In the 21st century, academics and publishers have started many conversations about the ethics of commercial and scholarly publishing. Our project has revealed that many of the concerns about money, ideology and dissemination in scholarly publishing started long ago. Take this document outlining the Royal Society’s ‘Code for the publication of scientific journals’ which sets out, as early as 1963, that the ideal body to run a journal is a scientific society, that editorial policy should be in the hands of academics, and that financial concern and copyright should be the remit of scientists. The code was written for the President of the Society, Howard Florey, and other key players in the organisation at the time, in order to prepare them for a larger event that brought together several learned societies with their own publications. At the time, the Society sought to give advice and support to other academies and their journals, and this document thus reveals their wish for the Society to take on a leadership role in the 1960s.