Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Adrian P Sutton, University of Oxford


  I have always found it most curious that the results of research funded by the public purse are not freely accessible to the public. Instead, the fruits of much of that research are published in expensive journals that are virtually impossible to access if one is not a member of a subscribing organisation.

  But this is really just the tip of the iceberg. Academics have allowed themselves to be shamelessly exploited by commercial journal publishers ever since Robert Maxwell first recognised this lucrative market. Academics provide their scientific papers to publishers free of charge, they review other scientific papers for those publishers free of charge, and they pay exorbitant prices for hard copy and/or electronic access to their own work in published volumes. What other business receives the goods that it sells to its customers from those same customers, a quality control mechanism provided by its customers, and a tremendous fee from those same customers?

  In my view the only scientific publishing houses that do not ruthlessly exploit academics are the learned societies and professional bodies, such as The Royal Society and The Institute of Physics.


  In general I see e-publishing as a very positive development for science. Some scientists have boycotted journals altogether and publish their work on computer servers that can be accessed freely from anywhere in the world. This approach was pioneered at the Los Alamos server where anyone with internet access could deposit a paper for instant free "publication", and download papers for instant free access. But other scientists are worried by the absence of peer-review, although this does not worry proponents of such e-publishing, because any faults in a paper are quickly corrected by subsequent authors. In some very fast moving areas of science this is how research is most commonly disseminated.

  There is another aspect to publishing scientific research that has come to the rescue of publishers. Scientific papers are the usual product or outcome of most scientific research. They are the currency of science and of scientific careers, eg they enable the achievements of one scientist to be compared with those of another. The list of publications is often the most important aspect of the CV of any scientist. Therefore, it is crucial to the careers of scientists that papers are archived and remain accessible indefinitely, and that they are read and cited by other scientists. The safest and most durable form of archive is still paper, and that fact alone has sustained many commercial journals. To make sure a paper is widely cited it has to be seen by a large number of scientists, and publishing the paper in a highly prestigious journal is an enormous help. What makes a journal prestigious? It is usually the quality of the peer-reviewing, which may be such that 90 per cent of the papers submitted to the top journals are rejected. So, it is partly the vanity of scientists but more the requirement for papers in archived prestigious journals on a scientist's CV that has saved the day for publishers.

  A practical aspect of e-publishing that has vastly improved the integrity of published papers is the (almost complete) elimination of type-setting of papers and the errors that used to introduce. The scientists themselves now produce the papers in an electronic format (I am thinking here of widely used, freely available Latex software) that the publisher can use immediately. This has also significantly reduced the time for publishing papers, and it should have significantly reduced the costs for publishers. Some learned societies, such as The Royal Society, will now accept papers submitted only electronically.


  I see e-publishing as a positive development because it should lead to far greater accessibility of scientific research, and it should reduce costs. I do not see e-publishing affecting the integrity of the scientific process. The integrity of the scientific process is in the hands of all scientists, not publishers, and as recent events at Bell Labs have shown, fraudulent science will always eventually be exposed for what it is. I do not believe there is any other professional activity that is more rigorously and thoroughly self-regulated than science! But there is no doubt in my mind that commercial publishers of scientific journals have over-exploited academics for far too long, and by not making the results of research more widely accessible to the public who paid for the research they have also exploited the public purse.

January 2004

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