Science blog

Discover Science at the British Library


We are the British Library Science Team; we provide access to world-leading scientific information resources, manage UK DataCite and run science events and exhibitions. This blog highlights a variety of the activities we are involved with. Follow us on Twitter: @ScienceBL. Read more

29 August 2017

I4OC: The British Library and open data

In August the British Library joined the Initiative for Open Citations as a stakeholder. The I4OC’s aim of promoting the availability of structured, separable, open citation data fits perfectly with the Library's established strategy for open metadata which has just marked its seventh anniversary. I4oc logo

In August 2010, responding to UK Government calls for increased access to public data to promote transparency, economic growth and research, the British Library launched the strategy by offering over 16m CC0 licensed records from its catalogue and national bibliography datasets. This initiative aimed to remove constraints created by restrictive licensing and library specific standards to enable wider community re-use. In doing so the Library aimed to unlock the value of the data while improving access to information and culture in line with its wider strategic objectives.
The initial release was followed in 2011 by the launch of the Library’s first Linked Open Data (LOD) bibliographic service. The Library believed Linked Open Data to be a logical evolutionary step for the established principle of freedom of access to information, offering trusted knowledge organisations a central role in the new information landscape. The development proved influential among the library community in moving the Linked Data debate from theory to practice.

Over 1,700 organisations in 123 countries now use the Library’s open metadata services with many more taking single files. The value of the Library’s open data work was recognised by the British National Bibliography linked dataset receiving a 5 star rating on the UK Government site and certification from the Open Data Institute (ODI). In 2016 the Library launched the platform in order to offer copies of a range of its datasets available for research and creative purposes. In addition, the BL Labs initiative continues to explore new opportunities for public use of the Library’s digital collections and data in exciting and innovative ways. The British Library therefore remains committed to an open approach to enable the widest possible re-use of its rich metadata and generate the best return on the investment in its creation.

I4oc users
I4OC users by country


As the example of the British Library’s open data work shows, opening up metadata facilitates access to information, creates efficiencies and allows others to enhance existing and develop new services. This is particularly important for researchers and others who do not work for organisations with subscriptions to commercial citation databases. The British Library believes that opening up metadata on research facilitates both improved research information management and original research, and therefore benefits all.

The I4OC’s recent call to arms for its stakeholders is therefore very much in tune with the British Library’s open data work in promoting the many benefits of freely accessible citation data for scholars, publishers and wider communities. Such benefits proved compelling enough to enable the I4OC to secure publisher agreement for nearly half of indexed scholarly data to be made openly accessible. This data is now being used in a range of new projects and services including OpenCitations and Wikidata. It's encouraging to see I4OC spreading the open data ideal so successfully and it is to be hoped that it will also succeed in ensuring open citations become the default in future.

Correction: Image shows users of BL open data services by country, not I4OC

11 August 2017

James Blyth and the world's first wind-powered generator

GREAT_for_Imagination_Social_post_ Wind Power

Today's GREATforImagination invention is the first ever wind-powered electrical generator, created by the Scottish engineer and physicist James Blyth (1839-1906). Blyth was the son of an innkeeper, but took advantage of a scholarship to gain a good education and an academic career. In 1887, while a professor at Anderson's College in Glasgow (an ancestor of the modern Strathclyde University), he constructed a windmill attached to a dynamo to light his cottage in his home village of Marykirk. He may have been inspired to use wind to generate electricity by negative comments on the subject by his fellow Glaswegian, the now more famous physicist William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin. He offered to allow his current to be used to light the main street of the village, but superstitious local residents reportedly considered the mysterious electric light to be "the work of the devil"!

Blyth patented his windmill design, which had a vertical axle and cup-like structures to catch the wind, as GB19401 of 1891. Unfortunately, this is not available free online, but you can read it here at the British Library if you have a reader pass. He argued in his patent that this design had aerodynamic effects that would prevent the mechanism from being damaged by overspeed in strong winds, although it was still vulnerable to damage from very powerful gusts.

Blyth turbine
Blyth's windmill design, from his patent (crown copyright)


Blyth subsequently constructed a larger wind generator to provide electricity to the Royal Asylum mental hospital at Montrose, which lasted until 1914. He strongly supported renewable power, although environmental science and pollution were little understood at the time. His main argument was that wind power was cheaper than fossil fuels.

As well as his work on wind power, Blyth was prescient in arguing that gas discharge lamps were more efficient in creating light than filament light bulbs, although the technology of the time was not really up to constructing useful ones. He also contributed to the development of microphones and telephones. The University of Strathclyde continues to be a significant centre in wind energy research.

Further reading:
Blyth, J. (1892) On the application of wind power to the production of electric currents, Proceedings of the Philosophical Society of Glasgow, 25th January, pp. 1-2
Price, T. J. (2005) James Blyth - Britain's first modern wind power pioneer, Wind Engineering, 29(3), pp. 191-200. Available online in BL Reading Rooms.

09 August 2017

Charles Parsons and the steam turbine

Parsons header

Today's GREATforImagination patent is Sir Charles Parsons' invention of the modern steam turbine. In a steam turbine, expanding steam is used to drive a series of rotating vanes, similarly to wind mills. They are much more efficient than reciprocating steam engines such as railway locomotives. The patent, GB1735/1884, is too old to be freely available online, but you can see it if you have a Reader Pass and come to our Business & IP Centre.

Parsons was born in 1854 to an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family with a scientific tradition. His father, the third Earl of Rosse, was a notable astronomer who owned the largest telescope ever constructed in the nineteenth century, first identified the spiral shape of many galaxies, and named the Crab Nebula. Parsons studied maths at Cambridge and then worked as an engineer in Tyneside and Leeds.

He designed and patented his turbine in 1884, initially to generate electricity. Earlier turbines had been impractical and fragile due to their extremely high rotational speed, and Parsons' breakthrough was to design a system which could progressively draw the energy out of the steam in several stages of expansion, making it much slower, more controllable, and less likely to wear out or break under the strain. Parsons first licensed his patents to the Westinghouse company before setting up his own firm and works in Newcastle. Within Parsons' lifetime, turbines of the type he had developed were used to run generators in almost all heat-based electric power stations.

Turbinia_At_Speed compress
Turbinia at speed in the North Sea. Photo by Alfred John West

In the 1890s he came up with the second major use for his turbines, as engines for propeller-driven steamships. This patent, GB11223/1897, is online. In a famous publicity stunt, Parsons built a small, turbine-powered steamship called the Turbinia, and gatecrashed the Royal Navy Review for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee at Spithead in her, literally running rings around the slower reciprocating-engine powered Navy boats that tried to intercept her. By 1905 the Navy had decided that all of its future ships would be turbine-driven.

Parsons continued to invent, in particular in electricity generation, ships, and glass manufacture. He died in 1931, aboard a steam turbine-powered ocean liner during a trip to Jamaica. His company, after a series of takeovers, is now part of Siemens.

27 July 2017

Geology of and in the British Library

Eric Robinson, consultant to Sir Colin Wilson, our architect, and a former University College London lecturer and urban geologist produced a free BL booklet several years ago entitled “A Geology of the British Library” in which he drew our attention to the beautiful geological and paleontological features of the stone, marble and building materials used on both the interior and exterior of the library building at St. Pancras.


A walk around the site or formal tour will offer the opportunity to look at the fascinating fossils and geological patterns visible in the marble, on the floors and in the public areas:

Key features and types of stone to be found, include:

  • New red sand stone from the Permian period around the piazza and main entrance gate.
  • Handmade red bricks that characterise the building and courtyard, are made from southern England clay, high in alumina and at high kiln temperatures with controlled oxygen to create the impressive red colour.
  • Fossilized sea sponges can be seen in the French Hauterville limestone located outside the conference centre.
  • Creamy white Portland stone squares contrast with the darker Purbeck limestone slabs that can be found on the upper ground floor around the reader registration entrance and 3D library model. This Purbeck limestone,  on closer examination, reveals dark fossilized bivalve sea shells and fresh water molluscs.
  • Antony Gormley’s Planets installation in the piazza, consisting of 8 similar sized rounded glacial boulders from Malmo, Southern Sweden, reflecting the impact of the ice ages on their surfaces over the last 2 million years.  

A PDF of Eric Robinson’s guide can be found on the UK Web Archive Organisation’s site at:

and whets our appetite for his other publications on London urban geology, readily found on our Explore the BL catalogue ( ) including Greenwich, Westminster, St. Paul’s, and the church yard tombstone trail around St. Mary’s Hornsey, London.

The following  canned search on the Explore catalogue below lists Eric Robinson's publication titles:

URL is;jsessionid=B22843284F239948080E1B85A236C223?fn=search&ct=search&initialSearch=true&mode=Basic&tab=local_tab&indx=1&dum=true&srt=rank&vid=BLVU1&frbg=&tb=t&vl%28freeText0%29=008796217+OR+008796200+OR+008796214++OR+013514925+OR+008796205+OR+008796204+&scp.scps=scope%3A%28BLCONTENT%29&vl%28488279563UI0%29=any&vl%28488279563UI0%29=title&vl%28488279563UI0%29=any


The British Library also houses a graduate and post graduate level science collection with current journals, books and conferences in geology on the third floor reading room plus research tools and e-resources such as the Georef, Web of Science, Scopus, Engineering Village  databases for keeping up to date with all aspects of this subject (reading room onsite access):

Whether you are a British Library member of staff, a registered reader or a visitor, both the building and it’s collections can be full of surprises and open to everyone to explore. 

Paul Allchin,

Reference specialist - science

19 July 2017

William Perkin and mauveine

We’ve been blogging and tweeting a lot about the historical inventions in the GREATforImagination campaign, with links to the key patents involved. Unfortunately, most British patents from before 1895 aren’t available free online and can only be seen if you come to our building at St Pancras. We’ll be making full blog posts about some of these, to give you some more detailed information than can fit into a Tweet or the Instagram post.

Not every invention is made by people who see a problem and set out to find a solution to it. Curiosity-driven science can produce useful inventions that the scientists involved never anticipated. A classic example of this took place in 1856, when William Perkin tried to make an artificial anti-malarial drug, and instead discovered what would become the first totally human-created molecule to become the centre of a profitable business.

The eighteen-year-old Perkin was a student of the chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann at the Royal College of Chemistry in London (eventually merged into what would become Imperial College). Hofmann had speculated to Perkin that on the basis of the atomic formulas then assigned to the chemicals, it would be possible to create the drug quinine by somehow combining two molecules of napthylamine with one of water. Perkin decided to try to synthesise quinine by oxidising allyltoluidine with dichromate. It is now known that the complex structures of organic molecules make such a naïve approach based purely on atomic formulas useless. When Perkin failed, he decided to try oxidising aniline with dichromate (it was subsequently discovered that the aniline he used was contaminated with toluidine, with mauveine being created by the oxidation of both together), and discovered that the product obtained was a useful dye. Mauveine, as it became known, was the first cheap and stable purple dye, and when Perkin commercialised it a colour that had been traditionally associated with the richest in society became accessible to all. It was the first of the so-called azo dyes, which were among the first products of the modern chemical industry.

Perkin patented his dye and persuaded his relatives to fund him in creating a factory, near Greenford in west London. He continued to work in chemistry, discovering the “Perkin reaction” to make cinnamic acid from acetic anhydride and benzaldehyde, and developing a way to commercially synthesise the natural dye alizarin (from the madder plant) from coal tar. Unfortunately, a rival German team simultaneously developed the same process and patented it one day earlier! Perkin’s lasting fame can be gauged by the fact that the Perkin Medal, the most important American prize for organic chemistry, and Perkin Transactions, for many years the British Royal Society of Chemistry’s main scholarly journal on organic chemistry, were both named after him. Mauveine

Perkin’s mauveine is a mixture of up to twelve different compounds containing N-phenylphenazinium ring systems with additional amine and sometimes methyl groups. The structures of the most important two were not clearly discovered until 1994, because an incorrect structure of unclear origin had been repeatedly cited in the literature and assumed to be right. They are seen in the diagram, with the group "R" being a hydrogen atom in one of them, and a methyl (CH3) group in the other.

Further reading at the British Library:

Perkin, W.H. (1901). The origin of the coal-tar colour industry, and the contributions of Hofmann and his pupils. In Memorial lectures delivered before the Chemical Society 1893-1900 (pp. 596-637). London: Gurney & Barrow. Shelfmark W1/9939 – Perkin’s own description of his famous first synthesis of mauveine, the discussions that provoked the experiment, and his later career in the chemical industry.

Perkin, W.H. (1879). On mauveine and allied colouring matters. Journal of the Chemical Society, Transactions, 35, 717-32. Shelfmark (P) JB 00-E(8) – Perkin’s description of the physical properties and chemical reactions of mauveine.

Perkin, W.H. (1858). On the purple dye obtained from coal-tar. In Report of the twenty-eighth meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Paper presented at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Leeds, September 1858 (p.58). London: John Murray. Shelfmark Ac.1181. – Perkin’s first brief scholarly announcement of mauveine.

Perkin, W.H. (1856). Producing a new coloring matter for dyeing with a lilac or purple color stuffs of silk, cotton, wool, or other materials. GB1984/1856. Shelfmark IP Reserve South – Perkin’s patent for the creation of azo dyes and dyeing techniques using them.

Meth-Cohn, O. and Smith, M. (1994). What did W. H. Perkin actually make when he oxidised aniline to obtain mauveine? Journal of the Chemical Society, Perkin Transactions 1, pp. 5-7. Shelfmark (P) JU 00 –E(9), also available in online subscription – the first investigation of Perkin’s preserved original samples of mauveine under modern spectroscopic techniques to determine the exact structures.

Written by Philip Eagle

A Treasure Ship in the Patent Office Library

The Patent Office Library was one of the British Library’s founding collections and we are currently incorporating its books into the Library’s main collection. Recently I came across a forgotten treasure, a large coloured lithograph (24” x 52”) showing in great detail the interior of a Victorian battleship. The ship was HMS Royal Albert , the largest first rate sail battleship ever built for the Royal Navy. At 5000 tons displacement and with 131 guns it greatly outclassed HMS Victory’s 3500 tons and 104 guns. The Royal Albert was laid down in 1844 in Woolwich Dockyard at the very end of the Navy’s tradition of wooden construction. This also marked the final years of the Thames as the centre of the ship building industry. The invention of screw propulsion had just made one of the great leaps forward in marine technology and so the Royal Albert was adapted in 1852 while still on the stocks to take a 500hp auxiliary steam engine and a propeller. She sailed on to be the flagship of the Mediterranean fleet and saw action in the Crimean War. However the dockyard modifications proved faulty, the propeller shaft leaked, and the ship was broken up in 1884.

P1010544edit (2)

Section of a first class, first rate line of battle ship of 131 guns with screw propeller and auxiliary steam power. To Captain….Sir Baldwin Walker, Surveyor of the Navy. This print is with permission respectfully dedicated by his obliged and obedient servant Charles Lewis Pickering. Paris and New York. Goupil & Vibert. 1852

The library’s fold out collection item, a cutaway view, was a novelty for its time and is a forerunner of those much loved illustrations in the Eagle comic of the 1950s and 60s. The cutaway shows the layout of masts, engines, guns, store rooms and all the equipment of a warship. The particular charm of this piece is the lively human detail that is so often missing from ship paintings, a gun crew at their mess table, sailors in their hammocks, the marine band practicing, blacksmiths at work and the Captain’s wife in full crinoline standing in their cabin.  

Why this unusually large print by the artist Charles Lewis Pickering was published is not known but its quality suggests that it was made to commemorate a significant event for the Royal Navy, perhaps the ceremonial launching of the Royal Albert by the Queen. Further research on the artist drew a blank until I checked the British Newspaper Archive which holds millions of digitised newspaper pages from the British Library's collection. There I found an account from the Bury Post of July 1853 which shows how desperate Charles Pickering was to market his production:

“Impudent imposter – Last week a person waited upon Earl Jermyn, at his town residence, and presenting a card with the name “ Mr Charles Lewis Pickering” represented himself as brother-in-law to the Editor of this paper, and solicited his Lordship’s patronage for an engraving of a screw steamer, dedicated to the Surveyor of the Navy. The Noble Lord, deceived by this representation and by the signatures of Members of both Houses of Parliament and other gentlemen with whom he was acquainted was induced to add his subscription and his guinea but afterwards discovered that the trick had been practised upon another Member by precisely the same tale of connection with the Editor of a Paper in the town represented by that Member. We hope it will not be inferred from the occurrence that newspaper Editors are especially addicted to solicitations of the patronage of their representatives.”

The middle of the nineteenth century saw an arms race in ship design. In 1859 HMS Warrior was laid down as the Navy’s first all metal hull and two years later HMS Prince Albert was the first ship to mount rotating gun turrets and lack mainsails. In a decade, warships had progressed from the wooden walls that Nelson would have recognised to something close to a modern warship’s silhouette. And for a contemporary contrast, the Queen Elizabeth, the largest capital ship ever built for the Royal Navy, sailed on its sea trials recently, powered by 100,000 hp electric motors and displacing 70,000 tonnes.

Richard Wakeford is an information specialist in the Science Reference team.


05 July 2017

A tribute to Anne McLaren

Dame Anne McLaren. Copyright © James Brabazon


To publicise the upcoming event: Anne McLaren: Science, Ethics and the Archive, to be held at the British Library on 20 July, 6.30-8.00 pm, we present a guest-post by Professor Marilyn Monk, UCL Emeritus Professor of Molecular Embryology, with her personal recollections of Anne McLaren.

It is a great honour to have this opportunity to give my own personal tribute to Anne McLaren. Anne was my role model and my mentor over so many years. Not only in my scientific life - although her influence here was huge - but she was such a tower of strength and support for me over many difficult times. ‘Water under the bridge Marilyn. Water under the bridge’, she would say, encouraging me to move on.

I worked closely with Anne in her Medical Research Council Mammalian Development Unit for 18 years from 1974 to 1992 and I remained in contact with her thereafter. I would often email or phone Anne – ‘what do you think of this Anne?’ – questions about science, about life, about new ideas. And she would always respond with words of wisdom and support.

Right from the beginning Anne accepted me unconditionally. My first encounter with Anne was my phone call to her in Edinburgh in 1974. At that time, Anne was in Animal Genetics at Kings Buildings in Edinburgh and I was in the Molecular Biology Department working on DNA replication and repair in bacteria and on slime mould aggregation. But, in 1974, our MRC unit in Molecular Biology in Edinburgh closed with the retirement of our director, Bill Hayes. The MRC told me that I could relocate to another MRC unit that interested me and that would have me. I visited many MRC units and talked to various people who were encouraging but nothing seemed to be right for the interests and expertise in research I had at the time. Then Harry Harris at the Galton Laboratory suggested I contact Anne McLaren as she was just about to move from Edinburgh to London to start up a new MRC Mammalian Development Unit at the Galton. I knew nothing at all about development - let alone mammalian development. A move to mice and their embryos would be a huge leap both intellectually and technically.

In any case, I plucked up courage to phone Anne in Edinburgh in 1974. I remember everything about that moment when I phoned Anne because I was holding onto my last hopes of continuing as a scientist. I introduced myself, told her my problems, and asked her if she would consider taking me on in her new MRC Unit in London. I told her I knew nothing about mice – I had only worked with bacteria, viruses and amoebae. She said, ‘Yes of course you can join me. You must!’ I was flabbergasted. So overjoyed I could not speak. She did not even know me. She didn’t ask to meet me. But she had no reservations. She’d give me a chance. But this says it all about Anne - a tower of strength and support, particularly for women scientists (in my experience, it can still be difficult, even today to be a woman in science).

But as well as being a tower of strength, Anne was patient, tolerant, allowing, and very wise. And of course - very intelligent. I would prefer to talk about science and life and new ideas with Anne than anyone else I know. And Anne was a great listener. She always liked my ‘What if’ ideas and 'Why' questions. She thought that some of them were 'whacky' (her word) but always interesting.

Another great quality of Anne’s was her wicked sense of humour and sense of fun. Over the years, she would only have to raise one eyebrow in my direction over some happening, or strange remark from an unsuspecting visitor, and it would be difficult for me not to collapse in giggles. I always knew what she meant by the raised eyebrow. I felt privileged to be a secret accomplice to the raised eyebrow.

I know there are so many others who will have had the same wonderful experiences of Anne and will be feeling the way that I do. In the days and weeks after Anne died, so many people shared that they had just been in touch with her about this or that – about meeting soon for a meal and a talk about science and about life, or asking her advice on various issues, or arranging some new initiative. I have realised that Anne was looking after all of us pretty much all of the time. She made each one of us feel special.

Her energy and engagement with life and people was phenomenal. In addition she had extra-ordinary self-discipline and I had a lot to learn from her here. I never once saw Anne nod off in a seminar. She listened carefully to everything everyone said and her responses were always measured, incisive and invariably ‘spot on’. She never said a bad word about anybody that I can remember. She never complained.

When I joined Anne’s Unit, I was already a molecular biologist of some 15 years. But as such, I was used to working with millions of cells, bacteria or amoeba. We used to call it bucket biochemistry. The huge challenge was to bring molecular biology to the few cells of the embryo and even to the single cell. And we did it. I guess the hallmark of my research with Anne was to make the molecular techniques a million times more sensitive so we could look at specific enzyme activity, specific gene expression, and specific gene mutation or modification in just a few cells, and even a single cell, of the embryo. Once these single-cell molecular technologies were established, we could apply them to different developmental and biological questions and many insights into mammalian development followed during the years I was at the Galton. We began with establishing the cycle of X chromosome activation and inactivation as a model for gene expression and its regulation in early development. From there, we made many new discoveries such as the late origin of the germ line (anti Weissman doctrine). differential methylation of the active and inactive X chromosomes (beginning of mechanisms of epigenetics), imprinting and transgenerational inheritance of acquired characteristics (Lamarkian inheritance) and the discovery of methylation erasure in early development and again in the germ line thus bringing development back to tabula rasa - totipotency. Clinically we applied our single cell molecular biology to pioneering experiments for preimplantation diagnosis of genetic disease. My colleagues and co-workers during these years in Anne's Mammalian Development Unit were Mary Harper, Asangla Ao, Andrew McMahon, Mandy Fosten, Susan Lindsay, Maurizio Zuccotti, Mark Grant, Michael Boubelik.and Cathy Holding. Anne always gave me a completely free rein and encouraged me in whatever I wanted to do. I still miss her.

Marilyn Monk
UCL Emeritus Professor of Molecular Embryology

Both the Anne McLaren and Marilyn Monk papers are available to readers through the British Library Explore Archive and Manuscripts catalogue. The Mclaren papers can be found at Add MS 83830-83981 and Add MS 89202 and the Monk papers are available at Add MS 89158.

30 June 2017

GREATforInspiration kicks off

GREATforImagination logoThis week saw the launch of the GREATforImagination campaign, part of the GREAT Britain campaign to promote the UK as a place to buy from, invest in, and study in. GREATforImagination celebrates the 400th anniversary year of the publication of the first British patent to be retrospectively identified in the 19th century, after the foundation of the Patent Office (now the Intellectual Property Office), as a patent for an invention in the modern sense.

GREAT Britain asked us, as the holder's of Britain's historic patent collection, to come up with some key historical British patents for the different industries that they cover each week, which they'll be promoting one invention from per weekday as the campaign continues. We're tweeting each day with a link to the GREATforImagination release on each invention, and a link to the patent if it's available free online on Espacenet. The inventions are a mix of the historical ones and new ones from the cutting edge of British industrial innovation. The first week deals with clothing and cinema, and next week will cover technological developments from curiosity-driven science.

When GREAT Britain first asked us to start coming up with patents, we searched history books while they consulted industrial sources, to find inventions that were either a success at the time, or anticipated technologies that became important in the future once the world had caught up with them. There won't be any "weird patents" or "stupid patents" here, but ideas that stood the test of time.

So keep watching our Twitter and the GREATforImagination Instagram for GREAT British inventions historical and modern.

20 June 2017

British Library Digital Resources Discovery Sessions: Web of Science (WOS)

When: 10.00 – 12.00 or 13.00 – 15.00, Friday 23 June

Where: Social Science Seminar Room, Floor 1

Readers and staff are invited to attend one of two training sessions

being run by Thomson Reuters on their Web of Science e-resource.

These sessions will cover the following areas:

  • WOS Core for accelerating research discovery using the Citation Network and identifying impactful research
  • WOS All Databases for discovering the most relevant research and discovery beyond journal literature (patents for example)
  • Incites JCR+ ESI to identify top journals and identify the producers of the most impactful research and follow key trends in science.

Booking your place

To book your place please email Alternatively you are very welcome turn up on the day if there are spaces available and can register as a reader.

Applying for a readers pass:

Web of Science


08 June 2017

Untangling academic publishing

Untangling Academic Publishing logo. Creator uncredited, published under CC-BY

On the 25th of May we attended the launch of the report Untangling Academic Publishing by Aileen Fyfe and others ( The report describes the history of scholarly publishing from the nineteenth century to the modern era of open access, “crises” in affordability of journals and books, and controversy over commercial publishers’ profits and competing business models.

The report discusses the post-WWII evolution of scholarly publishing from an original model where learned societies saw dissemination of research results as simply a part of their essential activity, with no expectations of profit and many copies of journals distributed free to public, academic and scholarly subscription libraries. After WWII an alliance became formed with profit-seeking scholarly publishers, under the pressure of the increasing quantity of publically-funded academic research and increasingly large numbers of universities and professional researchers in the developed world, and a growing proliferation of subdisciplines. Commercial publishers turned scholarly publication into a profitable business by setting up journals for subdisciplines without their own journals or learned societies, selling to institutions, and internationalising the market.

It was during this time that the current system of peer review was developed, and publication metrics became increasingly used to assess the prestige of individual academics and reward them with career progression and funding.

However, since the 1980s this period of close association between the interests of scholars and commercial publishers has ended, due to further expansion of the research base, reduced library budgets due to inflation and cuts in funding, and in the UK specifically issues related to exchange rates. University libraries have struggled to afford journal subscriptions and monograph purchases, leading to a vicious circle of declining sales and increasing costs. Increasingly scholars at all but the wealthiest institutions have found themselves unable to legally obtain material that they need to read, and resentment of the profit margins made by the “big four” commercial scholarly publishers in particular has developed.

Hopes that digital publication would allow cost-cutting have failed to materialise, with publishers arguing that the actual costs of distributing and printing hard copy publications are relatively small compared to editorial costs, and that providing online access mechanisms with the robustness and additional features that users want is not as cheap as some initial enthusiasts assumed. Open access, which covers a variety of business models not based on charging for access at the point of use, has been promoted for almost twenty years, but has failed to replace subscription publishing or, to a great extent, to challenge the market dominance of major commercial publishers, with much open access publishing based on the “gold” business model funded by article processing charges paid by authors or research funders, often offered by commercial publishers as an alternative. Hence universities often find themselves faced with paying both subscriptions and article processing charges instead of just subscriptions, and mechanisms offered by publishers to offset one against the other have been criticised as lacking transparency.

At the event, there were presentations by Dr. Fyfe, her co-author Stephen Curry (whose views can be found here), and David Sweeney, Executive Chair Designate of Research England. Mr. Sweeney welcomed the report for describing the situation without demonising any parties, and pointed out that publishers are adding value and innovating. He suggested that a major current issue is that academics who choose how to publish their work have no real connection to the way that it is paid for – either by their institutional libraries paying subscriptions or by funders paying APC’s – and hence are often not aware of this as an issue. It was pointed out in discussion after the event that the conversation about publishing models is still almost completely among librarians and publishers, with few authors involved unless they are very interested in the subject – the report is aimed partly at raising awareness of the issues among authors.

The general argument of the report is that it is time to look again at whether learned societies should be taking more of a role in research dissemination and maybe financially supporting it, with particular criticism of those learned societies who contract out production of their publications to commercial publishers and do not pay attention to those publishers’ policies and behaviour. Although there is no direct allusion, it is interesting that soon after the report’s launch, this post was published on Scholarly Kitchen, discussing the concept of society-funded publication and putting forward the name of “diamond open access” for it.