History of publications: Mission or Money?

What is the historical relationship between publishing, money-making and scholarly mission? And what can we learn from our own history?

We explore the past with our guest Aileen Fyfe. She is a historian of science, technology and publishing, and Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews.


We had the chance to talk to Aileen Fyfe at the 14th Munin Conference on scholarly publishing, where she was a keynote speaker.

You can watch her lecture here. Both her talk and the podcast episode is based on her historical research on scholarly publishing. One of her key points is to look at how publishing has been financed through history, from learned societies, by universities, by government and private donors.

And according to Fyfe, it was only in the early Cold War years, that mission-driven publishers began to seriously focus on sales income as a means of covering costs (and later to generate income). Read her entire abstract here.

Her current research investigates the history of academic publishing from the seventeenth century to the present day. This includes the financial models underpinning scientific journals, their editorial and reviewing processes, and the role of learned society publishers.

Publication history

If you found this interesting, we can guide you to more of Fyfe’s research.

She is the lead author of the 2017 briefing paper Untangling Academic Publishing: a history of the relationship between commercial interests, academic prestige and the circulation of research.

She has also written a prize-winning book Steam-Powered Knowledge: William Chambers and the business of publishing, 1820-1860 (2012).

And you can also find her selected publications here (open access!)

And if this doesn’t satisfy your need for a history lesson, you can also check out our previous episode on the History of Scholarly publications with historian Per Pippin Aspaas.