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
"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
operationsin 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
availablewithout 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
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.