Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Institute of Food Research

  IFR is the UK's only integrated basic science provider focussed on food and is sponsored by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. We offer the following comments in response to the questions raised in this Inquiry.

  Researchers and research institutions require straightforward, open and flexible access to the scientific literature relevant to their work, and robust and transparent mechanisms for manuscript submission, refereeing and publication. The present system of scientific publishing has its origins in a science culture and a technology environment very different from those of today and critical reappraisal is timely and justified.

"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 do not necessarily serve the best interests of their customers. The goals of the commercial publisher are not always easily reconcilable with the interests of a research institution and indeed some publishers appear to recognise few of the normal obligations to paying customers. "Big deal" schemes may impose choices on the institutional purchaser, who may be forced to subscribe to a "bundle" of journal titles, some of which may be unwanted or irrelevant to institutional needs, in order to obtain the key journals that are really required. To cite just one simple example: it is not possible to subscribe to the journal "Biopolymers" alone; the sister titles must be bought too.

  Complicated deals and lack of customer support from publishers lead to many non-productive working-hours in libraries, from the senior negotiating level right through to day-to-day administration. For example, the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO) has combined "EMBO Journal" and "EMBO Reports" and dramatically increased the subscription price to fund schemes for the candidate EC countries. Librarians have had to consult with their own customers before daring to cancel such a key subscription. Many UK libraries have still to receive a print copy of "Nature" this year (as at 5 Feb 2004) and the "Nature" website has been unreliable for much of 2004 so far. There is often substantial, unnecessary work involved in maintaining the links to commercial e-journals because publishers will not necessarily advise customers when their servers change.

  It is our view that mechanisms of access to the primary scientific literature can be improved substantially. The limitations and restrictions outlined above have the following implications:

    (i)  Researchers may not be aware of work they cannot easily find and read. This will have an impact on research programmes and publications (though impossible to quantify), if researchers are unaware of other relevant work. Anecdotal evidence already suggests that literature pre-1995, which falls outside the NESLI deal for ScienceDirect, is accessed disproportionately less frequently than literature post-1995.

    (ii)  More generally, anyone or any institution that does not have a personal journal subscription or access to a well-resourced science and technology library cannot at present benefit most effectively from the wealth of scientific information that could be available to them. This includes not only schools and colleges, with clear (though unquantifiable) implications for science education, but also industry, especially SMEs, with implications for science and technology awareness and uptake in industry.

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

  Until relatively recently, and in particular until the advent of electronic publishing, the majority of researchers and research institutions took little interest in publication mechanisms. IFR's view is that the following changes should now be encouraged by academic institutions and by Government, but that careful consideration should be given to the potentially serious impact on learned societies, where publication activities generate important revenue in pursuit of scientific and educational objectives.

    (i)  Researchers / research organisations should retain copyright for all their written output, irrespective of whether these are primary papers, reviews or book chapters. (Copyright in illustrations, diagrams and component parts of publications is potentially lucrative to publishers, but time-wasting and irritating to researchers and their organisations, who may have to seek permission to reproduce material they generated in the first place.)

    (ii)  Researchers should be encouraged to pay-to-publish rather than pay-to-read. This would create a direct economic relationship between researchers and publishers and allow open reading access for all. Mechanisms will need to be put in place for publication costs to be met (for example from research grants); these costs could in the long run be met in part (on an organisation-wide basis) through savings in journal subscriptions. We recognise that a drawback of this system is the disincentive to publish that may affect those (for example, in developing countries) who cannot afford the costs, or to whom publications are not a primary output; appropriate mechanisms need to be evolved to deal with this issue.

  The VAT rates applied to electronic information should not be higher than for print.

    (iii)  Funding bodies should insist that publications arising out of funded work are properly peer-reviewed and archived on an open-access server. Robust mechanisms need to be established to ensure that the status of publications (in particular, whether or not they are refereed) is clear.

  These developments would act towards redressing the present monopoly position occupied by scientific publishers, which the existing copyright arrangements and subject hierarchy of journals essentially guarantee. The traditional publishing model does not satisfy current needs. It is the article itself that matters—its quality, trustworthiness, timeliness and its availability. To complement traditional scientific papers, researchers also need good, broad, full-text databases with sophisticated search engines. If a scientist needs a mass spectrum but cannot remember where he saw it, then it is a database that will help him.

"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?"

  At a formal level, impact factors have already been removed from the Research Assessment Exercise. At the informal level individual researchers still perceive the `quality' of the journal in which they publish as the benchmark for their success and consequently assume that their assessors will too. Not all researchers are sufficiently aware of the limitations of impact factors or of the data on which they are based and the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), which calculates the impact factors, itself warns against overemphasis on citation data.

  Open-access journals may well have a beneficial effect on the assessment process. The volatility that they bring to the journals market may end the perception that science is judged by its book cover.

"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?"

  IFR supports fully the policies of the Funding Councils' Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) and of the British Library in respect of the deposit of non-print scientific publications and their ready availability to the research community.

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

  We see no obvious reason for open-access, electronic publishing to introduce any greater risk of scientific fraud than conventional publishing, provided that the usual standards of security applied to electronic information transmission are applied and that there are no loopholes by which manuscripts can bypass elements of the refereeing or acceptance process. In principle, plagiarism could be easier to detect electronically than in print. The correction of errata is also more straightforward. An appropriate editorial policy needs to be adopted in cases where serious error or fraud is uncovered; this might take the form of "flagging" the paper in the database, rather than outright removal from the record.

February 2004

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