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.