Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Geological Society of London

  The Geological Society of London was founded in 1807 and has been in continuous existence for the last 197 years. It plays a key role in fostering the development of the Earth sciences in the UK, disseminating the results of new research in the geosciences, and the education of the broader public. It is particularly active in encouraging co-operation with a range of international bodies with similar intentions. The Geological Society is a registered UK charity (No 210161).

  A key part of the Society's activities is the publication of Earth science research findings in the form of books and peer-reviewed journals, and to this end a publishing arm was established in 1989, based in Bath, UK. The Society owns and publishes the following journals:

    —  Journal of the Geological Society.

    —  Quarterly Journal of Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology.

    —  Petroleum Geoscience (co-owned with the European Association of Geoscientists and Engineers).

    —  Geochemistry: Exploration, Environment and Analysis (co-owned with the Association of Exploration Geochemists).

  In addition it publishes and distributes the following journals on behalf of other learned societies:

    —  Journal of Micropalaeontology (owned by The Micropalaeontological Society).

    —  Scottish Journal of Geology (owned by the Glasgow and Edinburgh Geological Societies).

    —  Proceedings of the Geologists Association (owned by the Geologists Association).

    —  Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society (owned by the Yorkshire Geological Society).

  The Society also publishes 25-30 books each year, with peer-reviewed content broadly equivalent to the journals in terms of both level and standard.

  In all, then, the Society publishes around 12,000 pages per year of primary science research results.

  Any surpluses generated from this activity are either reinvested in the publishing programme or returned to the Society to further its activities in the support of the Earth sciences and the scientists who work in the field.

  As well as publishing this wide range of Earth science content the Society also maintains a world-class collection of geoscientific literature in its Burlington House library. The library is used by academics, consultants and industrial geologists, and is an invaluable source of material when many other libraries have cut back their collections. The library purchases a significant quantity of books and journals annually and so the Society is, quite literally, an information publisher and consumer—a position common in the not-for profit and society sectors.

  The Society has over 9,000 Fellows working principally in the engineering, water and environmental sectors as well as the petroleum industry and academia. Most rely on peer-reviewed journals, including (but not exclusively) the Society's own titles for research, technical know-how and key aspects of Continuing Professional Development.


  This submission focuses on three key elements of the enquiry's remit:

    —  What impact do publishers' current policies on pricing and provision of scientific journals, particularly "big deal schemes", have on libraries and the teaching and research communities they serve?

    —  What action should Government, academic institutions and publishers be taking to promote a competitive market in scientific publications?

  These first two elements will be covered together.

    —  What are the consequences of increasing numbers of open-access journals, for example for the operation of the Research Assessment Exercise and other selection processes? Should the Government support such a trend and, if so, how?

  The submission is written from the perspective of a not-for-profit organisation that, in broad terms, recognises the interests of Earth scientists as being essentially at one with its own. The Society is under no obligation to generate a profit to return to investors, and its only interest is the furtherance of the geosciences.

Questions 1 & 2

  What impact do publishers' current policies on pricing and provision of scientific journals, particularly "big deal schemes", have on libraries and the teaching and research communities they serve?


  What action should government, academic institutions and publishers be taking to promote a competitive market in scientific publications?

  It is taken as understood that for many years journal prices have risen faster than library funding, and that there has been a consequent squeeze on journal spending within libraries. Commonly known as the "serials crisis", the effects of this escalation in the costs of maintaining library journal collections has led to real changes in recent years with many libraries joining forces and forming buying consortia in order to exert additional leverage in their negotiations with publishers; while the bigger commercial publishers with large number of journal titles in their portfolios have bundled many of their titles together into packages that seem to offer relative value for money.

  In the past two or three years libraries are starting to see the downside the arrangements entered into. On the one hand many of the new titles included in the bundles to which the libraries did not previously have access have turned out not to be useful. The subject matter is not core to their users, or may even be in fields not represented in the university's academic faculties.

  In parallel to this the subscription prices of these bundles are rising, but the agreements signed by libraries contain tough penalty clauses in the case of cancellation. Libraries now find themselves bound into deals whereby they are paying ever more substantial amounts of money for journal packages that contain titles they do not even want.

  To make matters worse, the rising price of bundles consumes an ever-greater proportion of library budgets and put increasing pressure on remaining subscriptions to journal titles from smaller publishers which are not bundled, but which are used by researchers and are regarded as core titles. Cornell University, for example, now claim to be in the position where over 20% of their total library expenditure is spent on the fewer than 2% of journal titles they subscribe to which are published by Elsevier. The same factors affect universities on an international basis, with restrictive cancellation clauses making it difficult for libraries to adjust as required.

  The Society's response to this situation is as follows:

    —  The Geological Society, in common with many other learned societies, has a different relationship with the community it serves than a commercial publisher will, in that its members constitute the very same community that its journals seek to serve. Given the closeness of this relationship between journal provider and user the Society has always tried to keep its prices low and its annual increases affordable. It has been highly conscious of the effects of the "serials crisis" and has tried to avoid making this situation worse.

    —  The Geological Society regards large-scale commercial journal bundling as detrimental to the interests of scientists, and in 2003 has witnessed the first signs that even the larger libraries are starting to rebel. (Wholesale cancellations to Elsevier journals have been made by some of the larger North American university libraries, and others in this country and abroad are likely to follow suit.)

    —  It is the Geological Society's view that libraries should have the freedom to buy the journal titles of their choosing, and will always try to find ways of buying as much as they can with their limited budgets. Some form of negotiation with the big commercial publishers will, therefore, always be part of their approach to journal acquisition. However, the Geological Society does feel that the current situation is highly distorting of the journals market and that regulatory forces should be brought to bear to prevent the very largest commercial publishers from manipulating the markets to their own advantage—and the eventual disadvantage of both the smaller publishers and the communities that they serve.

    —  The Geological Society believes that large scale bundling of titles by the largest commercial publishers, and the punitive nature of subscription cancellation clauses in these agreements, forces many libraries into the acceptance of spiralling subscription prices while forcing them to make cuts in other, much needed journals. This is essentially anti-competitive, and restricts libraries' choice to select titles on the basis of need and quality.

    —  The Geological Society has responded to the stated preferences of librarians for integrated journal collections by joining forces with five other Earth science societies and one Earth science institute to develop an aggregated bundle of online journals specifically focused on the Earth sciences—GeoScienceWorld. This unique collection of journal titles will start with 30 or so titles drawn mostly from those published by the founding societies, but growing over a number of years to include a large number of other Earth science titles from a range of not-for-profit sources. Such an aggregate will be electronically enhanced to meet the researchers needs for searching and linking, while offering excellent value for money. Because of its clear subject focus, GeoScienceWorld is unlikely to contain journals of total irrelevance to its users.

Question 3

  What are the consequences of increasing numbers of open-access journals, for example for the operation of the research assessment exercise and other selection processes? Should the Government support such a trend and, if so, how?

  The move to electronic availability was the big journals issues of the 1980s; journal bundling, the "big deal" and the growth of library consortia came to prominence in the 1990s; and now open access is becoming the major delivery issue for the new decade. Open access has been widely trumpeted as the only fair and just way of promoting the findings of research scientists in such a way that society can derive the maximum benefit from the scientific activity in its midst.

  Organisations such as PLoS and, to a lesser extent SPARC, have sustained impressive campaigns internationally to win over the scientific community and, more recently, the public at large, to the cause of open access. There are now several hundred open access journals available, using a variety of funding models, the most renowned being the recently launched PLoS Biology, available in print and online.

  However, within the journal publishing world and, indeed, within the scientific community itself, there are large numbers of individuals and organisations who see the move towards open access as, at best, a mixed blessing—and, at worst, a disastrous move which will shut down many journals and cause irrevocable damage to the fabric of the scientific community. In particular, many scientific Societies, whose role is to promote science and scientists, may be severely damaged by the impact on their journals.

  At the heart of the open access argument is the assertion that research is not only funded by government, charity or industry, but must be paid for a second time when the published results are bought by libraries and individuals. However appealing this argument may seem it does ignore the fact that the two payments (research funding and journals subscription) are, in fact, for two totally separate processes. The research process supports activities from which greater understanding derives; the publishing process supports activities that validate those findings to agreed standards, and then disseminates them to the wider scientific community. The two processes rely on each other but are essentially different.

  The critical issue is that the publishing process is not cost free and will have to be paid for by one means or another. PLoS Biology's costs are currently met by author payments, but the organisation's required investments are met from $11 million of grant money, and are not sustained from the journal's income. While this may be sustainable for a small number of prestigious titles from a highly publicised and externally funded flagship project, it will certainly not be viable for the journals publishing industry as a whole.

  The true cost of publishing articles in a sustainable open access journal is still uncertain, and will vary according to scientific discipline—but whether it is met from author contributions or subscription income, the same level of overall funding is required to meet journal costs, financial investment and—in the case of commercial publishers—generate a profit.

  It is perhaps surprising that those organisations closest to the scientific community—the learned societies—are not whole-heartedly supportive of open access. There are, however, specific and serious consequences for societies that have a publishing arm and publish journals as part of the benefit of membership. If free or discounted subscription to these journals is one of the benefits of society membership, open access will negate this reason for membership—if you can read the journal for free, why join the Society? The likely decline in Society membership would be a fatal blow for many societies resulting in their closure. Many societies publish a small number of high quality, highly regarded journals and the consequent loss of these titles—or their sale to large commercial publishers interested in the expansion of their journal lists—would be to the detriment of science. Furthermore, the closure of the societies themselves would lead to the loss of the support, service and leadership that these organisations have provided.

  In this context it is important to understand the distribution of ownership, and the possible consequences of open access on this distribution—and to ask whether such changes would work to the benefit of the scientific community. The Association of Learned and Society Publishers report (ALPSP Alert 79) that of the 21122 active or forthcoming peer-reviewed journals featured in Ulrich's periodicals database, over 50% are thought to be published by not-for-profit organisations.

  However, Morgan Stanley's 2002 report into the journal publishing industry (Scientific Publishing, Knowledge is Power, September 2002) reveals that the top five journals publishers are all commercial and own 37% of ISI-rated STM journal titles. The largest of these, Elsevier, owns 18% of the titles and 25% of articles published.

  It is clear, then, that should open access force significant numbers of journals owned by not-for-profit publishers into the hands of the commercial giants, the imbalance of power will shift even further towards the commercial publishers. A movement intended to give ownership back to the scientific community may simply end up delivering unprecedented power into the hands of commercial interests.

  The Society's response to this situation is as follows:

    —  The Geological Society believes that science is best served by a diverse range of independently published journal titles that thrive only on the basis of quality. Contributors of leading research findings choose their journal for publication for a variety of reasons, foremost amongst which is historical reputation of the journal title.

    —  The Geological Society maintains that the process of research and the process of publishing are quite different and separate. Publishers add significant value to research results by ensuring quality standards via peer review and copyediting, ease of use via design and typesetting, awareness via promotional activity and distribution via the internet or the postal system. In addition, value is added to electronic versions by the integration of searching and linking facilities. All of these constitute a chain of activities essential to effective end-use.

    —  The Geological Society believes that electronic-only publishing may ultimately result in declining standards of journal content, as the current financial disincentive to publishing excessive paper pages is less relevant in the electronic world. If the financial impact of publishing more papers is lessened, there will be a downward pressure on the quality criteria for acceptance or rejection of submitted articles.

    —  The Geological Society acknowledges that there are a range of ways of funding the publication of such journals with different funding models, according to journal type, scientific field, subscriber base and so on. However, whichever way a journal is funded certain costs will always need to be met.

    —  The Geological Society regards open access as an interesting new development in publishing, and believes it may be appropriate as part of the mix of journal availability. However, different scientific disciplines with different systems and levels of funding, are likely to have greater of lesser degrees of success with open access (compare medicine to mineralogy, for example)

    —  The Geological Society believes that the most important consideration in terms of journal availability and library choice is that the regulatory environment encourages diversity and sustainability across the whole journal publishing industry. Any changes to this regulatory framework should bear in mind the possible broader consequences to the key agencies in the promotion of scientific research.

January 2004

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