Did authors get offprints?

In the days before photocopiers, getting hold of an offprint from the author was a useful way of getting a copy of the text, tables, images and formulae of a scientific article without having to copy it by hand from a library volume. The ways in which offprints circulated – whether requested by authors in locations where the journal was not available, or distributed strategically by the author to people s/he wanted to impress – is an intriguing element of the sociology of scientific communication.

The history of offprints also illustrates the long history of out-of-commerce circulation of scientific knowledge. Even when the issues, parts or volumes of the published journal were available for public sale, authors could send their private supply of offprints to colleagues, friends and potential sponsors. This long tradition still holds true in the digital world, when printed copies have been replaced by PDFs, but most publishers will still supply authors with a PDF for circulation through their networks.

As well as providing an out-of-commerce route for circulation, offprints also (in certain historical periods) provided a route for more rapid circulation. They were originally available more quickly than the collated issues or bound volumes of the journal in which the article formally appeared.

In this post, we will discuss what the Royal Society’s archive can reveal about the history of offprints.

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How many copies of Transactions circulated out-of-commerce?

Since 1752, payment of the membership fee entitled fellows to claim a free copy of every volume of the Transactions, though they had to do this in person and within five years of publication. The copies for fellows accounted for a large fraction of the print run. For instance, in the 1840s, there were over 700 fellows, and the print run was just 1000. Thus, even though only two-thirds of fellows actually claimed their copies, several hundred copies of the Transactions – maybe even half the print run – were free to read (though an indirect contribution to the cost had been made via membership fee).

The most striking way in which the Royal Society supported the free circulation of knowledge was by using copies of the Transactions as tokens in gift exchange with other bodies.

By the 1840s, the Society was giving around 60 copies each year to learned societies, observatories, academies, and universities, as well as another 20 or 30 copies as gifts to individuals. And by the early twentieth century, there were 465 institutions receiving the Royal Society’s publications for free (Year-book of the Royal Society (1908), 125-142). Within Britain alone, the number of institutions benefitting had quadrupled, and included virtually all the universities and university colleges, as well as national scientific organisations (the National Physical Laboratory), metropolitan scientific societies, provincial societies (the Essex Field Club, Glasgow Natural History Society) and public libraries in Birmingham, Manchester, and Cardiff.

By 1908, over 70% of the gifts were going overseas. The majority of these went to European universities and scientific societies, but significant numbers also went to similar institutions in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa, and to the USA. A handful were sent even further afield, to the observatory at Rio de Janeiro, the university library at Caracas, the imperial university in Tokyo, and the bureau of science in Manila. In the 1930s and 1940s was participating in an international system of exchanges amongst those scholarly institutions that both published research and hosted research libraries.

In addition, there was a substantial list of universities, research institutions, observatories, and public libraries which did not publish their own research journals but did have members or staff seeking access to research from elsewhere. By the 1930s, this was known as the ‘free list’, and an analysis of its cost to the Society led to the removal of most foreign universities, research institutions and libraries. All universities in the British Empire were entitled to a place on the free list, which still ran to 276 institutions in 1954 (RS OM/14(54)).

After a review that year, universities were expected in future to buy the Society’s publications, and only the Queen continued to get the Transactions for free (OM/16(54)).

With the development in the late twentieth century of ‘deeply-discounted’ and similar schemes to assist institutions in the developing world, the Royal Society could be said to have returned to its roots in the philanthropic, non-commercial circulation of knowledge.