society and the Nuffield Foundation, alongside several smaller and larger learned societies, decided to meet in order to improve connections and network. But what should the first meeting, planned for the Royal Society with tea and coffee, be about? Publishing was chosen as a good and topical issue, at a time when post-war publishing rates and commercial publishing competition was on most society publishers minds. The Nuffield Foundation engaged Dr Frank V Morley, a scientists with experience in publishing and interviewing, to ‘sit at the bed sides’ of various learned societies and write down what ‘ailed’ them. The Society’s President Howard Florey, the officers, and the very active Assistant Secretary David Christie Martin were also involved in the preparations. Morley’s pamphlet, ‘Self-help for Learned Societies’ gathered everything he had learned about the state of publishing in Britain, and suggested plenty of changes. It was circulated as a draft in advance of the meeting at the Royal Society, and later also published as a pamphlet. ‘Self-help…’ provides an entertaining (Morley was famously charismatic and funny) and informative snapshot of learned societies in postwar and 1960s Britain. Below are some snaps from the booklet, but for more you’ll have to read our book about the history of Philosophical Transactions; – or get in touch in the comment section or via @ahrcphiltrans.

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1990: A note on copyright and licensing

The Royal Society had historically taken a relaxed attitude to copyright, encouraging the reprinting (with attribution!) of its articles throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the 1950s, it had led the organisation of a voluntary code of conduct among learned publishers, to permit educational photocopying of articles. But this 1990 document shows a new attention to copyright, licensing and royalties, in the wake of the 1988 Copyright Act.

This document was led by the Society’s Publications Management Committee (PMC), a relatively new committee with unusual freedom from Council to make decisions about the journals and future of publications. We might see the PMC as a part of late-eighties ‘New Management’ culture, and also a beginning of a more independent publishing operation within the Royal Society. The document reveals typical attitudes towards copyright at the time, including thoughts on photocopying and the Patent Act of 1988. It includes an expectation of transfer of copyright from author to Society (whereas previously, the copyright had been held jointly by author and Society).

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