How much profit did the Philosophical Transactions make?

Throughout its history, profit has not been a relevant question for the Transactions (and many other scientific journals, especially those connected to learned institutions). In fact, the journal resulted in losses for the Royal Society for centuries, only balanced out by help of grants and a ideology based on the need for knowledge to be circulated freely.

In the twentieth century commercial publishers such as Maxwell saw a profit opportunity in academic publishing generally, and in journal publishing specifically. Learned journals published by scientific institutions are sometimes thought to have avoided this commercialisation, but our research shows that the Philosophical Transactions was very much part of this trend too. From the 1950s, conversations about profit and finances became more and more normal within the publishing committees (these also increased in numbers in this period) at the Royal Society. By 1980 profit became an outright goal, with the creation of the ‘twin goals’ of Royal Society publishing: profit and dissemination of knowledge (previously only the latter point had been a clear goal). By the 2000s publishing made the Royal Society consistent income year on year. In 2016 the surplus (the Royal Society is a charity and does thus not really deal in profit as such) from the publication department was about 6 million. This money is not ear-market and is therefore valuable for the institution, because it can use it freely (for example for grants for women, we have been informed by the Royal Society).

The last four chapters in our book traces this commercial history, so read it for more information about this specific part of the Transactions financial history!

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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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.