Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


APPENDIX 15

Memorandum from City University, Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research

BACKGROUND

  City University has, for the last three years, maintained and developed on behalf of the Wellcome Trust the UK Research Outputs Database (ROD) of biomedical research papers. This now covers 14 years, from 1988-2001, and over half a million papers nearly all of which have been looked up in libraries so that their funding acknowledgements can be recorded. [The purpose of this exercise was to create lists of papers acknowledging the support of the Wellcome Trust, and of other UK funders of biomedical research such as the Medical Research Council and medical charities.] This has enabled us to learn a great deal about how UK biomedical research is funded. We have also been able to determine the characteristics of such funding and its influence on the reception accorded the resulting papers when they are submitted to different journals. This is likely to be important in any discussion of the possible change from a system in which scientific journals are paid for primarily by subscribers (both libraries and individuals) to one in which the costs are met by means of "page charges" levied on some or all authors. The latter system might allow the full text of papers in the journals to be made available gratis over the web, so benefiting researchers, particularly ones in low-income countries.

FUNDING ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

  Surveys of researchers have shown that most are aware of the need to reflect their funding sources accurately in their acknowledgements. This is not only courteous but is, increasingly, mandatory for papers in many biomedical journals because of the need to declare any possible conflicts of interest. In 1995, we found that almost 90% of funding acknowledgements were actually recorded and the percentage has probably risen since then. Nevertheless, about 35% of the papers recorded in the ROD have no financial acknowledgements, either explicit or implicit from their corporate addresses. [Papers published by pharmaceutical companies, or from research council laboratories, would not usually bear an explicit acknowledgement of support from the company or research council.] Such papers are sometimes described as "self-funded"; in practice they would normally stem from NHS hospitals or from academic staff in universities working in their own time. It is likely that, in the absence of research support from a sponsor, it would have been difficult for the authors of such papers to publish them, had they been required to pay page charges; this could affect about one third of all UK biomedical papers.

  What are the characteristics of these papers? First, they are primarily concerned with subject areas of direct relevance to the treatment of patients, such as surgery (74% of papers in this subject from 1989-2000 had no funding acknowledgements), otorhinolaryngology (66%) and dentistry (64%). Second, within a given subject area such as cancer research, the unfunded papers come more from hospitals (41% of NHS papers in 1988-98 have no acknowledgements) than from universities (28%). Third, the absence of funding acknowledgements occurs much more on papers in journals reporting clinical work than in journals reporting basic research. Figure 1 shows the percentages of unfunded papers for journals categorized by their research level, on a four-point scale devised by CHI Research Inc.


Figure 1

Propensity of UK cancer research papers, 1988-98, in the ROD to carry funding acknowledgments by research level of the journal in which they are published.

  Similar results have been observed in many other biomedical subject areas. It therefore seems likely that a move to a page-charge environment would bear disproportionately heavily on clinical research.

COST OF RESEARCH PAPERS

  If page charges are to be levied on authors, they may amount to a small or large percentage of the costs of the research, depending upon the length of the paper and the "cost" of its preparation. The latter is almost impossible to determine in individual cases, but an average can be found if leading researchers are asked about their budgets and these are compared with the numbers of papers they have written, with account taken of the fractional contributions of collaborating laboratories. We have carried out such an exercise [for the Global Forum for Health Research in Geneva] in eight biomedical research areas based on particular diseases: cardiovascular, dengue, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, lower respiratory tract infections, malaria, mental health disorders and tuberculosis. Internationally, the cost per paper varied from £83,000 in diabetes (based on 2001-02 US dollars, converted to pounds at $1.81 = £1) to £234,000 in tuberculosis, where the high cost of clinical trials on new drugs needed to combat drug-resistant strains was apparent. There was some evidence that the costs per paper were higher in high-income countries such as the USA and Switzerland than in the UK. They would, of course, have been much lower in low-income countries but there were few respondents to our surveys in these countries.

  A further issue concerns the attribution of page charges to individual research sponsors. UK biomedical papers with only one acknowledged source of funding represented 54% of the total of "funded"" papers in 1988-89 but only 41% in 1999-2000, when more than 8% of these "funded"" papers acknowledged five or more sponsors. Many of them were from overseas and may or may not be willing to bear their share of the additional research costs, even if it can be fairly apportioned. Within the UK, it is the policy of some medical research charities to give small grants in the hope that their grantees will go on to attract more substantial funding from bodies such as the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust, once they have demonstrated some success. The result is that they are often able to obtain "gearing" for their money, and be associated with many research publications to whose cost they have contributed only modestly. One of the consequences of a move to a page-charge environment is that less well-funded participants in a research project may find it harder to be accepted as joint authors of a research paper.

January 2004



 
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