Select Committee on Science and Technology Tenth Report

3 Accessibility of research

Patterns of access

30. Some individuals subscribe to journals that they regularly read. For those seeking access to an article in a journal to which they do not subscribe, the first place they would look would be their library. Most researchers are affiliated to an academic institution or private sector company that carries subscriptions to a number of journals. Access can also be gained through local libraries or one of the six UK legal deposit libraries. If the journal is not available through the library, the articles required by the user can be obtained through an inter-library loan; through the British Library's Document Supply Service, run from Boston Spa; or on a pay-per-view basis from a publisher. All of the above methods require payment on the part of the user: the British Library's Document Supply Service generates a margin for the British Library; inter-library loans are exchanges of content between libraries and do not generate a margin. The British Library currently charges £8.65 for an inter-library loan: the user's library decides how much of that cost to pass on to the user.[45] Articles purchased on a pay-per view basis cost anything from £5 to £30. The variety of available methods used to access journals means that overall access levels are high. John Wiley & Sons stated that "the vast majority of people who want to access our material can do so with ease". It estimated that only 10% of potential users are unable to gain access to its material, for whatever reason.[46]

31. The British Library's Document Supply Service supplies over 1.8 million scientific articles a year, over 90% of which are supplied within 48 hours.[47] In December 2003 it introduced a Secure Electronic Delivery service that "gives access to 100 million documents which can now be delivered electronically to researchers' desktops".[48] In their evidence, the Consortium of University Research Libraries (CURL) and SCONUL stressed the importance of "a continuation of [the British Library's] comprehensive document supply service, serving the information requirements of scholars and researchers".[49] With the relatively modest prices involved, particularly when compared to the price of pay-per-view, the Document Supply Service provides a cost-effective method for the reader to gain access to articles in journals to which they or their library do not subscribe. Nonetheless, the British Library told us that the financial viability of this service had been threatened by the advent of bundling deals that give subscribers access to the entirety of a publishers' catalogue, thus reducing the need for Document Supply. As discussed in paragraphs 56—68 of this Report, although bundling deals increase the range of journals to which a user has access, they do not necessarily offer value for money. The British Library's Document Supply Service is an efficient and cost-effective method of providing access to articles in scientific journals. The decline in demand for Document Supply notwithstanding, we are persuaded that the service provides a valuable alternative route for users who would not otherwise have access to the journals that they needed. We recommend that the Government takes steps to protect the service.

32. The digitisation of journal provision has altered patterns of access. Many submissions complained that the market had not yet adapted to the digital environment. There is some evidence that subscriptions to digital journals are still being predicated on the model used for subscriptions to print journals. Publishers traditionally sold libraries a set number of copies of each issue of print journals as part of the terms of their subscription. All library users were able to read those print copies within the library precincts. Some publishers have used the same numerical basis for subscriptions to their digital journals, providing libraries with a limited number of digital "copies" of each title. The Eastern Confederation of Library and Knowledge Services Alliance (ECLaKSA) told us that "the publishers control access to the journal titles by single IP address recognition. […] This in turn means that libraries can only provide access to a limited number of users via one PC".[50] The University of Hertfordshire echoed this complaint, writing that pricing is "based on the number of simultaneous users with significant differentials between single user and even low numbers (4-5) of concurrent users, when in practice actual usage patterns and service requirements fluctuate at different times of day from no one using the materials to a number of concurrent users".[51] The Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) is a body jointly established by the four UK higher education funding bodies and the Learning and Skills Council to provide strategic guidance, advice and opportunities to use ICT to support teaching, learning, research and administration. One of its functions is to undertake initiatives for the licensing of electronic journals on behalf of the higher and further education sectors. We are not convinced that the publisher practice of granting each subscriber access to a set number of digital "copies" of a journal is either effective or necessary. We recommend that the Joint Information Systems Committee strongly argues the case against such restrictive practices when it negotiates the terms for the next national site licence with publishers.

33. The digital environment enables access to research findings in a range of formats other than the traditional article. Digital articles can include video clips and links to sets of primary data. We heard from Dr Nigel Goddard of Axiope Limited, a spinout from Edinburgh University that provides the tools needed for researchers to manage and share their primary research data, about the advantages of making primary data sets available with research findings: "[researchers] see the possibilities for using it to share information within collaborations. […] the example to look at is the genomic project where scientists did contribute their data to a community wide database and as a result […] we have transformed biomedical science completely".[52] It is envisaged that the sharing of primary data would prevent unnecessary repetition of experiments and enable scientists to build directly on each others' work, creating greater efficiencies and productivity in the research process. From 1 October 2003, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US adopted a requirement for the data from all its research grants to a value in excess of $500,000 to be published. In the UK, the Medical Research Council (MRC) states that it expects all MRC-funded researchers "to make their research data available in a timely and responsible manner to the scientific community for subsequent research with as few restrictions as possible".[53] However, Dr Goddard told us that relatively few researchers exploited the new technologies to make their research data available and concluded that this was partly due to a lack of incentives within the system.[54] We congratulate the Medical Research Council on its support of the principle that primary research data should be made available to the scientific community for subsequent research. We recommend that the Research Councils consider providing funds to enable researchers to publish their primary data alongside their research findings, where appropriate.

Researchers and practitioners

34. Many researchers are affiliated to an academic institution and thus have access to all the journals subscribed to by their library. Some benefit from subscriptions purchased by their company. As a consequence, researchers tend to be satisfied with current levels of journal access. Such contentment is not an accurate reflection of the state of the market for scientific publications. The problems with the market are experienced, not by academics, but by librarians, who do the buying and manage the budgets. This issue is discussed in further detail in paragraphs 102—107 of this Report.

35. We received evidence that there are already two classes of library: those that can afford to maintain subscriptions, and those that cannot. The Scholarly Publishing and Resources Coalition (SPARC) Europe stated that "papers describing research funded by UK tax-payers can only be accessed by those lucky enough to work at an institution that can afford subscriptions to the relevant journals".[55] Yet this is a concern that does not appear to have filtered through to the majority of academics. One academic, Professor Williams of the University of Liverpool, even argued that "there is no reason at all why all Higher Education Institutions should have the same access to scientific publications. Not all institutions work at the cutting edge of science, technology and medicine, and many do not need access to the highest quality science publications".[56] We disagree. As Dr Matthew Cockerill of BioMed Central stated, "it is unjustifiably elitist to proclaim that none but those working at major well-funded institutions have the capacity to benefit from having access to the scientific literature".[57] All researchers, regardless of the nature of their institution, should be granted access to the scientific journals they need to carry out their work effectively.

36. Several memoranda outlined problems of access to digital journals for NHS users and other medical practitioners. When libraries subscribed to journals in print, NHS users were able to use their local academic library to gain access to the journals that they needed. Digital access has proved more restrictive for this particular group of users. Michael Worton from University College London (UCL) told us that UCL had a history of joint working with the NHS. All its biomedical libraries are currently, or are about to become, joint higher education (HE)/NHS libraries. Yet "NHS staff using HE libraries are precluded from access to electronic resources purchased by HE as a condition of the licence which HE signs from the commercial publisher. Consequently, the NHS has to purchase many of the same resources for the use of its staff".[58] Matthew Cockerill from BioMed Central agrees that "subscription barriers do significantly limit the access of NHS researchers and staff to online research, even when that research has been funded and carried out by the NHS".[59] The NHS in England and Wales has taken steps to implement its own central procurement procedure. It recently signed a major deal with three information providers to provide electronic knowledge resources for the NHS nationally for at least the next three years. The resources are being purchased as part of the National Core Content Project funded by the NHS Workforce Development Confederations. Although the deals will be an improvement on the current situation, it would be more efficient for the NHS and HE to implement joint procurement procedures. We recommend that the Joint Information Systems Committee and the NHS work together to implement joint procurement procedures that reflect the close working patterns of NHS and the higher education sector and represent value for money for both.

Teachers and students

37. Although journals are an essential tool for researchers, they are increasingly also being used for teaching purposes. The University of Hertfordshire, which has a strong emphasis on teaching, reported that digital licensing arrangements were rarely satisfactory for the purposes of teaching and learning. It told us that approximately 50% of publishers "prohibit, through their licensing terms, the circulation of their material to groups of students over university networks in such an intranet environment".[60] This was a particular problem for the University of Hertfordshire because of its need to import journal articles into its digital "Managed/Virtual Learning Environment". Part of the difficulty was perceived to lie with "the piecemeal approach dictated by the inconsistency of publishers' licences, makes it difficult for librarians to advise on what is permissible and for lecturers to know what they may and may not use in conjunction with their online handouts and learning materials".[61]

38. The Publishers Licensing Society is mandated by publishers to authorise the Copyright Licensing Agency to issue licences for the limited photocopying and scanning of printed copyright material, including for teaching purposes. However, the licences do not cover the reproduction of digital material: this is negotiated on an individual basis between the purchaser and the publisher within the terms of the digital journal licence.[62] In 1993, the Follett Report, on library provision, concluded that "publishers need to recognise that the use and manipulation of copyright material is inevitable in higher education, and that it is by no means always unreasonable or illegitimate. They must be pragmatic".[63] Although the situation with regard to print journals has improved, it is frustrating for university teaching staff that they are prevented from making optimum use of the teaching resources available to them in the form of digital journals. Teaching is a crucial university function. Universities should be permitted, within reason, to derive maximum value from the digital journals to which they subscribe by using them for legitimate teaching purposes. We recommend that future licensing deals negotiated by the Joint Information Systems Committee explicitly include provisions to enable journal articles, whether print or digital, to be used for teaching purposes.

The public

39. The public is increasingly seeking access to research findings through scientific journals. In particular, patients want to inform themselves about medical conditions and treatments that affect them. Dr Virginia Barbour, formerly Molecular Medicine Editor at The Lancet, saw this as a positive development because reading research articles could be a useful antidote to lurid reporting of research findings in the press: "even more serious broadsheet newspapers tend to prefer sensational news rather than dull but worthy research". She notes that the practice of "making information available only for a high fee at the point of access has the most severe repercussions for one particular group of end-users; patients".[64] It is difficult to find fault with the aim of fostering a more scientifically literate public. Nonetheless, in oral evidence we heard dissenting voices. Dr John Jarvis of John Wiley told us "let us be careful because this rather enticing statement that everybody should be able to see everything could lead to chaos. Speak to people in the medical profession, and they will say the last thing they want are people who may have illnesses reading this information, marching into surgeries and asking things".[65] We understand that many journal articles are esoteric and, by their very nature, inaccessible to large swathes of the public. Nonetheless, we cannot see what damage could be done by allowing the public to examine the articles for themselves. Unlike Dr Jarvis, the possibility of better-informed patients "marching into surgeries and asking things" does not fill us with horror. We are convinced that it is better that the public should be informed by peer-reviewed research than by pressure groups or research as it is reported in the media.

40. It is not for either publishers or academics to decide who should, and who should not, be allowed to read scientific journal articles. We are encouraged by the growing interest in research findings shown by the public. It is in society's interest that public understanding of science should increase. Increased public access to research findings should be encouraged by publishers, academics and Government alike.

41. In theory, members of the public have recourse to the same channels for journal access as researchers. They can gain access through personal subscriptions; through their local, perhaps local university, library; by using inter-library loans or document supply; or on a pay-per-view basis. Personal subscriptions to journals can be prohibitively expensive for the individual: Blackwell cited an average subscription price for an individual STM journal of £500.[66] Nature Publishing Group cited rates from £87 to £2,843.[67] Pay-per-view is also relatively expensive, as is shown above.

42. The commercial publishers we met told us that journal articles were readily available through public libraries. Sir Crispin Davis, Chief Executive of Reed Elsevier told us that "any member of the public can access any of our content by going into a public library and asking for it". Dr Jarvis of Wiley agreed with him.[68] These statements were contested by Vitek Tracz of BioMed Central who set down a challenge: "try it. I do not advise you to try it".[69] Our experience tells us that, whilst it is in theory possible for members of the public to gain access to specific journal articles via their public library, such libraries do not tend to stock a wide range of journal titles. However, public libraries can obtain photocopies of articles on behalf of the user, assuming that the user has the bibliographic and searching tools available to enable them to identify articles that they need. If they do not have access to the article itself, it is unlikely that they will have access to the relevant search tools. Even if the user is able to identify the article that they need, it can take as long as a week to arrive. This is acceptable only if the user does not need the article immediately. It is also likely that public libraries would be unable to cope with more than the occasional request. We are not convinced that journal articles are consistently available to members of the public through public libraries.

43. Much of the problem with public access to journals seems to be a consequence of digitisation. Brian Stuart McBeth, a non-university user of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, informed us that "institutions are bound by restrictive licence terms negotiated and entered into by the Department of Education with Athens [see below]. The terms are explicit in that access is only authorised to current students and members of the staff of the University".[70] The Athens Access Management System was originally designed and developed by the National Institute of Statistical Sciences to provide "single sign-on" to information services for the UK HE sector. The service is supported by JISC. Its use by some publishers and libraries to limit the number of library users able to read digital journals to university members only means that some other "bona fide readers […] are denied access to online journals".[71] The University of East Anglia is dissatisfied with the limitations imposed on its provision of journals to the public, writing that it is "restricted in giving access […] in our regional role as a major source for detailed scientific information/education to the public. […] Hardcopy allowed equal access (provided you could understand it), online presupposes privileged access".[72] In oral evidence Di Martin from the University of Hertfordshire and Peter Fox from the University of Cambridge agreed that licensing arrangements for digital journals meant that "walk-in" library users had more restricted journal access than they did with paper journals.[73]

44. The digitisation of journals has enabled both publishers and libraries to monitor usage levels, but it has also given them the means to police usage more closely. Some users who could legitimately gain access to print publications through their library are now prevented from accessing the digital version of the same journals by restrictive access agreements. Digitisation should facilitate, not restrict access. We recommend that the next national site licence negotiated by the Joint Information Systems Committee explicitly provides for all library users without an Athens password to access the digital journals stocked by their library.

The developing world

45. Whilst libraries in the developed world are struggling to purchase access to all the scientific publications they need, subscriptions are prohibitively expensive for institutions in the developing world. One witness, Paul Pinter, told us that this could lead to "an increasing marginalisation of science and scientists in poorer countries, with a growing gulf in technological proficiency and economic development between rich and poor".[74] It is vitally important that the technological gap between developing and developed countries is narrowed. Scientific journals have a key role to play in ensuring that this takes place.

46. There are a number of schemes designed to give free, or very low cost, access to journals to developing countries. Three of the most well-known are:

  • The Health Inter-Network Access to Research Initiative (HINARI) provides free or nearly free access to the major journals in biomedical and related social sciences to public institutions in developing countries. The scheme incorporates over 2,000 journals from 28 publishers, including: Blackwell, Elsevier Science, the Harcourt Worldwide STM Group, Wolters Kluwer International Health & Science, Springer Verlag and John Wiley. Public institutions in two lists of countries, based on GNP per capita, can sign up for HINARI. Institutions in countries with GNP per capita below $1,000 are eligible for free access to the literature. Institutions in countries with GNP per capita between $1,000-$3,000 are eligible for access at reduced prices.
  • The Access to Global Online Research in Agriculture (AGORA) scheme, sponsored by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and launched in October 2003, provides access to more than 400 key journals in food, nutrition, agriculture and related biological, environmental and social sciences.
  • The International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP) is a co-operative network of partners, established in 1992, aiming to improve world-wide access to information. Its Programme for the Enhancement of Research Information (PERI) provides access to over 5,000 full text online STM, social science and humanities journals.

47. Publishers are to be commended for signing up to laudable schemes such as HINARI, AGORA and INASP-PERI. We hope that the provision of free and low-cost access to scientific publications for institutions and researchers in developing countries will continue to be a significant aspect of the way that they conduct their businesses.

48. There is some concern that digital journals are inaccessible to developing countries, which may not have the technological infrastructure to receive and distribute them effectively. Sir Crispin Davis told us that moving to a digital-only environment "would have the result of reducing accessibility to scientific research because it is only available on the internet. […] globally it would exclude over 50% of scientists".[75] We are not convinced that this is the case. The distribution of paper copies of journals is expensive and requires extensive logistical infrastructure. Digital provision may, in fact, be more suited to the needs of developing countries because it is cheaper and more immediate. Dr Harold Varmus, of the Public Library of Science (PloS) told us that "while not every worker may have a desktop computer, every institution has a desktop computer and you can download the appropriate articles. […] in a place like Bamako in Mali […] where there is almost no access to papers unless you travel to France or the States, this is a revolutionary change which they welcome with open arms".[76] On a recent visit to Malawi we heard that Malawi had a small but significant and growing level of ICT infrastructure. The development of ICT capacity was seen as key to enabling researchers to accede to research networks via the internet. By using the internet, researchers in the developing world became more aware of the range of articles being published in their field. ICT also facilitated access to journals, providing that they were affordable. The relatively low levels of ICT in the developing world comparative to the West is not an argument against digital journals, rather it highlights the need for further development of ICT capacity to fully exploit the potential of digital technologies. This issue is explored further in paragraphs 160—1679. The digitisation of journals has the potential to greatly increase access to research findings for researchers in the developing world.

45   Q 271. Note that the inter-library loan is not the same as the British Library's Document Supply Service. Back

46   Ev 131 Back

47   Q 272 Back

48   Ev 356 Back

49   Ev 127 Back

50   Ev 212 Back

51   Ev 314 Back

52   Q 200 Back

53 Back

54   Q 200 Back

55   Ev 161 Back

56   Ev 225 Back

57   Ev 185 Back

58   Ev 192 Back

59   Ev 185 Back

60   Ev 475 Back

61   Ev 476 Back

62   Ev 321 Back

63   Joint Funding Council's Libraries Review Group: Report (The Follett Report), December 1993, para 250 Back

64   Ev 70 Back

65   Q 19 Back

66   Unprinted answers to supplementary questions from Blackwell Publishing Back

67   Nature Publishing Group, Price List 2004, Back

68   Qq 65, 19 Back

69   Q 160 Back

70   Ev 421 Back

71   As above Back

72   Ev 204 Back

73   Qq 234-8 Back

74   Ev 67 Back

75   Q 65 Back

76   Q 180 Back

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