Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the University of Oxford

1.   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?

    (a)  From the perspective of library budgets, significantly higher than average year-on-year-inflationary price increases have: (i) squeezed acquisitions budgets generally to the point where their purchasing power has fallen in roughly inverse proportion to the continuing growth in the availability of the published material; (ii) produced damaging short and long-term effects on monograph spending, as libraries have switched funds to absorb increases in journal costs; (iii) led to regular journals cancellation exercises, in an effort to contain costs within the available funds; and (iv) restricted the general availability of, and access to, the results of publicly-funded research, through a concentration of expenditure on `big deals' with the leading journals publishers, based on `bundling' of journals, multi-year agreements, and punitive cancellation clauses.

    (b)  However, the quality of scientific publications must be maintained and should be paid for, if that ensures the enhancement of quality. Any steps that would affect the profitability of journals must be considered with great care. A balance needs to be struck between profitability and the actual infrastructure cost of journals that guarantees continuing quality.

    (c )  In the case of UK-based learned societies, the income from scientific publishing is channelled back into the support of science. It is important to protect the work of learned societies through their journals as they add to the scientific reputation of the UK. Any measures that might be introduced as a result of this inquiry should not have the unintended consequence of cutting off this important source of revenue for the learned societies, thus adversely affecting UK science.

    (d)  Publishers may deny access to back issues once an electronic subscription has been cancelled. Back issues are vital to scientific research and teaching. At present, users too frequently are denied a viable choice: if they want access to the back issues they must continue to pay for a subscription that they otherwise do not want, or they can cancel the subscription but lose access to the back issues that their work, whether research or teaching, requires. Action should be taken in this regard.

    (e)  The "big deals" approach of some commercial publishers has affected the scientific publications market, with the balance of expenditure tending to move towards the larger publisher "bundles" and away from the smaller publisher titles, and with libraries finding it financially disadvantageous to cancel lesser-used journals within the bundled titles.

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

    (a)  The existing regulatory system must ensure that true price competition takes place and that monopolies do not emerge among the large commercial publishers of scientific journals. The Government should accordingly take steps to ascertain: (i) whether some aspects of current publisher licensing policies and conditions represent a restraint of trade; (ii) whether the increasing market consolidation of scientific publications is in the public interest; and (iii) whether true competition might not be better promoted by enabling multiple, rather than single, sources of supply. Scientific variety and competition between journals is essential to further the quality of scientific publications.

    (b)  The terms of reference of the inquiry do not look at the international dimension. Scientific publication is an international endeavour; any unilateral steps taken by the UK are unlikely to alter significantly this publication market's current structure. In light of the international scope of scientific publishing, the Government should press for the European Union to examine the practices of commercial publishers in terms of e-provision, including such issues as the legality of bundling systems and cancellation charges.

    (c )  Within the UK the market is too small to be able to exercise effective pressure on the commercial publishers, and the higher education sector should cooperate internationally in negotiating with the commercial publishers. The Government should provide financial help to organize such an international negotiating body.

    (d)  The Government should give universities "special status", exempting them from VAT on electronic provision.

    (e)  Copyright is a key issue. Existing copyright law sits uncomfortably with the needs of science for the rapid and free dissemination of information. Academics should be encouraged by their institutions to retain copyright whenever possible, to be fully informed about their rights when negotiating the assignment of copyright, and to promote healthy competition by placing copies of their publications in institutional repositories and/or publicly-accessible websites.

    (f)  To promote the free dissemination of research, the Government should examine the following options regarding copyright.

    (i)  Copyright for published publicly funded research could be retained by the institution in which the research was done, not the publisher.

    (ii)  Copyright for published publicly funded research could be retained by the author or authors, rather than the publisher.

    (iii)  Copyright for published publicly funded research could be retained by the funding body, such as a research council, rather than the publisher.

    (iv)  Copyright could be removed altogether from published publicly funded research (such a proposal is currently in a bill before Congress in the United States).

    (g)  Some journal publishers have in fact already moved away from insisting on assignment of copyright. The remainder should develop business models and licence terms which encourage, rather than restrict, the widest possible dissemination of publicly-funded scientific research.


    (a)  The growth of open-access journals has undoubtedly sharpened the element of genuine competition in the journals market, and has helped to stimulate a growing awareness within institutions of the value of retaining at least some control of locally-generated IPR; and has contributed to the more effective exploitation of the power of electronic networks for accessing publicly-funded research information.

    (b)  The overall objective must be to create an environment in which the scientific quality of publications is maintained and enhanced and access to published output maximised. This is not likely to be achieved by favouring one publication model to the exclusion of others. There should be a level playing field in which open-access journals can compete in terms of reputation and quality with other journals.

    (c )  At this juncture, open-access publications face the challenge of establishing credentials in terms of status and impact. The way to do that is a commitment to peer review. Whether the current financial arrangements supporting open-access publishing are viable in the longer term, and whether they are able to resource the level of administrative support for peer review remains to be seen.

    (d)  For RAE purposes, some staff will wish to submit papers published in the very highest impact-rated journals, others may wish to support the open-access movement by choosing to publish in journals which have not yet achieved a high impact rating. However, in the RAE it is, once again, the quality of the science in the paper that is most important.

    (e)  It would not be appropriate for universities and research institutions to give special preference to publication in open-access journals as a consideration in tenure or recognition of distinction exercises considerations. It is the quality of the science in a publication that is essential.

    (f)  Systematic open access could be a great benefit. To work well, however, it requires a change in the flow of money: instead of money flowing to publishers (and in the case of learned societies back to the community) via libraries and journal subscriptions, it has to flow through publication charges or subsidies of the publication process. The dangers are:

    (i)  If publication charges are too high, a lot of research will be published directly on the internet, without peer-review. Peer review is essential to the integrity of the biological, mathematical and physical sciences and should not be undermined.

    (ii)  A move towards publication charges could have a serious impact upon (1) those scientific disciplines that do not have access to significant research grants and (2) upon the early stages in an academic career. If publishing in an open-access system were to be paid for from research grants, then mathematical research, for example, which is conducted largely without the support of research grants, would be at a great disadvantage. In addition, young researchers, lacking the necessary research grant income, would also find it difficult to publish precisely at the point in their career when a steady stream of publications is most important. In the current stringent economic environment, it would be difficult for the HE sector to adequately subsidize an open-access system. Financial barriers to access published research should not be replaced by financial barriers to publication.

    (iii)  One of the biggest dangers of present, apparently "free", journals is that they will collapse if individuals move on, or if the institution providing the effective subsidy ceases to exist.

    (g)  Retention of copyright by authors in conventional commercial journals has the potential to provide efficient access to published science without requiring a wholesale shift to open-access journals. There are two stages in the dissemination of published science: effective means of searching the literature and gaining access to works of interest. Current web-based search facilities are efficient, while retention of copyright would allow direct access from authors or institutional repositories.

4.   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?

    (a)  It is too early to judge how effective the Legal Deposit Libraries might be in helping to promote access to non-print scientific publications—the legislation extending the legal deposit arrangements to include such material on a non-voluntary basis is too recent, and the Advisory Panel which will regulate the permitted use(s) of the material has not yet been formally established by government.

    (b)  The operation of the voluntary scheme (introduced in 2000), is enabling the Legal Deposit Libraries to gain at least some experience of many of the practical issues associated with the management of non-print materials, and the Libraries will continue to work, both severally and collectively, towards making these materials as widely available as the regulations will permit once they are introduced. But the Legal Deposit Libraries are already aware that their efforts will be constrained by the lack of additional resources, by technical considerations, and by the likely resistance of some publishers to the widest possible dissemination of the material they deposit. The delicate balance between the public interest (which the Libraries seek to serve) and the commercial considerations of some publishers will be a difficult one for the Secretary of State to strike when introducing regulations governing the use and availability of the non-print materials received under the new legislation.

    (c )  If electronic publishing, whether commercial or open-access, replaces paper publishing, then the arrangements for archiving definitive versions of scientific papers, and ensuring perpetual availability, will have to be addressed, perhaps through the Legal Deposit libraries. These Libraries could play a key role in enhancing the security of the e-provision system, providing electronic repositories that can assure access, in cases where the publisher is unable to provide access (for example, if the e-publisher were to go bankrupt and cease trading). The Government should recognize the additional cost of supporting this ever-increasing national archive.

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

    (a)  In theory, and intuitively, the advent of electronic journal publishing, and the availability of electronic journal articles on computer networks, makes it that much easier to infringe copyright laws, to plagiarise other people's work, and to make unauthorised changes to published material. There is, however, no empirical evidence to show that such malpractice is on the increase. Moreover, both unauthorised changes and plagiarism are in some senses more easy to detect in the computer age. IT also facilitates the establishment of an audit trail (through self-archiving or e-repositories of raw data, etc...).

    (b)  In many areas of science, the replication of experiments and high quality peer review are an effective means of self-regulation and the detection of fraud. In certain subject areas the scientific system may be less effective, for instance in the case of clinical trials in the medical sciences, which are difficult to replicate.

February 2004

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Prepared 20 July 2004