From philanthropy to business: the economics of Royal Society journal publishing in the twentieth century

Aileen Fyfe*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
2 Downloads (Pure)


Scientific journal publishing has become a lucrative enterprise, for commercial firms and (some) learned societies alike; but it was not always thus. The Royal Society is the publisher of the world’s longest-running scientific journal, and for most of the history of the Philosophical Transactions, its publication was a severe drain on the Society’s finances. This paper uses the rich archives of the Royal Society to investigate the economic transformation of journal publishing over the course of the twentieth century. It began the century as a scholarly mission activity heavily subsidised by the Society, but ended it as a valuable income stream. Never-before-seen data reveal three phases: the end of the philanthropic model of circulation; the transition to a sales-based commercial model amidst the post-war boom in subscriber numbers; and the challenges facing that new business model once the subscriber numbers went into decline in the late twentieth century. The paper does not directly address the open access movement of the twenty-first century, but is essential reading to understand the financial background.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20220021
Number of pages28
JournalNotes and Records: the Royal Society Journal of the History of Science
Issue number1
Early online date3 Aug 2022
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2024


  • Royal Society
  • Twentieth century
  • Scientific journals
  • Academic publishing
  • Profits
  • Circulation of knowledge


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