Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Victoria University of Manchester and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST)

  The comments relate to the headings under which the Committee invited evidence and to which our universities have responded.

"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?"

  It is well documented that subscription prices have for several decades increased much faster than the price of most other commodities, and university and library budgets. Currently, annual price increases average round 10%.

  The underlying causes of this inflation have been a matter of some dispute, but include a rise in the average number of pages or articles in a journal volume (given the pressure to publish an ever-increasing volume of research, and the costs of providing an electronic format, now almost universal for scientific journals, when in most cases such costs have not yet been offset by the abandonment of the print version.

  However, perhaps the major underlying cause is the monopoly position of the publisher. Authors are required by publishers to transfer copyright to the publisher when they submit an article for publication. Journal articles are not interchangeable; their uniqueness is one of their essential qualities. The publisher therefore becomes the monopoly supplier of the articles he publishes, and there is no price competition in supply of those articles (which are gathered together in the issues and volumes of various journals covering the range of disciplines). To researchers access to the relevant journals and the articles they contain, is an essential aspect of the infrastructure they need for their work, and they cannot tolerate the loss of access that price resistance by university librarians (ie non-renewal of journal subscriptions) implies. Demand for the journals is therefore very inelastic, and publishers are able to raise prices without a proportionate loss of sales.

  There is also a self-reinforcing hierarchy of journals in any given field, well-known to all researchers in that area: the "best" articles are submitted for publication in the "best" journals, which thus retain their positions in the future. This is a further aspect of the limitations to competition, because it is almost impossible to set up an immediately prestigious journal from scratch. The self-reinforcing nature of the hierarchy in the journals market has been exacerbated by the Research Assessment Exercises.

  Evidence of this monopoly position is provided by the profit levels of the biggest commercial publishers of scientific/technical/medical journals. The position of the leading commercial publishers has been further reinforced in recent years as a result of a spate of merger and takeover activity. Even learned societies seek to subsidise other activities from surpluses on their journal publishing operations—in other words subsidise these other activities by extracting from universities money over and above the cost of the production and distribution of these journals.

  The electronic "big deal" schemes have resulted in a large increase in the number of journals being made available to university library users. In this sense, the big deals have been beneficial to customers, and the average price per journal obtained has greatly declined within these schemes compared to print subscriptions for the same number of titles. The fact that journals in this form are accessible to users without them having to go to the library, and when it is closed, is also a major new benefit. However, the library has no choice but to take the whole package, usually at some additional cost over and above their historic expenditure on the subset of the publisher's journals that it subscribed to in print. This drastically reduces the library's control over the journals it makes available and its ability to fine-tune the deployment of its budget. Although some of the additional journals are useful, others are not. The library's ability to select what it purchases has been partly undermined by a system that helps large publishers to maintain and increase their market share. In order to balance their budgets, libraries are forced to cancel subscriptions to journals from smaller publishers that do not operate "bundling". The effect is that to some extent libraries are forced into cancelling journals their users do want in order to pay for some they don't.

  Such deals are also often multi-year, forcing libraries to commit future budgets before either the budgets themselves or new claims upon them are known.

  The end result of these factors is that there is a tendency for an increasing proportion of university libraries' acquisitions budgets to be used on periodicals subscriptions, given the pressure from academic staff to maintain them, and for fewer books to be purchased, damaging library provision for students.

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

  Given the monopoly position of publishers, and the recognition by the Office of Fair Trading that "the market for STM journals may not be working well" and that "many commercial journal prices appear high, at the expense of education and research institutions", intervention by the competition authorities may be necessary. At the very least, future merger proposals should be strictly monitored and investigated, to avoid the further enhancement of monopoly market power. Given the international nature of the journals market, this will require co-operation with other nations' competition authorities.

  The system for making the results of scientific research available has evolved over centuries to its present state. The increased commercialism of publishers that is manifested in their use of monopoly pricing power and the trend towards concentrating more publications in the hands of fewer and larger companies means that there are now problems in the system, in terms of availability of the information and utilisation of public funds. The advent and development of networks and web technology provide the means for developing new and potentially more effective and efficient equitable models for scholarly communication and the recording of research outputs that will also make the information far more widely available on a global scale. The escalation in journal prices that gradually makes these products unaffordable for institutions in less-wealth countries, and less-wealthy institutions in wealth countries, is also gradually reducing the availability of the information, which is the purpose of publication.

  The free transfer of copyright by academics to publishers is now coming under much greater scrutiny. Most research published in academic journals has been paid for directly or indirectly from public funds. The practice of donating the copyright in the record of the research to, in many cases, commercial organisations, for them to re-sell it to the university community in return for public funds from library budgets, now seems perverse and unjustifiable. In principle, it can be argued that the public bodies that fund the research should require that the record of the research should be accessible in the public domain. What is important is that mechanisms for `quality-assurance' of the published output, also at present provided free of charge by academics, are retained. Developments from web technology now make it possible to translate this principle into reality.

  The development of institutional article web repositories, together with software which makes it easy to search a combination of all such repositories that conform to the Open Archives Initiative protocol, has made it feasible to consider a network whereby all researchers will be encouraged to "self-archive" their articles, which will then be accessible without charge. Experience to date suggests that the technical issues are relatively easy to solve, but encouraging researchers to deposit their articles is more problematic. One major reason for this is the perception that copyright transfer prevents such an action: this may be a barrier in some cases, but 55% of publishers already allow submissions to be deposited in this way, and many other will do so on request.

  All universities and similar research institutions should be encouraged to set up their own repositories, or shared repositories for groups of institutions, and require staff to deposit articles. Such a process would be greatly facilitated if project funding from the Research Councils and similar bodies included a condition that resulting research should be publicly available—without precluding researchers from continuing to publish in the standard peer-reviewed journals.

  Government could ease the pressure on research library budgets by exempting tertiary education institutions from payment of VAT on electronic information resources, including electronic journals. The present differential VAT rates applying to print and electronic publications distort decision-making, and increase budget pressures.

"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?"

  A parallel development to the self-archiving discussed above is the growing number of "open-access" journals. Such journals are freely available to all web users. They are financed from fees to publish in them, as opposed to subscriptions by purchasers. There are usually waiver policies in place to cover submissions from less-developed countries. The expectation, however, is that author fees will be paid from research grants etc. The content is available to all without financial barriers.

  In the medium-term, the survival and growth of open-access journals will depend on their ability to attract quality submissions and the number of citations to articles in them. This discipline should ensure that peer review remains stringent, and that ability to pay is not the main criterion for acceptance.

  In order not to stifle the development of new models of scholarly communication it is important that no discrimination should be operated by the RAE against open-access journals per se. The quality of the article should be the deciding factor.

  It would also be an extremely important step forward if funding bodies agreed that authors' publication fees were an appropriate charge on research funds.

February 2004

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 20 July 2004