Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Dr Christopher Walker

  1.  As a semi-retired scientist who has struggled for the past seven years to keep up to date with literature, I request that you consider my opinions during your enquiry into Scientific Publications.

  2.  Since September 2003,1 have been fortunate to be appointed an honorary research associate with the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh—I thought this would solve my problems of access to electronic journals and literature summaries and citations, but I discovered, much to my amazement, that because of rather bewildering attitude of the BBSRC, Britain's botanic gardens are not considered `academic institutes', and therefore have to pay full price for electronic journal content, even for staff members. The response to criticism of this from the House of Lords' Select Committee on Science and Technology: What on Earth? The threat to the Science Underpinning Conservation (2001-02 Session) was woefully inadequate, and it is hard to see how this can be seen to benefit UK botanical science, which is already extremely short of funding (see The Linnean, 2003 Volume 19, p 4).

  3.  For somebody like me (and there are many) who have for one reason or another taken early retirement, but who wish to continue making a contribution to science, access to literature on the internet is of vital importance. I cannot afford to pay subscriptions to the many journals I require to keep up to date with my science. I consider that articles from scientific journals should be free through the world wide web, just as access to the journals themselves are in university libraries, etc. I cannot afford the cost of subscribing to a current contents or abstracting system, so I don't get electronic access even to titles or abstracts of current literature. I have to resort to the old and tried, but much slower and more difficult abstracting journals in the public libraries, or to dependency on colleagues and co-operators overseas to help me keep reasonably up to date.

  4.  As an example of one difficulty with copyright, the following example may interest you. With a colleague in Germany, I am involved in making up a freely available web site, listing all the original species descriptions of a group of fungi with which we work. We wish to make electronic copies of all the relevant literature available freely on the site, linked with each species name. This is proving difficult, because some copyright owners require payment for permission to make such "electronic reprints" available. These articles generally have been long out of print, and the norm in scientific research would be to make a photocopy for personal use. Consequently, if the articles are not made readily available on the internet, they will be copied anyway, at considerably more (usually public) expense and unnecessary use of natural resources. The journal publishers have already made their profits by the time scientific papers are published (from library sales). It would be sensible and unlikely to reduce their profits levels if copyright were automatically waived at some time (say three months) after publication, and electronic copies were made available directly to the public free of charge.

  5.  I wish to make it clear that this is my own opinion, and does not represent, or purport to represent through my honorary associateship, any view of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh or member of its staff.

  6.  In summary, access to electronic versions of scientific papers is too expensive and too difficult. Most of the reported research is publicly funded, and the public should have easy and ready availability to the published results.

March 2004

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