Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Stevan Harnad, University of Southampton

  The UK should maximise the benefits to the British tax-payer from the research it funds by strongly encouraging not only (as it does now) that all findings should be published, but also that open access to them should be provided, for all potential users, through either of the two available means: (1) publishing them in open-access journals (whenever suitable ones exists) (5%) and (2) publishing the rest (95%) in toll-access journals whilst also self-archiving them publicly on their own university's website.

  Scientists do research to create new findings—to be applied to improving people's lives and to be used by other scientists to create still more new findings. If would-be users of those findings cannot access them, then they cannot be applied or used. Inaccessible research may as well not have been conducted at all.

  UK research is funded by the British tax-payer. The researcher is paid to conduct the research and to publish the findings in peer-reviewed journals, but whether would-be users can access those findings depends on whether or not their universities can afford to pay the tolls (subscription, site-license) for access to the journals in which they are published.

  No university can afford access to anywhere near all research journals (there are 24,000 in all, publishing 2,500,000 articles per year), and most universities can only afford access to a small and shrinking fraction of them.

  A partial solution is to create "open-access" journals that cover their costs by charging the author-institution per article (to peer-review and publish it), instead of charging the user-institutions for access to it. But fewer than 1,000 open-access journals exist so far, publishing only about 100,000 (5%) of the 2,500,000 articles published yearly.

  The solution for the rest of those articles (95%) is for the authors' own institutions to provide open access to them for all the would-be users whose universities cannot afford the access-tolls of the journals in which they are published—by "self-archiving" them on their own university websites.

  The effect will be to maximise the visibility, impact and usage of UK research and its benefits to the British tax-payer who funds it.

  This is followed by the longer (optional) annex at:


  (1) Open access (worldwide) to UK research output maximises the impact (ie, visibility, usage, application, citation) of UK research output, enhancing the productivity and progress of UK (and worldwide) research, thereby maximising the return on the UK tax-payer's support for research.

  (2)  It is essential to understand that the unified open-access provision strategy supported by the Budapest Open Access Initiative, the Berlin Declaration, and other such current movements involves two complementary strategies OAJ and OAA:


(OAJ) Researchers publish their research in an open-access journal if a suitable one exists, otherwise

(OAA) they publish it in a suitable toll-access journal and also self-archive it in their own research institution's open-access research archive.

  (3)  It would be a great mistake (and the press release already suggests some risk of making it) if open-access provision were to be mistakenly identified only, or even primarily, with OAJ (open access journal publishing). There are still far too few open-access journals, whereas OAA self-archiving has the power to provide immediate open access for all the rest of UK research output.

  (4)  What parliament should mandate is accordingly open-access provision for all funded research:

  The Science and Technology Committee's Inquiry into Scientific Publications—committees/science-and-technology-committee/scitech111203a.cfm

  The House of Commons Press Notice says:

    "The Committee will be looking at access to journals within the scientific community, with particular reference to price and availability. It will be asking what measures are being taken in government, the publishing industry and academic institutions to ensure that researchers, teachers and students have access to the publications they need in order to carry out their work effectively. . . 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?"

  There are today 24,000 research journals (across all disciplines and languages, worldwide) publishing about 2,500,000 articles per year. There are currently about 600 open-access journals publishing about 75,000 articles per year.

  What about access to the 2,425,000 articles for which there exists no suitable open-access journal today? Should researchers wait for 23,400 more open-access journals to be created one by one? It's likely to be a long, long wait!

  Yet there is another way to provide open access, immediately, and that is for the authors of those 2,425,000 articles in those 23,400 journals to self-archive them on their own institution's website. That will make them all open-access overnight. There are already three times as many articles that are made open-access yearly through OAA self-archiving than through OAJ open-access publishing today. And 55% of the 24,000 journals, though not yet ready to take the risk of becoming open-access journals, are ready to serve the interests of research and researchers by formally supporting self-archiving by their authors; many of the remaining 45% of journals will also agree if asked: Publisher Policies.

  So why is the Science and Technology Committee inquiry into scientific publications considering only open access journals (OAJ), rather than also considering, at least as seriously, mandating university-based provision of open access to their own (peer-reviewed, published) research output (OAA)?

  The (UK portion of) at least 1,250,000 articles could be made open-access overnight. The longer we wait, the longer and bigger will be our growing daily, weekly, monthly and yearly loss of research impact because of access-denial to would-be users worldwide. (336% impact loss, according to Lawrence in Nature 2001): This represents a needless cumulative loss of research progress and productivity for researchers, their institutions, their funders, and ultimately for the tax-payers who fund the funders.

    Harnad, S. (2003) Measuring and Maximising UK Research Impact. Times Higher Education Supplement. Friday, June 6 2003.

    Lawrence, S. (2001) Online or Invisible? Nature 411 (6837): 521.

Detailed Comments and Recommendations

    "The Committee will be looking at access to journals within the scientific community, with particular reference to price and availability."

  A more targeted way to put this would be "access to the articles published in peer-reviewed journals". The articles (2,500,000 annually) are research output. Researchers publish them in peer-reviewed journals (24,000 in all, across all scientific and scholarly disciplines, worldwide) in order to make them accessible to all other researchers (worldwide) to be read, applied, used, built-upon, cited: This is called "research impact" and it is what is behind research productivity and progress (as well as the career advancement and future research funding of the researcher, the prestige and research funding of the researcher's institution, and the benefits to the UK tax-payer for the money spent funding the research).

    "It will be asking what measures are being taken in government, the publishing industry and academic institutions."

  It is extremely important to separate the sectors over which the UK government has some direct control—government itself, and academic institutions—from the ones over which it can only have some indirect influence: the publishing industry.

  The UK government can do a great deal to maximise the access to and the impact of UK research output through government research funding policies and through HEFCE influence over academic institutional policy through research assessment and funding, in particular, by extending existing publish-or-perish policy to mandate open-access provision.

    Harnad, S., Carr, L., Brody, T. & Oppenheim, C. (2003) Mandated online RAE CVs Linked to University Eprint Archives: Improving the UK Research Assessment Exercise whilst making it cheaper and easier. Ariadne 35.

  But government can only influence publishers indirectly. The greatest indirect influence will be the effect of the above open-access provision policy itself, if it is mandated. This will encourage journals (first) to support author self-archiving Publisher Policies.htm and—perhaps—eventually also to become open-access publishers:

  Secondarily—but note that the amount of open access to UK research this will help provide is far less than the amount that will be provided by the above open-access provision policy—the Government can also provide (as part of research support) some support for covering the costs of publishing in open access journals, to further encourage publishing in open access journals, to help sustain the small number of open access journals that exist today (600, vs. 23,400 toll access journals), and to encourage the creation of new open access journals and the conversion of toll-access journals to open access.

  But note that the greatest impetus to this (possible eventual) transition from toll-access publishing to open-access publishing will come from mandating open-access provision itself (by the joint OAJ/OAA route), for this will generate open access directly—and perhaps eventually also the university journal subscription cancellations from which the annual university windfall savings will be the natural source out of which to pay the open-access journal publication (peer-review) costs for each university's own research output:

    "to ensure that researchers, teachers and students have access to the publications they need in order to carry out their work effectively."

  The Government can of course act for all of these good reasons. But remember that most of peer-reviewed journal research is written by researchers for researchers, to be used, applied and built upon in further research, to further research progress. Otherwise it is hardly read by anyone (including teachers and students).

  So the Government's open-access provision policy has to be very clear both on why open access to this special literature is so important and necessary (for the sake of research productivity and progress) and how it can make this importance and necessity known to researchers, so that they will want to support the mandating of open-access provision: Researchers will support it for the sake of enhancing research impact. That they will understand and approve fully. But they will not be much persuaded (and perhaps even resistant) if they are told that open-access provision is mandated in order (1) to encourage publishers to convert from toll-access to open-access publishing, (2) to save money for libraries, (3) to provide access to research for teachers, students and the general public, or even (4) to provide access to research for the developing world.

  (1)—(4) may all be valid reasons for the Government to support open-access provision, but for the researcher the only persuasive reason is: to maximise the impact of his own peer-reviewed research output (thereby maximising its contribution and benefits to science and scholarship, as well as the resulting rewards to the researcher and his institution).

    "The inquiry will also examine the impact that the current trend towards e-publishing may have on the integrity of journals and the scientific process."

  There is no "current trend toward e-publishing"! Virtually all of the 24,000 peer-reviewed journals are already hybrid print/electronic: They publish both an on-paper and an online version, both still accessible only through institutional tolls. There are a few online-only journals, but these are not necessarily open-access journals (of which there are about 600). So do not confuse hybrid-online or online-only journals with open-access journals.

  All journals have benefited from the new economies and efficiencies of the online medium for processing submissions, implementing peer review, and producing and distributing both the paper and online edition. But those economies and efficiencies themselves have not inclined most journals to convert to open access. (Only 600 out of 24,000 have done so to date.)

  So the electronic medium itself has increased access for those institutions that could afford the tolls, because licensed online institutional toll-access provides more and better access than paper subscriptions do. But migrating journal contents to the electronic medium certainly has not generated open access—far from it. It is still a fact for every one of the 2,500,000 peer-reviewed journal articles published annually that most of its would-be users cannot access it, because their institutions cannot afford the access-tolls. This means that an estimated 336% of potential research impact is being lost, and continues to be lost daily:¥harnad/Temp/self-archiving-files/Slide0006.gif

Lawrence, S. (2001a) Online or Invisible? Nature 411 (6837): 521.

Lawrence, S. (2001b) Free online availability substantially increases a paper's impact. Nature Web Debates.

Kurtz, M.J. et al. (2003) The NASA Astrophysics Data System: Sociology, Bibliometrics, and Impact. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology

  This has nothing to do with the "integrity of journals and the scientific process." Research journals are journals, whether paper or online, whether toll-access or open-access. And the journal's contribution to the scientific process—the administration of peer-review (the peers review for free)—is unchanged, whether peer review is administered on paper or online, and whether its administration costs are recovered on a toll-access publishing-cost-recovery model or an open-access publishing-cost-recovery model. The only thing that has been changed (and changed radically) by the advent of the online medium is the possibility, at last, of providing open access to this special literature that its authors have always given away for free (even to the point of making and mailing hard-copy "reprints" at their own expense for any would-be users who asked for them) in order to maximise their research impact.

  Harnad, S. (1998/2000) The invisible hand of peer review. Nature [online] (5 Nov. 1998) and Exploit Interactive 5 (2000):

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

  Separate the serials budget problem of university libraries from the research impact problem of university researchers. They are related and connected, but not in an obvious way, and they are certainly not the same problem.

  Libraries must make do—and provide access for their researchers to whatever they can afford—from year to year. For them, online licensing has been a boon: it has meant more journal titles and articles accessible to more of their institutional researchers per pound or dollar paid in access-tolls.

  But prices keep going up too. So there is also a shrinkage in the number of journals that libraries can afford. The "big package deals" offer libraries the bonus of getting both the paper and the online version of all journals (from the same publisher) that they have subscribed to previously, plus all journals (by the same publisher) to which they did not subscribe previously—for the price of only the journals they subscribed to previously.

  This "big deal" too provides some increased access, but the prices still keep going up. So the net outcome is the same: An overextended journals acquisition budget (at the cost of an underfunded book acquisitions budget) and affordable access to only a tiny fraction of the annual 2,500,000 articles in the 24,000 journals.

  This means university libraries remain cash-strapped, and their users remain access-deprived (not relative to what they used to have, in paper days, but relative to all there is: the 2,500,000 annual articles in the 24,000 peer-reviewed research journals). This is the serials budget problem, and it is purely on the input/buy-in side.

  But there is also the research impact problem, which is on the output side: University researchers are impact-deprived—because of the access problems of other universities: those universities cannot afford access to my university's research output, so I lose research impact.

  The two problems are connected, but in a subtle way. The key to understanding the two problems is to understand the reciprocity involved. Libraries tend to misunderstand and mis-state this as: "Our university does the research, gives it away to publishers for free, and then has to buy it back!"

  This is completely incorrect. What the university is buying in (not back) is the research output of other universities, not their own research output. (They already have their own research output!) And what is being lost is research impact: the consequences of access-denial to my give-away research because other universities cannot afford the tolls to access the journal in which it appeared (hence cannot read/use/cite it).

  The picture seems complicated, but the solution—in the first instance, to the lost research-impact problem, but eventually perhaps also to the serials budget problem—is to capitalise on the new online medium as well as the peculiar reciprocity-relation that exists among the respective author give-aways, by mandating that universities extend their existing publish-or-perish policies to include open-access provision for those publications: It is not enough to publish, and hence let the affordability of access-tolls determine who can and cannot use your research output. Publication must be supplemented with open-access provision (by implementing the Unified Open Access Provision Policy ).

  The result, in the short run, will be open access to all UK research output worldwide, thereby maximising its research impact.

In the longer run this might also lead to a transition from toll-access to open-access journal publishing, thereby solving the libraries' serials budget problem.

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

  Trying to increase between-journal competition in order to lower prices is only a library serials-budget strategy. This has been going on for years now (led by SPARC and SPARC-Europe, a consortium of university libraries trying to use their collective power to drive down journal prices). Its success has so far been minimal, and its effect on researchers' access and impact has been negligible.

  The reason this strategy does not work is because of inelastic demand for peer-reviewed research. The 24,000 journals have a priority hierarchy in this inelastic demand: All researchers need access to it all, but no university can afford access to more than a fraction. So it is just a matter of trying to buy in as much as each can, top-down.

  The journals know (and feel, from the market's responses to price increases) that the demand is inelastic: that the university libraries have no choice. Moreover, because of the peculiar reward-structure of this anomalous form of publishing—in which, unlike book authors, peer-reviewed journal article authors give away their articles, seeking no royalties or payment, but only research impact—the only relevant competition among journals is for articles (ie, to get the best articles); there is little competition between journals for subscriptions.

  And competing for the highest-quality authors and articles depends, paradoxically, on rejecting articles, in order to maintain the highest standards of peer review. For it is the highest-quality articles that generate the highest research impact (usage, citation).

  So the top-down variable in the journal hierarchy is quality and impact. This, not price, is the main determinant of which journals will and will not be subscribed to by the libraries. It is for impact that journals compete. But peer-review quality standards and rejection rates have absolutely no connection with any competitivity one might generate between journal subscription prices!

  So the path of trying to spark competition between journals in order to lower access tolls is one that has afforded and promises limited success. SPARC has subsidised and offered consortial subscription support to lower-priced journals. It is now doing the same for open-access journals. But the scope for any substantial change here is very limited, and it concerns mainly the libraries' year-to-year serials budget problems; it has little impact on the access problem, hence the research impact problem. (600 open access journals out of 24,000 journals represents a very small portion of actual and potential impact space).

  The way to solve the research impact problem is to implement the Unified Open Access Provision Policy .

    "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?"

  It is not the (very slowly) increasing number of open-access journals (OAJ) that is relevant to the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), nor even the (almost as slowly) increasing number of articles made open-access by self-archiving (OAA). What is relevant to the RAE, and what the Government should support, is increasing the amount of open-access provision—via both OAJ and OAA—by mandating it.

    "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?"

  This is irrelevant. Legal Deposit Libraries store copies of record, for archival and preservation purposes. They are not open-access providers. What should be mandated is that all universities make their own published research articles openly accessible by publishing them in an open-access journal—or in a toll-access journal and depositing them in their own university open-access archives:

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

  It is not clear why research access and impact problems are being considered in the same breath with problems of fraud and malpractice. There was some fraud and malpractice in paper journals. There is some fraud and malpractice in online journals. The cost-recovery model (whether toll-access or open-access) is also irrelevant. It is true that it is easier to plagiarise or to otherwise misuse an online text than a paper one, but it is also true that plagiarism and misuse are more easily detectable online. So these balance out.

  Apart from that, questions about scientific fraud and malpractice (and questions about modifying the peer review system in any way) have nothing to do with the question of open online access.

    "In announcing the inquiry, the Chairman of the Committee, Ian Gibson MP, said Journals are at the heart of the scientific process. Researchers, teachers and students must have easy access to scientific publications at a fair price."

  As noted, the access problem for this specialised literature is not primarily a problem of teachers and students, but of researchers, for the sake of research productivity, progress and impact. Nor is it about ease of access: It is about having access at all (as opposed to access-denial). Nor is it merely or even primarily about having access at "a fair price." This is an author give-away literature, written purely for the sake of research impact. Access-denial at any price is already needless impact-denial. Even if all 24,000 peer-reviewed journals were sold at cost (and cost was minimised using all the economies and efficiencies of the new electronic medium) it would still be true of all 2,500,000 annual articles that they are inaccessible to most of their would-be users, because their institutions still cannot afford access to them all, and hence that all that potential research impact is still being needlessly lost.

  The only remedy is to supplement toll-access (whatever its going price) with open-access provision by the authors, institutions and funders that provide this give-away research in the first place.

    "Scientific journals need to maintain their credibility and integrity as they move into the age of e-publication. The Committee will have some very tough questions for publishers, libraries and government on these issues."

  There is no new credibility/integrity problem for the 2,500,000 articles appearing annually in the world's 24,000 peer-reviewed journals. There is an access problem for their would-be users—those whose institutions cannot afford the access-tolls—and an impact problem for (all) of their authors.

  The tough questions should not be directed primarily at publishers and libraries but at the research community itself: researchers, their institutions, and their governmental research funders. And the question is: Why are the potential benefits of this research not being maximised by maximising the access to it (through open-access provision)? It is the research community that it is in the position to solve this problem—especially if government mandates it.

February 2004

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 20 July 2004