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Credit, copyright, and the circulation of scientific knowledge: the Royal Society in the long nineteenth century

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Aileen Fyfe, Julie McDougall-Waters, Noah Moxham

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In this paper, we consider the Royal Society's attitudes towards the copying, reprinting, and reuse of material from its Philosophical Transactions during the long nineteenth century. The contents of the Transactions circulated in print in a variety of ways beyond its traditional biannual parts and bound annual volumes. This included the private circulation of authors' separate copies of papers; the reissuing of papers in authors' collected works; the incorporation of material into other books; and the reporting and excerpting of material in the general scientific periodical literature. The Royal Society attempted to protect the originality and priority of the research published under its imprint, but it never sought to use copyright legislation to prevent (or to profit from) the reprinting or reuse of its research. We argue that copyright was in fact a poor tool for learned institutions like the Royal Society, which were more concerned with reputational credit than with financial credit and were adept at managing the delicate balance between institutional interests and those of individual authors. We demonstrate that the Royal Society's approach to reprinting and reuse was based on the philanthropic concept of a scholarly common good. It typically relied on a code of conduct enforced through tradition and moral suasion, rather than legislation.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)597-615
JournalVictorian Periodicals Review
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2018

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