Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Sir Brian Follett

  For the last two years I have chaired (for the Funding Councils plus the British Library (plus those in Wales and Scotland)) a so-called Research Libraries Support Group (RSLG) who have looked at the issues "in the round". One product was the recommendation—now accepted by the Funding Councils plus British Library—to create a Research Libraries Network which will be based within the BL will focus upon strategic issues. Its life will begin on April 1, 2004 and I genuinely believe it should introduce a step change in the level of library cooperation and collaboration within UK higher education. Its most important role, however, will be to develop national strategic solutions to the many issues facing libraries in the coming decades. I emphasise strategic because the field of librarianship/information resources is replete with experts on the technical aspects but what is missing is any kind of national overview in the electronic era and without those then I do believe all the power and influence will flow to publishers—whether they be "for profit" or so-called "not for profit".

  Overall, the issues are not that simple although if one listens to a one side of the coin they are said to be crystal clear! Rather than submit our rather lengthy RSLG Report our report (which is available of course in both printed and electronic versions) I enclose copies of two speeches which I have given over the last twelve months in Italy at the LIBER conference and in Spain (to the annual meeting of Spanish University Rectors/Librarians). They try to summanse -particularly in the Introductions and Conclusions the views of my committee and the context:

  Might I make the following personal observations to your Committee:

    (1)   Peer review is absolutely critical for the world scientific enterprise. We have watched (and are watching) professions "destroy themselves" by undermining their credibility. For good or ill, peer review guarantees truth. Short cutting this process could be lethal in the medium-term to science and, despite the apparent attractiveness of cheaper publishing, could turn out as highly cost ineffective. Please also see point 4.

    (2)   Publishing remains at the core of the scholar's esteenilpromotion structure and is likely to remain there. Most of us realise high salaries do not come from academe but status and self-respect still do. The vital thing is where academics publish. I am certainly not against changing the arrangements but it is scholars worldwide who must make these decisions.

    (3)   The UK is a small player and nothing can be done without the Americans. That is a fact -palatable or unpalatable. The US undertakes and publishes 50% of the world's research. Over the years I and others have talked at length to the Americans about these issues: their views coincide and the conundrum of ensuring quality of the science against cost is identical.

    (4)   Publishing is a minor cost of the research enterprise. Already scientists—through their grants—or their institutions pay for virtually all aspects of their scholarly research: salaries, consumables, equipment, laboratory space and travel. Virtually none pay for publication costs and even reprints have disappeared. Since the overall cost of research publication (but significant) I favour shifting its cost onto the researcher and away from a third party—the librarian. This is likely to change the culture more markedly and faster than just about anything else. Then the researcher will begin to concern himself or herself in the other points (costs, status etc.). Ironically it would also be cost neutral since one is in effect shifting cost inside a higher education institution (though some would lose, some would win). The current arrangements in which the user does not pay leads inevitably to all the obvious consequences.

    (5)   Libraries are a minor headache for vice-chancellors. Costs on periodicals rarely run above 1 per cent of turnover and so increased costs above the norm can be lived with just as they are in other areas (eg annual purchasing bill for IT equipment). I have made many presentations to VCs and tried to beat them around the head but it is not perceived as a major issue.

    (6)   For the UK research publishing is a major industry. We need to be careful because it is an industry where the UK is very well placed. Put bluntly the profit to the UK (and its rapid rise) may outweigh the losses within the UK. This is a view articulated in different language by the DTI.

    (7)   The cost base is not all it appears. I also find aspects of the for profit companies open to serious question—especially when they try to force distortions upon the market. But I doubt if that necessitates a revolution: the surpluses of UK not for profit learned societies are also large.

    (8)   Some of the solutions are not properly costed. Many e-print solutions appear cheap because many costs are paid by the university.

  None of the above argues for inaction and the RSLG report makes that very plain. Some strong negative feedback loop onto the publishers is required. I think much might come from shifting the costs from the library/central university to the researcher and their grant. One suspects "open access", "university repositories" etc can play a role but the market is a strong one. Access issues matter but we can handle these in the UK by methods already tested and working (eg the Document Supply Centre at the BL, the access grants given to universities to open up their libraries). I would like to hope that "my" report and the creation of RLN will focus upon these issues as one of its first ventures.

March 2004

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