Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)

  1.  The primary role of HEFCE is to distribute funds provided by the Secretary of State (DfES) to institutions of higher education (HEIs) in England to support their activities in teaching and research. The Council has allocated some £6 billion for 2004-05, mostly in the form of a block grant calculated using a standardised formulaic approach. The Council allocates a limited amount of special funding for more precisely stated purposes in cases where this is judged to be in the interest of the HE sector nationally—for example, to support the development of a dedicated national IT infrastructure for HE .

  2.  HEIs for their part are autonomous bodies drawing their funding from a range of public and private sources including HEFCE. They are accountable to HEFCE for their good management of public funds but are not generally subject to detailed requirements as to how these are spent.

  3.  Within this context the Council has a general interest in the quality and adequacy of information resources to support teaching and research as a contributory factor supporting the overall quality of provision. Over the last decade it has allocated special funding to support specific initiatives to improve library provision—until recently through the Research Support Libraries Programme (RSLP), with a strong focus on increasing collaboration between HE libraries, and currently through our support for the UK Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) and through a small programme of grants to support HEIs housing major research libraries heavily used by visiting researchers.

  4.  HEFCE is aware of concern within the sector about the rate of increase in the cost of scientific periodicals. We have in recent years supported initiatives to help HEIs to acquire academic journals online at the best possible price through bulk purchase deals—JISC is currently leading on this. However, overall spending within the sector on periodicals is a very small proportion of total expenditure and we do not see this at present as a case where further direct intervention would be justified.

  5.  Looking forward, the Council remains committed to two principles:

    —  That UK learners and researchers and should have access to a full range of world class information resources at reasonable cost; and

    —  That the output of publicly funded research undertaken within the UK should be made available promptly to the widest possible user group including other researchers, business users and the general public.

  6.  We note the rapid increase in recent years in the proportion of academic journals that are available in electronic form, as well as the emergence of important new IT based approaches to the dissemination of research outputs. We firmly expect that over the next decade the internet will become the primary channel for academic discourse including both the formal publication of considered outputs and the sharing of ideas and information in new and less formal ways. We also anticipate that the peer reviewed academic journal (even if no longer published in print form) will retain its central role in disseminating research findings and in the certification and preservation of peer-endorsed knowledge. Being seen to publish in the right places is central to peer esteem and career development with the research community and this will not change quickly.

  7.  We are aware of concern about the possible impact of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) on publishing behaviour. The purpose of the RAE is to assess the quality of research carried out in UK HEIs. Individual researchers deciding where to publish their work will take into account a number of factors including the possible benefit to their own reputation and to the advancement of their career of being seen to publish in leading media of high quality as well as their desire to see their findings widely disseminated. The nature of these media varies between disciplines, but in many disciplines there is a well-established consensus as to where the best work is most often published, and in a robust peer review process it is reasonable for the assessment panels to take this into account. At the same time the panels are encouraged to keep an open mind as to the possibility that work of the highest quality may in some cases be published in new or unusual media.

  8.  We have no firm view on the role of commercial publishers within the new information landscape, but we note that they control many of the leading international journal titles—the majority of which are controlled from outside the UK—and they remain well placed to continue to provide services in disseminating and preserving research outcomes that the global research community needs. They will of course need to demonstrate that the services that they provide fully meet the particular needs of researchers and are good value for money. At the same time a significant number of high prestige journals are currently published by UK based learned societies and subject associations which fund valuable services to the community from the income that these generate. The likelihood of structural change in the publishing business is thus uncertain and this would not be straightforward in practice.

  9.  In keeping with our commitment to the free dissemination of the findings of publicly funded research, the Council would be glad to see more research outputs—including formal publications, work in progress and research data—made promptly and freely available online for the benefit of the research community and others. "Open access" publication of journal articles and other material is an important element in this. We note the encouraging progress that has been made in posting preprints and peer-reviewed published material on personal and HEI websites. We shall be considering whether further action may be required by the Council to support this within the general context set out above. In the mean time we shall continue to support developments in this field through JISC, and possibly also through action following the report of the Research Support Libraries Group which we are currently discussing with a number of UK partner bodies.

March 2004

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