Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Jonathan Cowie

  1.  Having worked for two decades with learned and professional body scientific societies that publish, time of which some 17 years were spent with my having either managerial or direct responsibility for publishing (including a term on Council of the Association of Learned and Professional Scientific Publishers), the Committee may find the following comments of use in their inquiry. I am currently on policy committees for two learned and professional scientific societies. However these views are my own.


  2.  (i)  There is a difference between (paper) publishing, electronic (internet) broadcasts, subscriber-driven dissemination, and author pay-for-driven dissemination. These differences need to be recognised in any discussion about scientific publishing or scientific dissemination. Each have their advantages and disadvantages. There is also the problem of common misconception as to how these various dimensions inter-relate. The "free access" landscape is not as simple as some portray.

  (ii)  There is a problem of success in that more scientific papers are being published than ever before and that these are being disseminated in an increasing number of more specialist dissemination routes. This is putting pressure on conventional dissemination routes (primarily through journals) and new ways of paying for dissemination are being realised (such as author paid for, free public access internet routes).

  (iii)  The above problems not only impact on library and potentially research budgets but also on research assessment that relies on citation and impact factors.

  (iv)  There are problems with internet dissemination such as future proofing the technologies used for archival purposes.

  (v)  There are general problems across all of scientific dissemination of parallel (duplicate) and salami (compartmentalising) publishing, maintaining peer review standards, and historical archiving (separate to "future proofing" above).

  (vi)  Government (albeit through its appropriate agencies) would do well to assess the above problems. One way of encouraging a best-of-all-worlds scenario would be to develop a code of practice with regards to dissemination (including library subscription, researcher-dissemination drivers) as well as the use of papers in assessment (the latter providing the incentive for adherence to any best practice code).


Publishing furthers, reviews, enables assessment and helps fund the scientific landscape

  3.  Journal publishing is of major importance to UK science:

  (a)  in terms of disseminating advances in science,

  (b)  reviewing the scientific landscape and commenting on scientific applications (including science and society matters),

  (c)  for research assessment, and

  (d)  as a major source of income funding much of the work undertaken by learned and professional scientific societies.

Printed journals and e-journal broadcasts are not synonymous and not comparable: there are differences

  4.  Printed journals and e-journals are not synonymous and should not be compared as like-with-like. The process whereby print journals are produced is "publishing", whereas that for e-journals on the internet is "broadcasting". Differences between the two manifest themselves in a variety of ways including:

    (a)  Differences in archiving. "Information on paper can survive for hundred of years; information stored digitally may not be recoverable this time next week. With seven million pages of new information added to the worldwide web each day, the volatility of websites has emerged as an urgent problem, especially as websites are becoming the version of record for scientific journals." (BMJ 328:61-2, 2004) If something similar to the Great Fire of London were to happen today then we would lose a dozen or so academic libraries: it would not, though, result in the irretrievable loss of an integral body of information. However a problem with those e-broadcasting a journal, say due to virus infection or computing error, could conceivably remove a body of scientific information from access worldwide perhaps permanently if this was the sole form of archiving. Another problem in archiving is "future proofing" broadcasts. It is possible to read acts of Parliament written on vellum hundreds of years ago, however even in the short period of time (about a decade) when internet use has been commonplace in UK universities, there have been a number of changes in the way in which information is handled so necessitating in regular software upgrades. Solutions are being explored. For instance, Stanford University Libraries has initiated a project called LOCKSS (Lots Of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe) so that libraries physically store their own copy of the e-broadcast. (

    (b)  Differences in accessibility. Accessing published journals necessitates either having had a subscription to the journal for its appropriate editions, or visiting an academic library. There are clear limitations but also advantages. I currently subscribe to four journals and in the past month have been known to read these in a variety of places including on the train. However the advantage of open access e-broadcast journals is that one can access any edition from any PC connected to the web.

    (c)  Differences in permanence. This is related to, but different from, a) archiving (see above). Once a journal has been published, although not fixed on stone, it is fixed on paper. Conversely e-broadcasting sees format changes, web address changes (the basis for "net rot" when hyperlinks between sites fail to work due to change), and even editorial change after a period of broadcasting. This last has ethical implications.

The above differences need to be at the heart of scientific dissemination discussion

  5.  Given that there is a significant, albeit currently little recognised, difference between scientific publishing and e-broadcasting, these need to be included at the heart of any discussion comparing open access e-broadcasts and conventional scientific publishing.

Much research is already disseminated both in print and electronically

  6.  In part because there are merits to both scientific publishing and e-broadcasting, and arguably in part because there is already an established history of scientific publishing, many disseminating the results of scientific research do so both in print and electronic form. However free access to the electronic broadcast is usually restricted to past work; typically work more than between six months and two years old. This enables a charge to be collected from those that want access to recent scientific research.

Disseminating science is costly however it is done

  7.  Disseminating the results of scientific research either through publishing or e-broadcasting, is costly. The biggest single cost is usually the selection process which includes: editorial honoraria, selection software and use, editorial office staff and overheads associated with progressing selection. These are typically double the post-acceptance editorial costs. Then there are print and web costs depending on the dissemination method. (Learned Publishing 16(1):15-20, 2003)

The expansion of science in an increasingly specialised way is increasing dissemination costs

  8.  The problem is mostly one of success in that science in terms of numbers of papers published is increasing. The past decade has seen more scientists than previously, and each tends to publish more—one driver of which being research assessment. Further, as science has grown then so has the number of specialisms leading to more journals with shorter print runs. This has led to higher subscriptions which in real-terms have increased by 150% in the decade from 1990 (Economic Analysis of Scientific Research Publishing, Wellcome Trust, 2003). For libraries, whose budgets are broadly constant in real-terms, this trend is not (indeed patently has not been) sustainable and subscriptions have been cut. The response from publishers has varied but many have provided added-value by providing e-broadcast support to their publications. In some instances this takes the form of all the work stations at a university or research institution having access to the electronic version of the journal. However one response has been to provide a very different e-journal, one that is open access, or free to the user, with costs being met by those having articles broadcast.

Costs to authors of free access internet journals are in four figures

  9.  If researchers choose to get their work disseminated by public access internet broadcast, as opposed to conventional publication, then they will bear the costs. The launch last autumn of PLOS Biology, a free access internet broadcast with monthly editions, gives an indication as to what these costs might be. A figure of US£1,500 was cited (Nature 425:554-556, 2003) as the fee to be charged authors for each published article. Clearly if a productive researcher was to choose to disseminate four or five papers a year (not untypical) then the cost presumably to his or her research budget would be US$6,000-$7,500 dollars This is not a trivial amount and if reflected across a significant proportion of the university research population, would have a noticeable impact on the Science Base. Conversely an annual subscription to most conventionally published journals is less than this.

The Government funding science has choices as to how to pay for dissemination

  10.   If there were a move to public access internet broadcasts, as opposed to conventional publication (albeit supported with free access e-broadcasts of more than two-year old archives), then the Government would be broadly faced with the following choices:-

      i.  Allow the efficacy of research budgets to be eroded as researchers pay for their work to be disseminated by electronic public access.

      ii  Provide researchers with new funding to pay for their work to be disseminated by electronic public access.

      iii  Provide researchers with old money (for example from library budgets) to pay for their work to be disseminated by electronic public access.

  In short, the Government would have to decide whether or not to provide researchers with finance to pay for dissemination by electronic public access? And if they chose to provide this finance then they would have to decide from which pocket it would be paid. It should be noted that some scientific disciplines benefit more from one form of dissemination than others.


Reduced salami and parallel publishing

  11.  Because free access journals are paid for by researchers who have their papers placed on the internet, the researchers presumably will want to limit the costs they bear. At the moment with print journals (including those with parallel e-broadcasts) the subscriber bears these costs and so there is little financial incentive for researchers to restrict the amount they attempt to have published. This has led to what is called "salami" publishing and "parallel" publishing. Salami publishing is where a research divides up his or her research into smaller components and produces a paper on each: the research is sliced as a salami to generate more papers. Parallel publishing is where a research publishes work in more than one journal. Inventing an example: if there was research published on aphid ecology then it could conceivably end up being published by both ecology journals as well as those relating to horticulture. There are sometimes good reasons to parallel publishing (such as if the bridge the papers provide link new areas of science to each other), otherwise it provides an additional spur to overall academic publishing cost. However it is known that parallel publishing does take place within journals related to a single discipline (for example see paragraph 21(ii) below).

Competition could erode the profits of commercial publishers, but also perhaps learned society incomes

  12.  If there was a move for research to be disseminated freely, electronically, and away from conventional reader subscription journals then one might imagine that conventional journal publishers would seek to become economically competitive. There is some financial slack in journal publishing. Reed Elsevier is reported (BMJ 328:1-3, 2004) to have made annual profits of $290 million with margins of nearly 40% on core journals. But learned Societies who also profit from journals would be hit by any margin trims and their profits do not go to shareholders but to fund charitable scholarship and professional activity. Learned Societies provide UK tax payer funding Government-sponsored research with synergistic benefits. (Government might note this, especially in light of its response to the Select Committee's previous report on learned society funding.)


Subscriber (the scientific community writ large) driven content is probably preferable to author (individual researcher) driven content

  13.  Subscriber-funded dissemination has the advantage that subscribers drive the academic content, which in journals is not solely restricted to research papers. Editorials, topic reviews, symposia reports, book reviews, update articles and (in some journals) news augment research paper content and are valuable to readers. If dissemination was driven by the authors of research papers then one might expect this other content to be threatened.


Peer review can be as rigorous irrespective of the nature of dissemination

  14.  There is no reason why peer review should not be as every bit as rigorous in free access electronic dissemination as it is in conventional journals. Both are costly exercises (see paragraph 7 and 8).

Free-access internet science will not reduce dissemination costs as some think

  15.  Moving from subscriber paid for conventional publication and internet broadcast to free access internet broadcast will reduce pressures on the public purse because of libraries' reduced subscription bills; it will not. As explained above, the bills would need to be picked up by the researchers.

Interdisciplinary researchers are not, as some think, penalised by subscriber based dissemination

  16.  That those working in interdisciplinary subjects are penalised by subscriber-based dissemination; they are not. While those working in interdisciplinary areas of science do draw on a broader base of material, they are not particularly disadvantaged by this. First, academic libraries stock a range of journals determined by their users which reflects the entirety of the university or college and do not segregate access by departmental budget. Secondly, an increasing number of journals allow free electronic access to their archives of material more than a couple of years old. Third, some journals (such as, I believe, those in the Nature Publishing Group) allow authors the right to post their published papers own their own, or their department's, web site (self archiving). Subscription journals do not necessarily prevent free access and with the advent of DOIs it is possible to Google search on colleagues' recommendations with ease and speed.

It is not true that all material conventionally published cannot be eventually free

  17.  Access to all material published conventionally has to be paid for by subscribers. This is not true. As stated above, increasingly journals (though admittedly not all) allow free access to their archives (which on an on-going basis are paid for by past subscribers or advertisers). Secondly, there are initiatives that allow those academics from less-developed nations have immediate free access to internet broadcasts of conventionally published journals. The World Bank and the World Health Organization HINARI scheme enables those from less-developed nations have free internet access to the electronic versions of a number of leading health and medical journals. There is a similar scheme called AGORA established by the Food and Agricultural Organization and, again, the World Bank for agricultural and nutrition journals. Having said this I suspect that the Committee will receive evidence from respected players who believe that totally free access Worldwide is the only way forward. There is a certain ethical charm to this stance but on close inspection one might wonder whether is it really necessary and does one want researchers to both do the research and fund their own publication? (Game keepers and poachers.) I am ethically attracted to keeping these apart. The greatest calls for free access come to those concerned with molecular biology, especially with biomedical outputs. This is in part because this is where much of the growth in science in recent decades has taken place and secondly because such research tends to be more time sensitive. Here, waiting six months to a year or two for the research to become freely available can undermine much of the benefit of free access but this is not applicable to all disciplines. Yet again some publishing groups, such as Nature's, do allow authors to post their own research on their own website, and the BMJ has maintained a free internet access service since 1998 (admittedly paid for out of an advertising revenue of a magnitude not commonly available to journals). In the face of those journals that allow some sort of free access, be it one or more of the forms cited above, I find it difficult to see what those favouring free-access journals are getting at other than the fact that not all journals allow free access to past papers or allow authors to post their own papers. If conventional journals in the main did allow either or both of these then the call for free-access journals would, I'm confident, largely evaporate. (This question of free access is of course quite separate to that of patenting (for example, the human genome), even if there are some parallels and similarity in those calling for free access and fundamental (as opposed to applied) research outputs being patent free.)


Funding Councils need to monitor the impacts of free access internet dissemination

  18.  If free access (researcher-paid) dissemination takes off then one of the drivers will be research assessment. Consequently impact factors will be crucially important. Will these be comparable to subscriber-driven dissemination? Do conventional journal impact factors equate with those from purely electronic journals? Were are currently in early days. The Funding Councils need to monitor this area of citation impact factor and be aware of the issues that the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) are currently considering. However if ISI citation impact factors follow the established route as they do with new subscriber-driven journals, it will be a few years before they will denote impact factors to new public access e-journals. Nonetheless, this time must not be wasted so that the Government is prepared.

Government agencies need to get the best from all disseminating modes

  19.  The Government and its appropriate agencies could consider what they might do to get the best from all disseminating worlds: electronic broadcasting, paper publishing, subscriber driven and free-access (paper author fee driven). (Successive Governments have held great store by their Foresight initiatives, so this should be straightforward.)

The Government might devise a code of practice linked to assessment

  20.  The Government, or its agencies, might perhaps encourage a code of practice on how to best disseminate research and link this to assessment. For example, research assessment might only use print journals that provide free electronic access after two years as opposed to those that do not. (Many CABI journals allow free electronic access to their conventional journals papers over a year or two old.) The code of practice might also allow scientific authors in paper journals to retain the right to post their own work on their own, or their Department's, web site? (This is the current practice of the Nature Publishing Group.) By ensuring that the internet benefits are brought to print journals would mean that author paid for e-broadcasts would have to ensure that scholarship and other standards are up to those of print journals to remain competitive in terms of scholarship. This would improve the case for free-access e-journals being included in research assessment.

A code of practice might address other on-going problems

  21.  A code of practice might also address other problems such as:

    (i)  poor peer review (cf. Nature 413:93, 2001) and also insist on authors being blind to referees (even if many referees think they can guess) at least for the initial assessment (some referees' first act is to check the author's past citation record and not referee the research) ;

    (ii)  salami and parallel publishing through enforcing legally binding author statements—one survey of over 20,000 papers in 70 ophthalmic journals detected approximately 1.4% duplication and they may not have caught them all (Nature 421:209)—this, if reflected across all of science, not to mention added to salami redundancy, represents a considerable cost;

    (iii)  complete openness in annual reporting of the journal's or broadcast's own impact factor, paper acceptance rates, average time to publication etc., a problem more associated with smaller specialist journals; and

    (iv)  it would be useful for Government to consider whether the code might give preference to high impact research outlets associated (even if through a commercial publisher) with established learned societies as these generate scholarship benefits to the UK so effectively enabling the tax-payer's buck to get more bangs. (The Government has already responded to this Select Committee's previous report on learned society funding indicating its support and appreciation of the value of such bodies but declining financial assistance other than through the existed (and limited) route via the Royal Society: so the Government has provided its own raison d'être for exploring support for quality learned society journals.)

An investigation into how best future proof science archives is required

  22.  The Government, or its appropriate agencies, might wish to see how both print journals and their electronic counterparts are future-proofing themselves for archive purposes. Though this will be problematic in that we do not know what future technology will bring, we do know two things:

    (a)  that technology will change; and

    (b)  we are inevitable marching towards the future.

  This investigation needs to have an initial European (not just UK) focus.

We must not pay twice for dissemination

  23.  Above all the Government needs to ensure that it does not pay twice for dissemination of research first through libraries and second out of researchers' budgets.


 (a)   What impact do publishers' current policies on pricing and provision of scientific journals, and (b)   particularly "big deal schemes", have on libraries and the teaching and research communities they serve?

  24.  (a)  Publishers are trying to maintain profits in the face of dwindling unit returns (see above). Broadly speaking, those publishers with external corporate or share-holder drivers tend to be the ones trying to maximize profits more aggressively. University presses, learned societies, `commercial' publishers owned by governments and academics, tend to be more sympathetic to their markets. Libraries are having difficulty in maintaining their range of journals.

  (b)  big deals can be good. Learned society driven big deals (even if in partnership with a commercial publisher) can tend to cut the cost of bringing a specific specialist discipline or specialism to a library. However one might imagine a university finding it cheaper to buy a package of journals from a commercial publisher that includes material not needed by a university (a commercial publisher's interests are not confined as learned societies by specialist area). But I should point out that I do not have a purchasing librarian's perspective. Nonetheless big deals can be good for British scientists if brought together by several publishers internationally. For example, British geologists have hopes for an on-line aggregate they are developing with six other US based geological publishers called GeoScience World (GSW) (reported in Geoscientist 14(2), 2, 2004).

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

  25.  Assuming that university libraries are funded proportionally by the number of researchers and/or lecturers working at the said establishment then maintaining this per capita budget in real terms, and ensuring that the researchers' departments choose from this allowance, should be enough to drive competition. What would be interesting is to check to how researcher/lecturer per capita library budgets have fared over the past 20 years. University personnel departments will know how many researchers and lecturers they have employed (including on short-term contracts) and university administrators (if not head librarians) should have records of their library's budgets, so this exercise should not be unduly arduous. Meanwhile researchers paying for personal subscriptions out of their own pocket will only do so if they believe that they are getting value. What Government's could usefully do is to encourage a code of practice (see paragraphs 20 and 21) to be associated with research assessment. This might include free historical access (say after six months or a year), and authors being allowed to post on their own websites within a few months of publication (self archiving). It might also include encouraging participation in a World Bank-type free access for poor countries scheme and give marginal preference to high impact journals associated with learned societies (even if jointly published with commercial publishers) as opposed to solely commercial publishers,.

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?

  26.  Probably not as much as one might think. First, as explained above, the academic publishing world is not clearly divided into open-access and subscriber based journals. Some subscriber based paper journals have historic free internet access to papers between six months and a year old, and some also allow authors to post their own papers on their own university websites and there are rare examples (such as the BMJ) of being both conventionally subscriber paid for and free on the internet. But, I assume the question refers to open access internet broadcasts, in which case they should have the same citation impact factors as their conventional counterparts if research assessment effectiveness is to be maintained.

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?

  27.  Pass. Never used them to access information, only to deposit it.

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

  28.  Recent trends in scientific dissemination do not yet appear to a have markedly changed trends in scientific fraud or malpractice. My perception (gained from being a regular reader of some journals like Nature, Science and the BMJ that have news columns occasionally featuring news of fraud/malpractice) is that the concern here lies more with the increasing complexities and specialist nature of science which is being accompanied by a commensurate decrease in the number of people capable of discerning a really clever fraud. True, the increased access we all now have to scientific outputs means that, for example, there is a broader pool from which to plagiarize and electronic cutting and pasting is superficially easy but fraud and malpractice tends to be more sophisticated than this if it is have a reduced chance of detection. I am probably more concerned about ill-conceived (and especially with regard to the statistical analysis of) experiments as one of the major causes of "malpractice" in the strict meaning of the word.


We need to secure the future of the best of all science-disseminating worlds

  29.  We need to secure the future of the best of all science-disseminating worlds: paper publishing, internet broadcasting, and free access broadcasts. The danger is that we could end up: paying twice for disseminating science, restricting library coverage and other access, not future-proofing technology (so lose past work), and that standards may erode (or fail to improve). Conversely we can accommodate the increasing number of specialized papers with free historical access, and free current access for those prepared to spend a little time surfing. We can also strive for an improved service by those providing outlets for research and ensure that the British tax-payer gets the best deal for science through scholarship synergism.

February 2004

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