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.

How many copies of separate copies were sold?

We have limited data on the number of copies sold. We know that the numbers were small because the Society operated a free circulation model. 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). As a result of the Society’s free circulation model, there were very few sales of the Transactions.

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)). There was an increasingly commercial agenda at the Society in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Did authors get off-prints [separate copies]?

Separate copies (later off-prints) were an important way of accessing Transactions papers for authors and their close acquaintances. In the days before photocopiers, these copies were valued as the only way to get a copy of the complete text – and tables, images and formulae – without the labour of hand-transcription. From at least the 1870s the Royal Society had been allowing authors to acquire copies of their papers for private circulation among friends, colleagues and correspondents. Authors could pay for up to 100 copies of their papers, dealing directly with the printer. By the start of the nineteenth century, however, the Society had begun to provide a certain number of copies to authors for free; up to 100 by the 1840s, and more upon payment of a fee. This set the trend for the next century, although there were attempts by the Society to curtain the number of offprints authors could acquire. In 1878, the Society limited the number of additional (paid-for) offprints to 150, and explicitly added, ‘it being understood that these also are for gratuitous distribution only’ (21 Mar. 1878, RS CMP/5). Despite this, authors continued to receive many offprints, which they could distribute to their colleagues and friends. Others used their offprints more creatively. In 1910, one author requested 500 additional copies of his paper, so they could be bound into sets of ‘the archives of the Claybury Asylum Pathological Laboratory’ (Council Minutes, 8 Dec. 1910, RS CMP/XX (re a paper by Frederick Mott on sleeping sickness)). Using separate copies meant that there was no exceptional cost in reproducing papers for different purposes.

Separate copies were so useful to authors and to those who received them because it meant that papers were available soon after being passed for printing by the Committee of Papers. Without separate copies, one had to wait for the finished volume of Transactions to be produced, which could take several months since papers were received throughout the year, had to be read, passed to referees after 1832, and then considered by the Committee of Papers. The completed volume was the only way for Fellows to access papers freely but it might be issued many months after a paper was first read at the Society. Authors’ copies provided a way to access specific papers freely and more quickly, for both Fellows and non-Fellows – as long as one was in contact with the author. This became less important after 1887 when the Council ruled that every paper, once passed for printing, could be sent to Fellows, and bound together later to complete a volume of Transactions. If they wished, Fellows could receive papers as soon as they were printed. But for non-Fellows, authors’ copies were still a way to freely access Transactions papers.

1875: A new scheme of selling separate copies [CMB/47/3 1 June 1875]

Before 1875, if one wanted to buy the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, it was available as bound volumes, but only when all papers for the current volume were printed – which took several months. Authors received separate copies of their papers that were available shortly after a paper was passed for printing by the Committee of Papers. These copies, however, were generally circulated amongst authors’ close acquaintances only, thus meaning anyone else who wanted to read a Transactions paper had to wait for the full volume to be published, which could take several months. In 1875, the Society trialled a new scheme with the London based bookseller, Trübner. Separate copies of the Transactions would be sold through the book trade. The significance of the trial was that it marked a change in the dissemination of scientific papers. The bound volume was no longer the main product. In reality, however, the financial results were not exceptional; in fact, Trübner reported in 1883 that no more than ten copies would be needed of future papers. This was not a great surprise or concern to the Society, which at this time valued the free circulation of scientific papers over generating income from sales.

(On Trübner (later part of Kegan Paul), see L. Howsam, Kegan Paul, a Victorian Imprint: publishers, books and cultural history (Toronto: University of Toronto Press and Kegan Paul International, 1999)).