Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Mr David A Rew


  I have been editor of the EJSO since January 2003, having previously been deputy and associate editor over six years under a number of publishers. The EJSO is presently jointly owned by the British and European Societies of Surgical Oncology, and by Elsevier. It is published by Elsevier Science.

  The EJSO is a speciality journal of 10 issues per annum with a print circulation of some 2,000 copies, and a rapidly growing worldwide profile by proactive adoption of internet distribution systems, previously IdealFirst, and now using the ScienceDirect system of Elsevier.

  Our electronic survey data indicates that we receive several thousand internet "inspections" of articles, contents and abstracts each month, translating into an annual growth rate in manuscript submissions of 25% from specialists across the world, and a small but significant success story for "UK Science plc".

  As editor, I aim to promote the highest standards of scientific enquiry and reporting of clinical activity, and the highest standards of concise, elegant presentation of written scientific English to our influential worldwide professional audience.

  I am an NHS employee, paid an additional annual stipend by Elsevier in recognition of the substantial voluntary work which I put into the editing process. I am otherwise independent of Elsevier and am afforded complete editorial and intellectual independence, subject to our common goal of producing a high quality ethical journal in a highly competitive specialist market.


  I start from the general viewpoint that well intentioned legislative intervention in this highly complex and competitive area is likely to realise once again the Law of Unintended Consequences, at a time of rapid evolution of publishing models. Profitability is the driver in many areas of human endeavour, and scientific publishing would appear to be no exception. It provides the measure of success of the idea and of the acceptance and utility to the consumer.

  In the current context, profitability is the driver to massive innovation in electronic publishing, distribution and archiving. Without it, much of what is presently happening would not have occurred and much of the justification for the enquires of this Committee would not have arisen. The fierce international competition between Journals and publishing houses, and between technologies, seems certain to ensure that any perceived monopoly profit or practices arising as the reward for innovation will be short lived.


  There has been much speculation that electronic and internet publications will supercede printed journals. There are some areas of science, for example high energy physics and astrophysics, where this may well be the case, and all publishers and editors keep the matter under review. For the present, both models are complementary.

  This is an area of rapid change, which is driven by:

    (a)  Dramatic evolution of electronic technology, including:

    —  The internet

    —  Computer Portability

    —  New access technologies, eg mobile telephony

    (b)  Consumer acceptance of the technology.

  In many cases, individual professional readers are suspicious of new technology and hesitant to adopt the new technologies however much utility they may appear to offer. However, this changes with time and is not predictable. For example, we have seen a dramatic increase in the use of email in the past year among surgeons.

  The markets are unable to predict the rate and extent of adoption and utility of these technologies or the eventual mix of paper and electronic issue, and any interference in the market experimentation with a wide range of different publication, distribution and revenue models would seem likely to delay or distort the establishment of durable systems. These would in any case seem likely to vary from publisher to publisher and from journal to journal, according to variables which would include the size and nature of the target audience.


  All publishers recognize the value of electronic systems, in that:

    —  they hugely expedite the processes of collation, preparation and distribution of material;

    —  they reduce the cost of distribution of published digital material to marginal levels;

    —  they can make available the material in a wide range of digital formats, and facilitate its further processing by scientists and consumers; and

    —  they allow new ways of accessing historic data. For example, Elsevier is making a huge investment in the backward electronic cataloguing of all its historic journals over a century or more. This will give immediate transparency to scientific knowledge which is otherwise rapidly lost from view.

  There are clearly substantial technical and labour costs to this form of value added activity. This must be driven by profitability, and which would otherwise be far beyond the resources of individual journals.


  There is a general consensus that printed copy continues to have a utility which far outweighs the print and distribution costs, for a number of reasons:

  Paper is portable. Many people do not wish to spend their lives at a computer screen, and prefer the convenience and flexibility which portability provides.

  The printed page holds much more information and is much kinder on the eye than the computer screen. People are trained and adapted from their early years to absorb information from the printed page.

  The challenges of putting together a printed issue impose the disciplines of quality and technical excellence on the production process. This in turn conveys quality and the reliability of the journal title, the brand name, to the reader.

  The durability of paper. Paper has stood the test of time as a medium for the transmission, storage, referencing and archiving of information. We have no way of knowing whether any of today's electronic storage media will stand this test. Indeed, electronic media are subject to significant decay with time, while there is no assurance that systems will be available to read current storage methods in 50 or 500 years time. Consider, for example, the fate of the 5.25 inch floppy disc, or the chemical decay of CDs and DVDs with time.


  The quality and reliability of published scientific data is to a large extent dependant upon the peer review process. The organisation, distribution and collation of reviews is intensive of labour and time, with associated administrative and staffing costs.


  Without the power and profitability of a large publishing house such as Elsevier, my own journal would be unable to survive, and a significant opportunity for UK clinicians to influence European and worldwide clinical practice would be lost.

  A large publishing house brings to the EJSO:

    —  Economies of scale in administration. For example, we have access to a modern headquarters office for administration, conferencing and electronic systems.

    —  The cost effective sharing of staff and data sets with other in house journals.

    —  The cost effective worldwide electronic distribution of the journal through individual enquires to our web site, though packaged sales to institutions, universities and other organizations at marginal cost, and through scientific cross referencing systems.

    —  The opportunity for our entire back catalogue to be archived and searched electronically.

    —  The reputation, ethos, management skills, promotional and marketing reach of a large international publisher.

    —  The opportunity to grow a small speciality journal into one of worldwide reputation. For example, we have a long term plan to compete directly with the major US journals, which would not be possible with a small publisher.


  The electronic dissemination of information allows for the much more rapid distribution of information to users in economically underdeveloped states at marginal cost.

  The UK has a strong tradition of supporting the growth of English overseas through the British Council and other aid initiatives.

  English is now established as the worldwide medium of communication, a situation which can only advance understanding and cooperation between peoples and nations with time.

  If there is to be any state intervention in the current publishing revolution, then financial support for access to speciality journals in developing countries, such as at terminals in British Council offices, might produce some worthy initiatives which would help advance the educational and overseas policies of HMG, while not distorting market competition and innovation.


  In response to the specific issues raised by the Committee, from my perspective as an ambitious British specialist journal editor, in those areas where I have knowledge or competence to respond, I conclude that:

  Technology and investment by the publishers has brought huge utility to institutions in the access to hitherto inaccessible scientific data. The price of this access must be met by somebody, which is currently the institutions served. Profits are the reward for this innovation. Interference in this evolving process by bureaucratic fiat or political puritanism seems likely to delay and disrupt further innovation and a revolution which still has some way to run. No one has a monopoly of wisdom as to how the balance between electronic and paper publishing will finally look. The two processes are in any case complementary.

  There already appears to be a highly competitive market between the big publishers. Government bodies should keep matters under observation, but otherwise follow the advice of King Canute and let the forces of nature and natural selection continue their work.

  The Government should not interfere or artificially distort the free market for ideas and attention in which scientific journals compete. If electronic open access journals prove durable and trustworthy to the scientific community, as seems far from certain at present, then they will thrive at the cost of established titles, on the basis of intellectual market processes. Most rational observers and readers will continue to hedge their bets for some years to come. The balance of demand will change with time and technology.

  The role of Legal Deposit Libraries: I have no relevant experience with which to answer this question.

  Scientific fraud will always occur. The editorial and peer review processes, and the brand reputations of individual journals will help keep it to an acceptable minimum. Distrust will be a particular problem for electronic journals, as for Internet publishing in general. This will only be resolved with time and experience.

January 2004

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