Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Society for Endocrinology

  The Society for Endocrinology is a learned society and registered charity, based in the UK. We are members of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP) and support their submission. This submission is intended to shed additional light by giving the perspective of a group that operates as part of the academic community as well as providing services to that community. The Society is fairly typical of societies in the life sciences sector and can be taken as representative of the sector as a whole in many ways. The exception is that the Society for Endocrinology has more diverse sources of income (ie in addition to publishing) than many societies, a large number of which would not survive if there were a major, discontinuous change in the pattern of their publishing income.


  Our services are typical of many such societies:

    1.  Publishing three peer-reviewed journals (plus two for other societies)

    2.  Organising two major subsidised UK conferences each year (800-1000 and 400-550 delegates)

    3.  Organising the national training courses in endocrinology for physicians and nurses

    4.  Organising certificates of education in endocrinology for young scientists and for nurses

    5.  Providing a major web site ( with substantial amounts of free information for researchers and the public

    6.  Publishing a newsletter for members

    7.  Funding grants for postdoctoral research in the UK (in recent years we have been funding three postdoctoral fellowships)

    8.  Funding grants for postgraduate students in the UK (we have funded up to three postgraduate studentships concurrently)

    9.  Providing grants for young researchers to attend conferences and training courses that are essential to their work but which are not funded by their regular funding source

    10.  Providing input to government and higher education consultations, and to the National Institute of Clinical Excellence

    11.  Providing grants to patient support groups that help patients with endocrine diseases

    12.  Working with the media to ensure that coverage of endocrine topics is accurate and balanced

    13.  Dealing with public enquiries

    14.  Creating a sense of community and focus in order to strengthen the UK scientific and medical community


  In common with many such societies, the majority of our members (almost 80% in our case) are in the UK. Many of our services are entirely or mainly for the benefit of the UK academic community and for the advancement of public health and education in the UK. On the other hand, for our journals, typically only around 15% of articles submitted are from UK research groups and only about 9% of the subscriptions are sold to UK institutions. Our journals have an international submission and subscription base and are therefore important both in bringing the work of UK research groups to an international audience and in generating revenues to be used for supporting other services in the UK.

  Somewhat unusually, the Society for Endocrinology also has a trading subsidiary, BioScientifica Ltd, which provides all the above services to other medical and scientific societies, including publishing two learned journals. It also provides products and services to the pharmaceutical industry, most of which are exported.

  From the above it can be seen that journal publishing is a major activity, but by no means the only service provided. It is also clear that there is a complex interlinking between services, particularly financially. Most of the services listed above cost money (items 4 -14 above generate little or no income and items 2 and 3 are usually subsidised to some degree), whereas journal publishing currently generates some funds, which are then in turn fed back into the community. Even then, one of the three journals (the one with by far the highest impact factor and therefore the highest quality) cannot generate a surplus without additional sales to the pharmaceutical industry, which are unpredictable. This is therefore sometimes subsidised by the other two.

  The two key points here are that, typically for the sector, the UK is a net beneficiary of this society financially, and also that all the elements of the system are interlinked in complex ways so that any change to the income base of the journals needs to be handled in a carefully-considered way in order not to damage the whole academic system.

3.  VAT

  Print publications, whether educational or not, are zero-rated for VAT. Electronic publications attract standard rate VAT, which UK universities cannot currently reclaim. Not only does this counter any savings from taking electronic-only subscriptions, but it has a knock-on effect on all subscriptions to a journal once electronic-only is offered as an option. This is because, although while all electronic editions are given free with the print subscription, the whole is deemed to be zero-rated, as soon as it is possible to buy the electronic edition without print, part of the cost of "print plus electronic" subscriptions will be deemed to attract VAT, thus increasing the costs even for those UK universities that have not moved away from the `print plus electronic' option. This means that publishers who feel a particular responsibility to the UK academic community are hindered from offering electronic-only subscriptions to any client because of this penalty to the UK community.


  The Society for Endocrinology is very open to new ways of working. As a learned society our mission is to provide high-quality, cost-effective information and other educational services to our academic community, by whatever means are cost-effective. Thus, we do not have a commitment to current publishing practices in the way that many commercial publishers do. Our priority is to provide what our researchers and clinicians need, and we are happy to change the framework of our journals or other services as required. Open access seems to us a promising opportunity.

  Before going on to answer your specific questions, we would like to summarise the main reasons why there is a problem that needs the Select Committee's attention. In the view of the Society's Publications Committee there are two main factors:

  4.1  In the last half-century or so, the provision of funds for carrying out research has far outstripped the funds to buy the output of that research. At the same time, it is essential for all research to be published in order to be validated and available to one's peers. This is not to deny that some publishers have charged large prices for their journals and made substantial annual increases, but this is not true of all publishers. Certainly in many subject areas the learned society journals, which often have the highest impact factors, are more moderately priced than their commercial competitors. See annexes 1 and 2 for an explanation of impact factors and for examples of comparative impact factors and prices in our sector.

  4.2  There is currently no link between the responsibility for choosing which journal to publish in and to read (the academic's choice) and responsibility for the purchase budget. Most researchers have little or no idea of the comparative prices of the journals available to them. This has certainly fostered a climate where some journals can have prices that are orders of magnitude higher than those of their competitors without suffering any loss of subscriptions. Indeed, their ability to spend lavishly on promotion, financial support to editorial boards and so on may even give an advantage in some cases. Open access would bring value for money into the equation as one of the decision factors in where to submit research, along with quality and reputation. This is likely to be more of a factor with the quality journals that sit just below the market leaders (often US societies).


5.1  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?

  Consortium licensing, whether "big deal" or other, has the advantage that, in principle at least, there is a straightforward route to it from the current model, and considerable predictability for both publishers and librarians. However, it does have disadvantages as well.

  For the research community, the advantage is access to a greater amount of research material than before. The disadvantage is that this access is not always to material of the researcher's choice, nor necessarily to the best material in their field. Thus, either the material, although available, may not be used, or it may be used despite not being the best quality research available. The latter case would arguably prejudice the quality of the work of younger researchers, in particular.

  For the library, it has the advantage of predictability and, as most deals are set up with the very large publishers, a few negotiations will open up access to many new journals. However, most deals tie the library in for several years and thus tie up a major part of the budget. Therefore, the improved access to journals, some of which are either not of the highest quality, or are perhaps not even in a relevant subject area, may lead to an inability to purchase more important journals, especially if the market leaders are published by societies and other small publishers that are less able to join in the consortium negotiations, which is certainly true in the life sciences.

  For the learned society publishers, especially the majority who are relatively small, consortium licensing is a party that we can seldom attend. There is a substantial administrative overhead, for one thing, and libraries are also understandably reluctant to spend time negotiating with societies that have only a handful of journals. Add to this that a substantial proportion of the library budget is committed to "big deals" and we are more likely to be subject to cancellations irrespective of our high quality. Examples have been given in the USA where 70% of a library's journal budget was committed to the biggest three or four publishers. As consortium licences often carry an additional charge of around 10%, this could reduce the money available for all other journals from 30% to 23%, a drop of 23%.

  Lastly, although it may alleviate the current problems, it does not address the root cause of these problems.

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

  As can be seen from the ALPSP and Publishers Association (PA) submissions, the cost of producing open access journals is likely to be substantial. Appendix 5 of the PA submission quotes figures ranging from $3,500-4,000 for unsubsidised production of a single article. Our view is that figures of £150-200 for submission charges (the cost of handling peer review, payable whether the article is accepted or rejected) plus £900-1,200 publication charge (payable only for those articles accepted) seem likely to be about right for science and medical journals. The figures may be less in some other subjects. These sums will need to come out of the grants, so it is imperative that the UK grant bodies are encouraged to allow the inclusion of such sums in grant applications; also that these sums, if included, should only be used for that purpose. This would avoid the risk that, during the introduction of open access, if some journals charge the author and some do not, the author will submit to the journal with no charges and thus penalise the open access journals whilst bolstering those that support the old system.

  We understand that the National Institutes of Health in the USA, a major funder of biomedical research, only allows researchers to use the publication cost elements of its grants for publication with not-for-profit organisations. As mentioned above, in many subjects, this would not only equate to better value-for-money, but would also include the most prestigious journals, as well as ensuring that any surplus is used for the benefit of the academic community and the public. An equivalent system in the UK would allow the transition to open access without too much risk to the complex interconnectivities described above—always providing the journal in question was considered to be of high quality.

5.3.   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?

  Open access is not the issue. Quality control of electronic articles is the issue. Articles should be usable for RAE provided they are peer reviewed to a high quality. The current journals system has a form of "grading" of journals, quantitatively by impact factor and qualitatively by prestige in the eyes of researchers. Whether these journals are in print or electronic, paid by subscription or by open access publication fee, should not affect their quality for RAE and other assessment purposes. However, if material on preprint servers, repositories etc is to be considered by the RAE, there will be issues of how to judge quality and how to "grade" one article relative to another.

5.4  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?

  It is our understanding that it is not currently the role of the legal deposit libraries to use their free subscriptions for the research community outside their own institution. However, there could be scope to set up a UK-wide system, similar to the now-defunct Pilot Site License Initiative (PSLI), whereby, for an agreed single fee, the whole UK academic community could have electronic access to all or most journals, free at point of use. Many publishers were disappointed that the promising PSLI three-year trial was not rolled out to a full-scale project.

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

  Fraud and malpractice will be easier with systems that are not peer-reviewed and, perhaps most dangerously, on the sorts of repositories and university web sites where refereed and unrefereed material may be mixed. Boundaries may be blurred and busy academics may not always realise that one item is "quality-stamped" by peer review and another is not.

  Another risk, though not intentional malpractice, is the push to use of the "most easily available" articles, rather than the best-quality articles, as mentioned in section 5.1 when discussing consortium licensing.


  6.1  Electronic publishing of journals and open access are two different issues.

  6.2  There are issues specific to electronic publishing that the committee may wish to consider, notably permanence of access as software and platforms change and as journals and publishers change hands. There may well be a role here for the legal deposit libraries, particularly the British Library.

  6.3  There are also economic issues, notably the libraries' dwindling ability to supply a good range of information (although the committee is aware that this assertion is disputed). This may be exacerbated by effects on competitiveness of the recent merger trend towards a few very large and powerful publishers, and the effect of some large publishers' high prices on the libraries' ability to buy other journals, which may be lower-priced and of equal or higher quality. This is in turn made worse by the "big deals" that tie a substantial proportion of the library journal budget to a few large publishers, who may not be the ones that use their money to support the UK research community. These factors disadvantage the small publishers, who are often offering high-quality material at fair prices and also using their surpluses to support the academic community.

  6.4  In discussing whether it could or should promote open access, the committee will need to be informed about the substantial difficulties that lie in the way of a transition to this model, bearing in mind that the typical journal publishes material from researchers in many countries, all of which have different funding systems and priorities. Annex 3 contains an article on open access that briefly outlines some of these issues.

  6.5  The committee should consider what can be done to address the VAT anomaly outlined in section 3 above.

February 2004

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