RHS Case Study

About the Royal Historical Society

The Royal Historical Society (RHS) is the largest and oldest learned society for history in the UK. It has around 3,000 members in the UK and internationally. Being elected to the fellowship is a rite of passage for academics. The Society is governed by a council, and council members sit on committees, each of which is serviced by an officer. These officers are appointed because of their experience, usually on a Society committee or, in the case of two of the Literary Directors we interviewed, because they had external expertise within a relevant field – in this case, publishing. The time commitments made by officers vary, but are generally quite demanding, and this is a consideration within the selection process.

In general, our interviewees had very similar views of the recent history of the RHS. They recognised that, historically, the Society had been seen as rather out of touch, with an emphasis on the ‘Golden Triangle’ of Oxford, Cambridge and London, and upon recognising achievement within the historical profession rather than representing the profession to the wider world. Recent efforts have altered this, both in perception and reality, driven in part by a need to engage more robustly with successive governments’ interventions in higher education policy. But several interviewees suggested that most members remain unaware of the Society’s researcher support work and publishing activities, and do not participate in many of its activities, and some felt that changing this attitude ought to be a priority. One interviewee suggested that young researchers are more likely to be aware of the Society’s wider activity as many of them have received funding, but another felt that applications for support were still concentrated from a few institutions where the Society’s work is well known. Most interviewees also agreed that the international role of the Society was limited, although this was seen as less of a problem.

We asked all interviewees for their views on the most important role of the Society. While most interviewees identified a clear, core, mission which was about supporting historians and the historical profession, especially through advocacy, they were also clear that the other activities of the Society were absolutely critical to achieving this end, in more complex ways than we had originally anticipated. Our initial OAPEN-UK focus group suggested that publishing is important for learned societies as an income generator, allowing them to carry out the other activities which support the discipline. But, for the RHS at least, the core lobbying and advocacy role is underwritten more by gratis time and effort from council members and officers than by publication income. Publications, and the researcher support activities which they fund, are important because they keep the Society connected to the profession, allowing them to speak externally with authority, and to monitor the health of the profession.

The Society’s publishing activities

The Society has four main conduits for research communication, only one of which is a journal. This journal, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (Transactions), is slightly atypical in that it does not solicit papers for review and possible rejection, but rather publishes invited papers that have been chosen for the Society’s lecture series for members over the course of a year. These are often reflective pieces with appeal beyond narrow specialist audiences, and Transactions also includes selections from conferences supported by the society and occasional prize essays by early career scholars.  Being invited to give a paper is seen as an honour within the profession, but most interviewees saw Transactions as a signifier of the Society’s status, and an important collection of scholarly work, but did not believe that it had a unique role as a platform for research findings. Most authors are highly-respected historians and would not struggle to place their work in other journals.

The other three publications – two book series and a bibliography – were seen by all interviewees as essential, not just to the Society, but to the discipline as a whole. Although some interviewees suggested that researchers are not necessarily aware of the range and quality of RHS publications, and would not identify them as a primary activity of the Society, they are very important. Each of these three publications fulfils a distinct role, but they all provide an outlet for work that may otherwise struggle to be published.

The Camden Series is a collection of edited texts in British history. Attitudes to edited texts are rather ambiguous, even within the discipline, as many researchers believe that editors receive relatively little credit within REF for such outputs. One interviewee believed that this had been particularly damaging to the Camden Miscellanies – editions containing three or four short sources published together – for which no submissions have been received in recent years. Nonetheless, more than one interviewee suggested that edited texts may have more long-term value to the profession than monographs, citing the continued relevance of works first published over a hundred years ago. There are few other outlets for authors wishing to publish edited texts: Oxford Medieval Texts and local records societies were both mentioned, but the general feeling was that the Camden Series fills an important gap. The Series receives between five and seven proposals annually, and publishes two books.

The second series is Studies in History, which one interviewee characterised as ‘probably the most valuable thing we do as far as publishing goes’. Authors of these books tend to be early career scholars seeking to publish their first book. Interviewees recognised that the prestige of this imprint is below presses such as CUP, OUP and Yale, but stressed that it is a high-quality outlet for researchers who might otherwise struggle to publish the work that helps establish their careers: as one interviewee said, other publishers have ‘rather resigned from publishing the books of first-time authors’. Perhaps as a result of this focus on early career researchers, the series is unique in British publishing in having what one interviewee termed ‘activist editors’, working with the young author and in some cases reading and commenting on three or four drafts of the book. This attribute of the Studies in History series was noted by several interviewees, who saw it as a distinctive benefit for the inexperienced author. Editors in commercial presses are less able to offer advice on every aspect of producing a book, as much of the work is now outsourced, whereas an academic will be able to give the benefit of their experience as authors. However, one interviewee did suggest that this model does not work for everyone, and mentioned one book that was recently withdrawn from the Studies in History series because the author felt that their editor had changed it too much. The interviewee also stressed that not all academics are well-suited to editing a first-time author and that an (understandable) lack of training in mentoring can cause problems.

The third publication (now online only) is the Bibliography of British and Irish History. This service began in the 1920s as a series of print volumes produced in conjunction with the Institute of Historical Research, drawing on  volunteer labour. In 1989 the Society took the  key decision to produce an electronic version of the cumulated printed bibliographies, which appeared as a CD-ROM in 1997. But as the technologies evolved, so the Society sought to widen the availability of the resource, making use of three successive rounds of AHRC funding from 2000 to produce an online and open access resource, with important pioneering elements of inter-operability. But once this funding ceased, and after exploring other funding possibilities which proved impracticable, it was necessary for the RHS (acting now with the IHR) to enter into a partnership with a commercial publisher, Brepols, and introduce subscriptions, which would pay for the small team that   keeps the resource current. There was some initial hostility (unsurprising as this was a move from open access to subscription) , but this now seems to have died down, and coverage within institutions is almost as good as when it was a free resource, though this depends on fragile Library budgets. The continuity of this project is very important: it has been developed over many years and if suspended for lack of core funding it would require considerable effort to recreate the resource as it is today.

Each series is operated in conjunction with a commercial publisher: the Camden Series with CUP, the Studies in History series with Boydell and Brewer, and the Bibliography with Brepols. These relationships are reviewed periodically and the contracts re-let. On the whole, the relationships work well: best, according to one interviewee, when the publishers really understand the aim behind the publications, are responsive to requests and show initiative in new developments. Brepols are a good example of this: they already published an online medieval bibliography when they won the contract for the Society publication, and therefore understood the work very well. Interviewees suggested that the publishers recognise that they benefit from the credibility bestowed by the RHS brand, and one felt that in some cases most of the direct sales of books to academics (as opposed to libraries) came from the Society’s promotion of publications to its Fellows.

The financial arrangements around the publishing activities are complex. Across all three imprints, the Society covers its costs and makes a profit: this profit has been significantly enhanced over the last few years thanks to one-off sales of digitised Camden Series backlist volumes. However, the costs are significant. For all three imprints, the Society invests cash (in addition to the time and effort provided gratis to manage the publications, discussed in more detail below). In one case, they pay a professional copyeditor – a luxury which the publisher would not normally provide. In another, they pay a proportion of staff salaries. They, along with the IHR, subsidise the Bibliography of British and Irish History in order to keep subscription costs low for institutions. Most interviewees were clear that the publications could not be maintained, at the same standard, by a commercial press on its own – not least because the publishers get important access to authors and peer reviewers through RHS officers and their networks.

The Society’s other activities

As characterised by the interviewees, the Society has two other main functions. The first is to represent the historical profession and its work, acting ‘almost like a trade union’ in the words of one interviewee. In recent years, the Society has become much more active in this area, and is a first port of call when researchers are concerned about policy changes. These can be large-scale governmental reviews on issues such as research funding or school history education, or they can be very local issues, such as the closure of a library. But despite success in this area, interviewees felt that the Society could do better at highlighting issues that should concern its members, as it did with the President’s Letter on open access, rather than pursuing a more reactive agenda which relies upon members bringing their concerns to the Society. The Society is also a flagship for smaller historical learned societies and helps ensure that their concerns reach government.

One interviewee felt that this advocacy-type role is becoming increasingly important for the Society, and learned societies in general. Government-funded bodies and universities are not speaking out for academic freedom and the Society needs to fill this void by representing the concerns of academics. Furthermore, many academics feel marginalised within their own institutions. Administrators and managers are increasingly disconnected from the realities of academic life and impose constraints upon researchers. This can lead to a sense of futility when it comes to protesting government decisions, and the Society needs to engage directly with researchers to address this.

The second other function of the Society is financial support for early career researchers, particularly PhD students and people who hold part-time post-doctoral positions. The aim of this activity is to support the creation of new research (through travel grants) and then to help young researchers promote that research (by giving them access to conferences): such promotion can be very important in securing a book deal. The Society makes grants to researchers five times a year, and receives at least fifty applications for each round of funding. Individual grants offer researchers up to £500 for travel to archives connected with their research. Increasingly, and following the curtailment of travel funding by the AHRC a few years ago, these applications are to fund work that is essential to the student’s PhD, which is a concern. The RHS also funds conference attendance, within very strict guidelines, but this is become less of a focus. They will, however, offer funding to organisers of UK-based workshops or conferences to subsidise PhD or post-doctoral attendees. Researchers are often repeat-funded for different purposes: they can receive funding twice within their PhD and once in a post-doctoral position. The Society’s funding infrastructure also acts as a conduit for money contributed by the History Workshop Journal and the Past and Present Society.

Staying connected to the profession

We have outlined three broad roles which interviewees considered important for the Society: advocacy, researcher support and publishing. There is an additional role around prestige which is seen as important for members. But it would be incorrect to suggest that there is a clear and discernible boundary between these different roles. Rather, they work together to create an offering which is greater than the sum of its parts; to remove one aspect of the Society’s activity would weaken its ability to perform the others.

The financial relationship between the various activities is complex. The most obvious one, mentioned by several interviewees, is the connection between the income from publishing and the money paid out in researcher support grants. The windfall from the back editions of the Camden Series has been used to increase the funding available to early career researchers. And the additional funding from the History Workshop Journal and the Past and Present Society comes from their publishing activities. But publishing is not the biggest income stream for the Society: the total income from publishing (even including the exceptional money from the Camden Series in recent years) is similar to the amount received from investments and less than the amount generated by membership subscriptions. Members do not get significant discounts on RHS publications, in part because the coverage is so broad that most books are likely to be irrelevant to most members and thus the benefit of discounts would be marginal. (The situation is likely to be different for the more specialised learned societies.) And you do not need to be a member to apply for researcher support funding: indeed, most Fellows would be ineligible for such funding because it is targeted at early career researchers. As interviewees saw it, the benefits that members consider most important are prestige and the sense of feeling part of a bigger community which can be an effective advocate for the historical profession. In other words, members belong to the Society, and pay their subscriptions, for reasons other than its publishing and researcher support activities – although one interviewee did suggest that this may change as young researchers who have benefitted from RHS support become full Fellows.

But just because members do not necessarily see the connection between the prestige and advocacy activities of the Society, on the one hand, and its publishing and researcher support roles on the other, does not mean that such connections do not exist. In fact, the roles are very closely linked. The publishing function of the RHS demonstrates a connection with scholarship which is very important to maintaining the Society’s prestige. The high quality of Society publications – the eminent authors who publish in Transactions and the unusually high editorial standards of the other publishing activities – show that the Society remains connected to excellence in academia – it is not simply a lobbying body or a way to redistribute funds to early career researchers. The work with early career researchers is also important to ensuring the continued excellence of the discipline, ‘ensuring that the next generation of scholars are as good as, if not better than, the current generation’, as one interviewee put it. The researcher support activities also help ensure that important issues are drawn to the Society’s attention – for example, when the AHRC stopped funding travel grants, the RHS saw a sudden rise in applications for those grants. When these issues come up, the officers can convey it to the President who will pass on concerns to the relevant bodies. Thus, the researcher support work keeps the Society connected to its members and the wider profession, ensuring that its lobbying and advocacy work is grounded in the important issues that are affecting historians.

The importance of goodwill

Most of the Society’s activities – managing its publications, advocacy, researcher support, membership, finances, administration, events and so on – are done for free by academic officers and councillors. The editorial boards for the various publications, and the academic editors for the Studies in History series, also contribute their time for free. Some are able, in theory, to negotiate with their institutions to reclaim the time spent on these activities, but in practice this rarely works. For others, there is no possibility even of a negotiation. Certainly, most of our interviewees felt that they were doing most of the work for the Society in their own time – which, as one interviewee stressed, is a common feature of life for academics, even those who are not involved with a learned society.

The amount of time involved varies depending upon the exact nature of the officer’s role. The president might spend up to a day a week on RHS business, while for others the commitment is closer to a handful of days a year. For everyone, though, the workload varies depending upon the Society’s activities, with periods of high and low commitment. Some of the activity, particularly around publishing, is highly professionalised. One interviewee talked about having to ‘impose the normal disciplines of a publishing firm on a rather gentlemanly and chaotic process’ for one of the book series, which was not (at that time) issuing contracts to authors. Another suggested that the work done by the RHS publishing committee, and particularly the literary directors, is very similar to that done by an acquisitions editor in a commercial publishing house. Certainly, it is the literary director who is responsible for chasing authors and ensuring that the partner press receives its contracted two manuscripts per year – no small task. Other aspects, too, require professional levels of commitment – for example, managing the Society’s two members of staff. One interviewee did suggest that this reliance on goodwill of officers who are skilled in the traditional publishing environment may jeopardise the Society’s ability to engage with new technologies: they do not have the skills to create HTML versions of books, or design apps, for example. But on the whole this seems to be a successful way of working, albeit at some cost to the individual academics involved.

The Society’s officers also bring with them an enormous network of contacts and colleagues who can be called upon to support its work. Because most officers have considerable experience as historians, these are extremely high-quality networks. Again, this is particularly important for the Society’s publishing activities. Several interviewees stressed the importance of the volunteer editors and reviewers of Society publications, in particular, the editors of the Studies in History series, who work very intensively with a young scholar as they produce their first book. The input of these networks is crucial to the high quality of the Society’s output, and several interviewees said that without the RHS’s involvement, publishers would struggle to get such high calibre editors and reviewers. One interviewee stressed that engaging these networks comes at a further cost to officers, who must reciprocate the effort expended by colleagues by helping them out when asked.

Open access and other developments in scholarly communications

All interviewees began by stating their firm support for the principle of open access: one called it ‘unarguable – inherently right and proper’. But within this overall acceptance, all of them expressed concern about the possible repercussions for historians of a firm open access policy. Some issues related specifically to concerns about the financial viability of their book series in an open access world. Opinions were divided as to whether the books would continue to cover their costs in an open access business model – much depends upon available funding and the nature of the model itself, as most historians do not receive much AHRC funding and QR funds are already stretched – but all interviewees believed that the publishing activities would cease to make a profit. In most cases, interviewees felt that this would probably lead publishers to disengage from the publications, making it very difficult for the Society to continue to run them. The loss of profit would thus have two significant effects: first, it would remove a unique and important outlet for historical scholarship; and second, it would remove the money that is needed to pay for some of the Society’s other activities, especially researcher support. One interviewee suggested that membership subscription rates would need to double to cover the shortfall, and that this would lead to a decline in membership which would limit the Society’s ability to speak on behalf of the profession. The impact of open access on business models is seen as far-reaching.

But the financial issues were not the main concern for most interviewees when considering the implications of open access. The main concerns fell into two key categories: the effect on volunteer networks, and the academic freedom of Society members. The first issue was raised with particular strength by two interviewees. One suggested that removing profits from publishing would also remove the ‘fun ‘ – but this was not just a frivolous point. Society publications depend upon considerable work from volunteers, who are rewarded (in part) by seeing their effort and passion turned into book sales, especially when the book performs unexpectedly well. This interviewee also suggested that volunteer editors like to think that the time they contribute eventually secures a financial return for the discipline, channelled through book sales and the learned society, and that an open access model would undermine this. Another interviewee suggested that explicitly putting a price on the work done to publish a book, through an APC or similar, would anger academics who give their time for free to undertake peer review.

Concerns about academic freedom were also mentioned by a number of interviewees. The main issue here is protecting an academic’s existing ability to publish their work in whatever forum they consider the most appropriate. There are two problems here. First is the challenge of making a unilateral change within an international publishing system. Most historians want to publish at some point in journals run by non-UK societies or publishing groups, and there is no guarantee that these journals will offer open access options: indeed, some are actively opposed to such options. This would seriously damage academic freedom, and also the international standing of British research. The second concern relates to the mechanisms by which institutions will allocate publication funds to its staff. Several interviewees expressed concern about the possibility of a second ‘peer review’ process – one conducted by institutional managers rather than academic peers. One interviewee stressed that academics are already troubled by the level of institutional interference in their work, and that this may turn out to be ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ in terms of the relationship between academics and their managers. Interviewees also stressed that historians are usually not grant-funded, and may therefore struggle to access money for publication, and that many researchers who publish articles are independent or retired, and therefore unable to access funds. A similar concern was expressed in relation to early career researchers.

Interviewees raised other concerns about open access. One was concerned that open access might be perceived as ’second tier’ publishing for authors who could not place their books with a commercial press. Another suggested that most academics work well beyond their contracted hours, and that most ‘publicly-funded’ time is actually spent on teaching and dealing with administration. The research which leads to publications is usually conducted outside office hours, and often outside the office, using books and other resources which the academic has purchased him or herself. Can this work, then, really be considered ‘publicly-funded’? Another concern relates to popular history and authors who have crossed over from academia into trade publishing. If their work was to be considered publicly-funded, and therefore subject to open access requirements, it would mean that it becomes virtually unpublishable by trade presses, which rely on a very different business model. This would compromise the ability of academic historians to reach a wider public, and would leave the field open for writers who are not trained to academic standards. Another interviewee expressed concern about other types of research output which may become subject to open access requirements. There is a wide interest in data, for example, but in history it is very difficult to separate out the data from the final publication, as notes need to be filtered, contextualised and ordered if they are to make sense to new readers. There was an overarching concern that the implications of open access in non-STM subjects have not been fully thought through, and that the policy changes may lead, in some history departments, to what one interviewee termed ‘a devastation rather than a transition’.