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.
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.