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
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.