Tracing authors’ copies of the Philosophical Transactions

The ‘Publishing the Philosophical Transactions Project’ is in its seventh month at the Royal Society. To date, one aspect of the Phil Trans that has continued to crop up in our research is authors’ copies or, as they are often called, authors’ offprints. When scholars publish a paper, whether in a science or humanities journal, they usually get a copy of the finished version. Today, this is often electronic. If a paper version, an author might get five copies, maybe ten. In my experience, these usually go to grandparents, parents and unfortunate friends. The rest end up in the recycling bin.

Before electronic publishing came to the Royal Society around 1990, the common practice was to allow authors one hundred copies of their papers, each. In the twenty-first century, when many people read from their laptops or tablets, this seems like an enormous amount to dispose of. Yet, that is exactly what authors in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century did.  For some, even the one hundred copies were insufficient. For example, Mr T. Wharton Jones applied by letter to the Council of the Royal Society for fifty additional offprints of his paper on ‘The Microscopical Examination of the Hepatic Ducts & C.’, printed in Phil Trans in 1848. The large number of ‘extra copies’ printed led the Treasurer, Edward Sabine, to rule in 1852 that if the number of offprints for any one author should exceed one hundred, the expenses of printing and paper would be covered by the author.

Edward Sabine FRS, Treasurer of the Royal Society 1850-61 and President 1861-71, by Stephen Pearce, 1855.


Thus, in 1873, Warren de la Rue went straight to the Society’s printers, Taylor and Francis, and paid £6 for 50 extra copies of his paper. Two years later, the chemists Captain Noble and F. A. Abel paid Taylor and Francis to produce 150 extra offprints of their paper, ‘Researches on Explosives’, from Phil Trans in 1875, costing them £14 7s 6d. The cost to these authors was not a deterrent to getting their hands on multiple prints. Even more additional copies were ordered in 1856, when Colonel James requested 250 copies of his two papers for the Phil Trans, now in press, printed for him at his own expense, in addition to the one hundred copies furnished to him by the Society.

Evidently, a large number of Phil Trans papers ended up circulating as separate texts. One of the challenges in our project is to trace the distribution of these offprints: where and to whom were they sent?  Having received his one hundred prints, British physician Lionel Beale requested in 1864 a further 150 copies of his paper; printed in the Phil Trans in 1863, it was on the structure and formation of nerve-cells. The purpose of the duplicates, as Beale revealed to the Council of the Society, was for ‘separate publication on the Continent’. Beale, however, was keen to acknowledge the source, insisting that ‘the publication shall bear on the title that it is an extra-impression from the Philosophical Transactions’. Beale was eager for his work to reach beyond the Fellows of the Royal Society, and to come to the attention of his colleagues in the rest of Europe. The very physical format of his original paper in the Phil Trans was transformed to facilitate its transmission over space. Also necessary were modes of transport, in the form of the steam train and sea travel. Authors’ offprints thus facilitated the dissemination of science from the place of its production.

Some Phil Trans authors, however, were less ambitious in the geographic spread of their work, merely hoping to distribute their papers among colleagues in the UK. This too was made easier by the expansion of rail travel in the nineteenth century. Still, readers in the UK faced the problem of accessing the most recent scientific papers. There were no electronic search engines, and manual lists of scientific papers were only starting to emerge. In fact, in the 1850s the Society begun to compose a Catalogue of Scientific Papers, ordered by author surname and listing all contributions in the Phil Trans and in other scientific journals across Europe.

The relative difficulty of tracing science papers is perhaps why James Jeans’s Cambridge colleagues wrote to him while he lay infirm in Hampshire to request copies of his work in the Phil Trans. In 1902 and 1903 respectively, Godfrey Hardy (1877–1947), who was a fellow mathematician at Trinity College, and Arthur Hinks (1873–1945) from the Royal Observatory, asked for two separate papers. Not yet Fellows of the Royal Society, they were not automatically in receipt of the Phil Trans. In the early twentieth century, Phil Trans was distributed as a complete volume or in parts of a volume, which were available to subscribers (including Fellows of the Society) and to casual purchasers, as well as to subscribing institutions. Individual papers were not readily supplied, except to authors who, as noted, were entitled to up to one hundred free copies.

There was another way both Hardy and Hinks could have read Jeans’s papers: although Cambridge was geographically removed from the Royal Society, the Cambridge University Library was among the institutions listed in the introductory pages of the journal as entitled to the Phil Trans. Yet photocopying was not an option until the 1940s, and asking the author for a print was probably an easier option than spending several hours transcribing from the original in the University Library, and was cheaper than employing someone else to do so.

The actual offprints of Jeans’s and others’ papers, some of which are preserved in research libraries today, may prove to be an important source in understanding the readership and distribution of the Phil Trans, if we can locate them. These texts, separated from the Phil Trans volume in which they originated, were probably read in the scientists’ private offices, discussed over coffee, and may have been annotated as readers agreed with or questioned the findings presented.