Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Paul Pinter


  The Committee will be receiving submissions and hearing evidence from many organisations, mainly members of the academic and research communities in the UK. There are, however, other categories of "interested parties" seeking to benefit from the dissemination of scientific data. These include institutions in other countries, among them the "third world", and individuals who generally pass unnoticed because they tend not to be organised or officially represented. They range from the simply curious to the person needing information about the latest medical treatment, to the unaffiliated individual, such as myself, independently carrying out a complex research program from which the public may ultimately benefit.

  We are all aware of the information revolution driven by the Internet. It is however not usually appreciated that this transformation has fundamentally changed the function and place of scientific knowledge in society. It is no longer a secret language, as in the Middle Ages, understood only by a few select brethren. Now everybody has, or should have, instant access to the full range of theory and data published continuously online on every conceivable subject. A recent survey by the American Customer Satisfaction Index has measured web site popularity scores of 88 for Amazon (no 1), 86 for MEDLINE (no 2) and 79 for NASA (no 4). Ready availability of scientific data online has subtly altered the relationship between society and academic institutions, largely by freeing up the previous dependency of the former on the latter. The result is acknowledged by academics themselves who frequently benefit from data provided by so-called amateurs, unfortunately rarely giving credit where it is due. It is now recognised that unaffiliated individuals have a constructive role to play in advancing science and have as legitimate a right to access scientific and technical material as do institutions.


  A situation has developed in the last couple of years whereby a handful of publishers have obtained a virtual monopoly on the dissemination of scientific and technical data. One in particular, Elsevier, now controls roughly 25% of peer reviewed scientific journals, along with major portals such as ScienceDirect, BioMedNet and Scirus, the science search engine. To make matters worse, the journals in question were not randomly selected—they represent all the highest quality and therefore most frequently cited in their field. This allows Elsevier to levy exorbitant charges for access to their information, so high in fact that even very well endowed universities such as Cornell are not able to maintain their subscriptions. With few exceptions, most major publishers now charge between $25 and $50 per online article which may, incidentally, only contain two or three pages of text. The previous generally agreed convention of providing free access six months after first publication is no longer honored by this company and is tending to be abandoned by others in the rush to maximise profits. There is furthermore a kind of Devil's pact operating between publishers and certain academics seeking to perpetuate this situation from which they both profit. Does this matter?


  The repercussions are serious. Consider universities in Africa, Asia and South America, or even our neighbours in Eastern Europe. These institutions are vastly under funded and could not conceivably afford the publications "packages" such as those offered by Elsevier costing millions of dollars annually. The result is of course an increasing marginalisation of science and scientists in poorer countries, with a growing gulf in technological proficiency and economic development between rich and poor, not to mention the enormous waste of talent and human resources. Similar considerations apply to unaffiliated individuals, even those in "rich" countries. If this situation is allowed to continue uncontrolled, where will it lead us over the decades to come? Perhaps current tensions between the Muslim and Western worlds give us a clue. Efforts to solve this problem must therefore be addressed globally and not confined simply to solving difficulties affecting UK institutions.


  When one company, Celera, threatened to patent and thereby control the human genome, the UK Prime Minister and the US President didn't hesitate to stand together and announce that this information belonged to the world—it could not be "owned" by anybody. Where is the line between sequencing of the human genome and scientific information in general? When one media company tries to acquire more than three major daily newspapers, the state does not hesitate to forbid this in order to prevent creation of an information monopoly. What is the difference between current events news and scientific information? When the UK Government itself proposes variable fee structures for universities, it is forced to back down before accusations of perpetuating divisions between rich and poor students. There are direct parallels between these cases and the scientific publications monopoly problem. What measures can the Government take in a free, democratic society?

  In the US there is currently legislation being considered by the Congress (Public Access to Science Act introduced by Rep. Martin Sabo last June) which would deny copyright protection to the results of any scientific investigation funded even partly by federal grants. This would include a large majority of all US scientific work, as well as a considerable amount outside the country. The idea is that this work has already been funded by the American public who should not be made to pay for it twice. Would this not be just as applicable in the UK?

  Clearly there is a problem in legislating solely in the UK when many publishers and titles are not British. The problem of intellectual property rights as applied to scientific data must be tackled on a global, or at least US-EU-wide, basis. Nevertheless an immediate start can be made with Elsevier, by far the worst offender and subsidiary of a UK-registered company, Reed Elsevier Group plc, which in their latest accounts of 2002 declared a turnover of more than five billion pounds with profits of just under one billion pounds. This group should be obliged to divest itself of the majority of its titles and gateways. After suitable legislation, the British Library Document Supply Centre could make all their titles, and others, available online with a maximum price set at say five dollars per article, or some similar figure to cover costs, subsidised as necessary.

  The argument is sometimes advanced that removing the profit incentive would drastically reduce the flow of published research results. This is patently false as any serious academic publisher will readily testify that the main reason for publishing is prestige. Although some reduction might result from the above suggestions, this might actually be beneficial as much material appears as "filler" and would not be missed. It would also slow the current harmful proliferation of cloned journals produced for no other reason than to improve sales and profits.

  This problem is not simply of theoretical interest. It requires urgent action.

January 2004

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