Why journals should not forget their past

Scientific publishing has a noble history of tolerating tiny profits. We need a bit more of that spirit today, suggests Aileen Fyfe

April 9, 2015

Source: Miles Cole

Librarians tell us that publishers’ ever-higher profits - brought about by above-inflation prices - is putting library budgets in crisis

The publishing giant Reed Elsevier recently reported that its scientific publishing division made an adjusted operating profit of £762 million last year, amounting to a profit margin of 37 per cent.

Others may decry the fairness of such high profits being made by commercial publishers from the publicly funded labour of academics. But I’m a historian, and the immediate question raised for me by these figures is not so much whether they are fair but how they ever came to pass. I spend a lot of my life investigating the publication of scientific books and periodicals. And what I see is that, until quite recently, profits have been very rare.

It’s true that, back in 1665, when the world’s first scientific journal was founded, Henry Oldenburg did hope that Philosophical Transactions would be a money-making enterprise for him, putting to good use the news that came his way as secretary to the recently founded Royal Society. Oldenburg had some success, but admitted to a correspondent that it had never brought anything like as much income as he had hoped.

Fifty years later, Hans Sloane reported that during his time as editor of Transactions he had spent £1,500 on keeping it afloat, an enormous sum in those days. And when, in 1752, the Royal Society formally took over the journal, its officers saw it not as a route to income generation but as a worthy enterprise that would be subsidised by membership fees.

The society retained this attitude well into the 20th century, even as the growing professionalisation of science brought increasing numbers of good papers into its editorial office, and the annual page count – and cost – crept up. The dissemination of high-quality scientific research was one of the purposes of the society, so its officers became increasingly creative about finding ways to cover the growing costs of publication, rather than scaling it back.

For editors of journals without a sponsoring society, keeping their journals afloat was a perpetual battle, often lost. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, journals failed almost as frequently as they were started. Editors routinely bemoaned the smallness of the potential market and the higher cost of illustrations and technical typesetting. It was almost a cliché that even the more successful scientific journals did not – could not – do much more than cover their costs.

One of the more successful journal editors of the 19th century was Richard Taylor, the founder of Taylor & Francis. A printer rather than a scholar by training, he had a shrewd business sense and extensive contacts in the scientific community. None of the stable of journals he built up made much profit, but they made enough to be worth continuing. Taylor also recognised the less tangible benefits that his range of journals brought: free advertising for the firm’s other publications; reuse whenever possible of work done for one journal in another; and an ever-expanding network of contacts among men of science, who might ask the firm to print their own book manuscript or their university’s exam papers.

It was only during the post-war boom in science – both in manpower and in funding – that publishers finally managed to make significant profits from scientific journals. For the learned societies, this must have been a huge relief, as it both freed up existing funds for other purposes and generated an income stream with no restrictions set by donors. Last year, the Royal Society was able to report a surplus from its publishing division of some £3 million.

We can hardly blame learned societies for playing the profit-game when we see all the worthwhile ways they use it to support their disciplines. But librarians keep telling us that publishers’ ever-higher profits – brought about by consistently above-inflation price rises, exacerbated by shrewd bundling on journals in “big deals” – is putting library budgets in crisis. Nor is the rise of open access likely to redress the situation if the journal-centred gold version wins out over the repository-centred green version. Indeed, with article fees set at the whim of the publishers, gold could easily become a way to even greater commercial profits.

We can hardly expect commercial firms voluntarily to give up their search for profits. But perhaps it is time for learned societies to take a wider view, and think creatively again about journal financing. After all, the technological changes in publishing since the near-crisis in Philosophical Transactions’ finances in the 1890s mean that the costs involved are far less of a worry.

Maybe the learned societies, too, will feel unable to give up their grants schemes for the cause of cheaper journals, but, as the representatives of you and me, they should at least have those discussions. If gold open access is the future, they could significantly hold down article processing fees across the board by setting theirs at relatively low levels. It’s not going to be an easy decision for them to reach, but history reminds us that journal publishing has long been about far more than just the profits.

Aileen Fyfe is reader in modern British history at the University of St Andrews

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Reader's comments (3)

For a few years, the International Society for Computational Biology only had one official journal, PLoS Computational Biology. This journal has always been fully open-access. The society has since re-affiliated itself with a 'hybrid' journal (Bioinformatics), whilst maintaining the affiliation with PLoS Comput Biol. However, those few for which PLoS Comput Biol was the society's only official journal illustrate that a large learned society CAN function, just with an open-access journal. (The publisher, PLoS, has always been open to requests for publication-charge waivers, for those authors who cannot afford the charge - this is also very important.) Money was presumably made in other ways e.g. membership fees, conference attendance fees. Since it appears feasible for a learned society to run without charging for its journal, it would be good to see larger numbers of societies experimenting with the approach.
Excellent article! You could have noted that the person responsible for the post WW2 shifting to a high profit approach to journals was Robert Maxwell and his Pergamon Press - now part of Elsevier of course.
Charles: Thank you. Do we know that Pergamon actually started the new approach, or merely that Pergamon, Elsevier and the Royal Society (sometimes) all started making more convincing profits from their journals in the 1950s? At present, I'm not sure of the cause, but would welcome suggestions of where to look...