Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the London Mathematical Society


  The London Mathematical Society[309] (LMS) is (together with the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications[310] and the Royal Statistical Society[311]) one of the three principal learned societies for the mathematical sciences in the UK.

  It was founded in 1865, and has registered charity status.

  The LMS publishes (either independently or in collaboration with other organisations) a total of six journals, four book series, and four English language translations of Russian journals. This activity furthers the charitable aims of the Society in two distinct ways. The process of disseminating the results of mathematical research, as well as other scholarly works in the mathematical sciences, is an essential part of the basic charitable aim of promoting the subject. In addition, the modest surplus generated by the Society's publications activity (despite a deliberate policy of keeping prices and subscription charges low for the benefit of readers) is ploughed back into the support of a variety of mathematical activities. Less than 10% of the subscription income on LMS journals comes from UK institutions, most of whom benefit from very generous discounts to institutional members. The LMS is therefore a net exporter, and uses the income received from overseas to support UK mathematics through its programmes.

  The LMS thus has, as a society, two fundamental interests in the future of scientific publishing.

    (1)  That small publishers, in particular learned societies, will continue to be able to publish research articles and other scholarly works.

    (2)  That publishing activity by learned societies can continue to generate sufficient income, not just to cover its own costs, but to support other legitimate scientific activities of these societies.

  In addition, the LMS represents the interests of its members, most of whom are actively engaged in mathematical research, and rely on the system both as authors and as readers.


  1.   The nature of scientific publication

    —  The international dimension seems to be missing from the terms of reference of the inquiry. Scientific publishing is a fully international business, and the UK has one of the largest publishing industries. For example, the LMS handles scientific papers from 83 countries, and uses peer-reviewers from around the world. Fewer than a quarter of papers published in LMS journals come from authors with addresses in the UK. Issues relating to scientific publishing cannot be addressed at a national level, and no one country can change the system on its own. Any serious attempt to influence the world of scientific publications will have to be done by international collaboration.

    —  Researchers are an integral part of the production process of scientific articles, as authors and referees (peer-reviewers), not just "consumers". Any assessment of the system, and any proposal to change it, must recognise these complexities.

  2.   The role of learned society publishers

    —  Learned society publishers such as the LMS have a particular role to play in the support of science. They can use any surplus generated by scientific publishing to support their subjects in other ways. In the case of the LMS this takes a number of forms: small research grants; a regular lecture programme and the support of conferences; funds to promote the participation of women in mathematics; funds to promote mathematical educational projects. In general, the form of support that societies such as the LMS can offer is complementary to that of the primary funding bodies such as the research councils. It is not clear where such support for mathematics would come from, should significant changes in scientific publications prevent the society from generating an income stream through publication.

    —  We agree, in general, with the majority of the views expressed by the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers[312] in its response to the inquiry.

  3.   Special features of mathematics research and mathematics publishing

    —  Mathematics differs from other sciences in a number of respects, which introduce different dimensions into the publishing debate.

    —  The funding of mathematical research in the UK under the dual support system differs from that for other sciences, in that a lower proportion comes through direct research grants, as opposed to the funding of infrastructure such as libraries. A proportion of libraries' journal subscription costs is currently recycled into further support for mathematics via the LMS and similar organisations. The potential savings to libraries from an open-access publishing system could be redirected to support research in other ways, but achieving this would require positive action at a high level. The individual mathematician in the UK, who typically operates with little direct research council grant support, has no obvious access to sources of funds to cover extensive page-charges. Open-access regimes that do not recognise this would endanger the future of mathematical research.

    —  Peer-review is a very important part of the process in mathematics. Referees often invest significant time and energy into reviewing an article (on average, over a period of 80 days for articles in LMS journals). While this does not lead to an absolute guarantee of the mathematical correctness of published articles, it does mean that, by and large, articles accepted for publication in reputable journals carry a valuable stamp of authority. Thus a great deal of unpaid work by anonymous peer-reviewers adds value to published mathematical research under the existing system. Any change to the system that caused this aspect to be lost would be detrimental.


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?

    —  Publishers' pricing policies vary, leading to wide ranges of journal prices within a single discipline. The LMS policy is to achieve wide distribution through prices that are easily affordable by institutional libraries, while still ensuring a modest surplus that can be used to support mathematical activities.

    —  The fast increasing prices of many scientific journals is a big issue for libraries and universities. The response of many institutions is to maintain their budgets by buying fewer titles, to the detriment of authors, readers and publishers.

    —  "Big deal" schemes, whereby publishers sell electronic access to bundles of journals on favourable terms, can greatly increase the number of journals to which individual researchers in institutions have access. But these schemes also have some disadvantages, some of which are more marked in mathematics due to the special nature of scientific research and publishing in that subject.

    (a)  A lot of mathematical journals are published by small publishers or learned societies who do not have the commercial muscle or breadth of material and so get excluded from such schemes.

    (b)  Mathematical publications tend to have a longer shelf-life than in some other subjects; since many "big deal" schemes only offer access to a limited number of years of back numbers of the journals, mathematical researchers can lose out.

    (c)  These schemes lock institutions into deals for fixed sets of journals from a given publisher. Changing research interests within an institution cannot be easily catered for in this model, again to the detriment of researchers.

    (d)  Where the costs of such deals are apportioned across all departments then even those departmental libraries that would prefer not to take part still find that their relatively small library budgets end up being used to pay for journals that they would not necessarily wish to take.

  It is possibly not irrelevant that several American universities have recently rethought their agreements with Elsevier.

    —  At the same time, groups of libraries have formed consortia to share resources and reduce the overall cost of journal purchases. While this is not, of itself, directly disadvantageous to mathematics, the relatively small size of mathematical publishers makes it difficult for them to negotiate with large consortia.

    —  Both from the point of view of a small publisher, and that of a learned society whose members are active mathematical researchers, therefore, the LMS has concerns about both these types of "big deal" schemes.

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

    —  The scientific publishing market is fundamentally international. A typical scientific journal—even if its title identifies it with a specific geographic location—will have an international editorial board, publish papers written by authors from many countries, use peer reviewers from different countries, and sell the finished product to libraries and individuals all over the world. There is therefore a limit to which this market can be influenced by the UK Government, except in collaboration with other countries. A similar remark applies to the UK academic institutions.

    —  All the recent changes in the scientific publishing market, such as the acquisition of Bertelsmann Springer and then Kluwer Academic by Cinven and Candover, and the growth in consortia arrangements, have in fact had the effect of reducing competition. The trend is towards a small number of large, powerful, commercial publishers selling to academic libraries grouped together into large, powerful consortia.

    —  One mechanism we would support is the recent invitation to tender by JISC to enable established journals to become freely accessible. We would point out, however, that the amount on offer under this scheme is too low to have a substantial effect.

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?

    —  In the short term at least, many researchers will be cautious of submitting their best work to new open-access journals unless they are confident that RAE panels and promotion panels will recognise the journals as being of high quality. This concern does not apply to established open-access journals. Ultimately, the RAE will not distinguish between journals on type of access—merely on perceived quality and standard of peer-review. In time, open-access journals should have an edge, in that citation rates should improve for papers that can be read more easily and so are more likely to be cited.

    —  In principle Open Access will bring clear benefit to authors and to research funding bodies, through having their research freely available, and to researchers, through having free access to large numbers of journals. A growth in open-access publication is inevitable, therefore, irrespective of moves taken by Government or other interested parties. It is already the case that researchers can get hold of many papers on the web, through a rather ad hoc sequence of searches. Researchers in Germany have access to an electronic version of inter-library loan scheme in which a researcher who requests an article is emailed out a scanned electronic copy. Within a few years most research material will be available free in some web form despite any efforts of publishers to prevent it.

    —  However, no viable business model for a high quality open access journal yet exists. Most current open-access journals are supported by explicit or hidden subsidies. For example, some are managed and archived entirely by full-time academics employed by institutions. The model proposed by the Public Library of Science[313] in which the costs are entirely covered by the author, would involve page-charges of a magnitude far higher than any practising mathematician in the world would be able to meet under current funding models. If the Government wishes to promote open-access publishing, the first step must be to develop sustainable models that can operate over all subject areas.

    —  It is arguably a role for Government, working internationally, to ensure that the growth of open-access publishing occurs in a way that maintains the crucial features that the current publishing model brings to scientific research. Free market anarchy will not necessarily work to improve scientific publication, so some sort of systematic development should be sought. Government agencies such as the research councils can, by their policies, affect the quality control system (peer review); other agencies have a role in ensuring secure archiving for access in future centuries (a real necessity in mathematics).

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 this respect?

    —  Document delivery by legal deposit libraries works well and recent discussions with the British Library suggest it is streamlining its service and promoting it more actively than in the past. At present the Society charges a very small amount through the CLA for reproduction rights fees, which are collected by libraries. However, if electronic document delivery by the legal deposit libraries were to become a serious alternative to our own electronic journals, then we would need to reconsider the charges.

What impact will trends in academic journal publishing have on the risks of scientific fraud and malpractice?

    —  Within mathematics, fraud and malpractice are fairly uncommon, except possibly occasional charges of plagiarism. It is very important that we preserve the structure of peer review to retain this position. Learned societies are uniquely placed to do this, being able to call upon high quality assistance from internationally renowned researchers.

    —  The standards of peer review within mathematics are still well regarded and provide a good inhibitor to anyone considering conducting a fraud or plagiarism in their research publication. Learned society publishing sets a high standard and in doing so, it provides a benefit to authors and research funding bodies that they could not easily or cheaply replace. There is a danger that a rapid expansion in open-access mathematical publication would compromise these high standards of peer review.


    —  The traditional international system of publication in mathematics works well and is valued by the mathematical community.

    —  Learned society publishers such as the LMS play a dual role in the support of science, both by publishing scientific material and by recycling the proceeds of their publishing activities.

    —  The advance of technology will inevitably bring changes such as the advent, to some degree and in some form, of open-access publishing. Indeed to some extent these changes are already beginning to appear.

    —  Scientific publication is by its very nature an international activity, thus limiting the potential influence of the Government if it is not to disadvantage UK-based publishers and researchers.

    —  To the extent that Government can influence the future development of scientific publication, this should be directed towards preserving as many as possible of the positive aspects of the traditional system, while aiming to maximise the accessibility of published research.

February 2004

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