Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Nancy Rothwell, University of Manchester

  I do not believe that publishers costs have a huge impact on most good research institutes since most journalists are now readily accessed through electronic institutional subscriptions (though the variation in price is of some concern). Cost of course a very big issue for developing countries and smaller institutions.

  A more serious problem is that many journals also have significant page charges for authors which often cannot be met from grants. Some authors even pay such costs personally to publish their work in high quality journals. I have published in an open access on-line journal which was fast, efficient and of course free to everyone, but for most scientists the impact factor of the journal is a very major factor. For RAE, the panels tried to assess the value and impact of the papers not the journal but it is impossible to avoid the fact that journal impact is what matters so scientists want to publish in Nature, Science and Cell.

  There are many advantages to open access publishing but there is a potential disadvantage for the scientific community in that many learned societies rely totally on income from publishing (see Science Vol 303, p1 467, 2004).

  Of more concern is the standard of review and editorial decisions for some high impact findings. Referees are now inundated (I receive at least 4-6 requests a week) and staff simply don't have enough time. But more serious are the "sensationalist" papers with potentially major public impact. Such papers on GM potatoes and MMR/autism had a massive effect of the public and need very rigorous peer review and careful editorial decisions. There is another recent example of this in 8MJ last week, a paper suggesting that animal experiments are flawed and should be stopped. The claims are not substantiated by the paper and are, at best, highly questionable. The paper received widespread press coverage and of course has been seized by animal rights groups. Another example was the paper on ecstacy published in Science claiming that a single (human equivalent) dose causes brain damage in primates (later retracted). It is surprising that the reviewers did not recognise that there was something suspicious here since we are not inundated with brain damaged teenagers. Scientists complain about the press printing misleading stories but sometimes it is the scientific and medical literature, apparently peer reviewed by our colleagues, which causes more damage.

  It is unlikely that open access and e-publishing will necessarily lead to more or less cases of fraud, this will depend on the quality of the peer review and editorial process, and it will always be impossible to detect some cases until attempts are made to replicate.

March 2004

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