Memorandum from the Society for General
1.1. The Society for General Microbiology
(SGM) is the largest microbiological learned society in Europe,
with over 5,000 members. It owns and publishes four prestigious
international journals: Microbiology, Journal of General Virology,
Journal of Medical Microbiology and International Journal of Systematic
and Evolutionary Microbiology, totalling 42 issues and some 11,000
pages a year. All four journals are also published online, the
earliest since 1997. The online journals are hosted at HighWire
Press, at Stanford University (http://www.sgmjournals.org).
1.2. The Society is committed to high standards
of service to authors, editors, referees and readers, and to high
technical quality of production of both print and online versions.
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?
2.1 The Society covers the costs of producing
and distributing its journals mainly by subscription sales to
institutions. The objective in setting prices has always been
to balance two factors: to offer value for money so that the journals
have the widest possible dissemination and readership, and to
make a modest surplus for re-investment in advances in publishing
technology and as one means of funding the Society's charitable
objectives. These include:
vacation studentships to help undergraduates
gain research experience;
grants to students for attendance
at scientific meetings;
support for scientific meetings;
grants for support of microbiological
teaching and research in developing countries;
support of microbiological education
in schools; and
conducting public education in the
2.2 Generally, the Society's journals are
priced very competitively compared with those sold by commercial
publishers in the same scientific discipline. On average, the
cost per page of an SGM journal is one-half to one quarter of
the cost per page of a comparable journal from a commercial publisher.
Online access is provided for no additional charge to subscribers
to the print editions.
2.3 Like other learned society publishers,
SGM has been concerned that the "big deals" offered
by some very large commercial publishers, by demanding large proportions
of shrinking library budgets, could force out smaller competitors
and create near-monopoly conditions. It is difficult to evaluate
how detrimental to the sales of smaller publishers this may have
been. There was concern that the Office of Fair Trading, in its
2002 report The Market for Scientific, Technical and Medical Journals,
concluded that the market was not working well and that there
was concern about "bundling" (big deals), but decided
it was not appropriate to intervene "for now". What
does seem clear is that any reduction in the ability of libraries
to satisfy the demands of their readers by focusing too much on
a small number of suppliers would be detrimental to research and
2.4 SGM's response to the perceived threat
of "big deals" has been to continue to offer first class
science, well presented, with excellent support for librarian
customers, especially regarding access to the online journals.
We have evaluated participation in mini "big deals"
from consortia of small publishers, but have only done so where
the business case for doing so was clear.
2.5 The fact that SGM's online journals
are hosted at HighWire is in some way a counter to the "big
deals". In all, HighWire contains 353 journals, overwhelmingly
in the biomedical sciences, and including many of the most prestigious
international titles. With advanced features such as cross-journal
searching and toll-free reference linking between journals, the
sites offer many of the features of the "big deals".
SGM has recently joined a new sales initiative at HighWire, whereby
librarians can purchase and maintain subscriptions to journals
of their choice, from a number of publishers, from a single point
of contact on the site.
2.6 There is growing evidence that librariansespecially
in the USAare rebelling against the "big deals"
of the commercial publishers for reasons of price, lack of choice
and lock-in licensing terms.
3. What action should Government, academic
institutions and publishers be taking to promote a competitive
market in scientific publications?
3.1 The dual support system for research
funding in UK universities may bear some responsibility for current
problems in journals provision and unbalanced competition. While
in many areas funding of research from the Research Councils and
charities (many of which do not pay overheads) has remained healthy,
provision of general funds to universities to provide the well-found
laboratories (including libraries) required to conduct the research
3.2 Please see comments on the possible
anti-competitive consequences of "big deals" in section
3.3 Publishers should be ready to negotiate
mechanisms ensuring maximum access to their online material, such
as national licences. It should be recognized however that in
the subscription income model, they can do so only if a sufficient
level of income is maintained. The introduction of online journals
has already caused some erosion of subscription numbers, as institutions
have reduced multiple print subscriptions.
3.4 Electronic publications are subject
to VAT at 17.5% in the UK, while print is zero-rated. This militates
against the development of online only sales and access packages,
to the financial disadvantage of UK universities and institutions.
Government should support extension of zero-rating to electronic
provision of primary research material.
4. 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 how?
4.1 Generally, the subscription model has
served science well, with quality control by peer review and the
editorial process. The stratification of perceived journal quality
has aided evaluation processes such as the Research Assessment
Exercise. Open access journals have yet to prove they are economically
sustainable, and that they will deliver the same benefits, but
some stratification by quality will undoubtedly emerge. There
is no reason why this should not be used in assessment exercises.
4.2 Most open access journals will require
authors, or their institutions, to pay some form of submission
or publication charge. This will focus authors' minds on differences
in costs between different journals. This may promote efficiency
and constrain profit margins, but it would be regrettable if it
led to significant reduction in editorial and production standards.
4.3 Most of the existing open access journals
and experiments are considered to be recovering less than their
true costs of production while they build market share. These
experiments should be allowed to prove their scientific and economic
viability, or otherwise, on a level playing field. Government
should not distort the competition between different types of
journals by supporting any one type. It would be regrettable if
traditional journals with their established benefits were undermined
by support for a competing model which subsequently failed to
establish the required standards of quality, stability and longevity.
4.4 It is worth mentioning that many not-for-profit
publishers, including SGM, already have substantial amounts of
their content on open access, where this is possible without damaging
subscription income. The publishers on HighWire currently allow
open access to a total of 690,000 full text articles.
5. How effectively are the legal deposit
libraries making available non-print scientific publications to
the research community, and what steps should they be taking in
5.1 This is largely a development for the
future. Publishers may seek agreements with the legal deposit
libraries to encourage access by a wide readership, while protecting
income. The libraries could serve as an important backup archive,
if the publisher's own archiving arrangements failed for technical
or financial reasons, but would need funding to do so.
6. What impact will trends in academic journal
publishing have on the risks of scientific fraud and malpractice?
6.1 Publishers have an important role in
detecting malpractice, in preventing contaminated work from being
published, and in taking steps against anything which does nevertheless
get published but is subsequently found out. The ease of access
to published work on the Internet and the ability to cut and paste
has no doubt made life technically easier for the determined plagiarist,
but has probably increased the likelihood of detection. The risks
of fraud and malpractice may be greater when preprints are put
online before peer review.