Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the National Electronic Library for Health (NELH)


  The National electronic Library for Health ( is a large scale digital library serving the NHS, including staff, patients and public. It has around 200,000 unique visitors per month. The Library manages a wide range of content, both licensed and open-access. It works in partnership with NHS libraries, including the National Core Content Group, who have also responded to the Committee's call for views.

  NeLH is funded by the NHS Information Authority. In the NHS it works closely with the National Programme for IT and NHSU. It is also a member of the Common Information Environment Group, which includes the British Library, JISC, and Resource.


  The NeLH works with a wide range of suppliers and agents, including: small, medium and large traditional publishers; charities and other voluntary bodies; pure digital publishers; and aggregators.

  In response to the Committee's call for views we would like to make 3 main points:

    (1)  There is a strong case—in terms of efficiency, effectiveness and public interest—for making the findings of publicly funded research freely available;

    (2)  We don't feel there is a single best way to achieve this. The role of government and funding agencies should be to set a clear vision and a challenging timetable; and

    (3)  Specifically to the health and social care sector, we believe that the unique nature of the Cochrane Library means that it should be available on an Open Access basis, in a similar way to PubMed.

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' current policies on pricing and provision reflect the fact that academic journals are akin to monopolies. Publishers' are therefore able to dictate price and licensing arrangements. "Big deal schemes" from these publishers have a tendency to adopt the same approach.

  Publisher monopoly affects libraries and their users in a number of ways:


  There is little price competition and therefore University and NHS libraries cannot afford to provide access to publicly funded research findings. It seems in principle unfair that libraries should have to meet the charges levied by suppliers for goods that have been already paid for to a large extent from the public purse (through the education of scientists; university and other research support; specific research grants; unpaid peer-review; and in the case of medical research, the time of research subjects)


  In the digital realm, publishers are competing with libraries to create suites of content. Publishers' main interest is in realising value from their assets. Increasingly, they are creating `value-added products' whose main aim is not primarily to meet the needs of librarians and users but to inter-link their own products.


  As a result digital libraries are more difficult to create than they should be. Publishers have limited interest in creating interoperability between their products and those of other publishers, and standards work progresses slowly. Libraries have to implement passwords and other devices to restrict access. This is both time consuming and confusing to users and librarians.


  With more and more information becoming readily available via the Web availability may take precedence over quality when deciding which information to use. There is some evidence that freely available information resources—for example those found via Google—are used in preference to resources that may be of better quality but are more difficult to obtain.

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

  A market for primary research findings in the true sense does not exist. Government activities in this area should support strategic goals including: public trust in science; the visibility of UK research; and the growth of broadband Britain. We believe the role of HMG should be to set a clear vision for open access to publicly funded research, and set a challenging timetable for achieving that vision.

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?

  As a Government activity, the RAE has a role to play in the transition to open access to primary research, including:

    —  Confirming the acceptability of research published in OA journals;

    —  Considering the place of an Open Archive of RAE submitted papers; and

    —  Engaging in the debate about open access and research quality.

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?

  The British Library is prevented from playing as full a role as it might because it needs to raise income by providing a document delivery service—a service which is predicated on the limited availability of primary research findings.

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

  If scientific ghost writing, `salami publishing' (publishing as many papers out of one study as possible), publication bias, abstract bias and poor quality reporting of the results of clinical trials are included as types of malpractice, the overall quality of papers in peer-reviewed academic journals is often much lower than would be assumed.

  There is nothing unique to the current approach to academic journal publishing to prevent fraud and malpractice. Equally, there is nothing inherent to the open access approach to publishing that increases the risk of scientific fraud and malpractice.


  The Cochrane Library is a database of systematic reviews of the effectiveness of health and social care interventions. Originally conceived in the UK by Professor Sir Iain Chalmers, Cochrane Reviews provide unique and vital information, with the potential to improve care and make more effective use of scarce resources.

  The production of Cochrane Reviews is largely funded by Governments around the world, but the Reviews themselves are only available on a subscription basis from a commercial publisher.

  We feel that the aims of the Cochrane Collaboration would be more effectively met through an open access approach to publishing.

February 2004

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