Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Robert W Cahn

  I am a semi-retired academic, aged 79, and have been steadily engaged in scientific editing for 45 years (aside from the normal teaching, research and writing), and still today edit a series of scientific books and a technical encyclopaedia. I have played a major part in launching and maintaining four scientific periodicals, as well as many books and three encyclopaedias, and have also been involved as an adviser for numerous other periodicals . . . all this for six different publishers (in the UK, USA, Holland and Germany). I can therefore claim a measure of expertise in STM publishing.

  I have been informed about five specific points that interest the Committee, and I divide my comments accordingly, within the limits of my expertise. My main remarks refer to the first two items:


  1.1  This is an area that now intensely worries many scientists and librarians; in my view, it is the most important of the areas the Select Committee is proposing to investigate. Most scientific publishers, including the big ones among them, have high standards of typesetting, proof-correcting, printing and binding of journals. The problems do not lie in these technical areas.

  1.2  It is well established, and uncontested, that the subscription prices for scientific periodicals, both in print and online, have been increasing for over a decade at a much faster rate than general inflation (as measured for US and UK currencies). I don't think it is necessary to labour the evidence for this assertion. So far as my limited personal experience goes, this price explosion is considerably greater for journals published by the big international commercial publishers than it is for journals published by professional societies.

  1.3  What is contested is the justifiability of this price explosion. Publishers sometimes underline the costs of setting up elaborate internet procedures, including the creation and archiving of papers, as a reason for this price explosion. In my view, this argument might carry conviction for a few years' worth of price explosion, but not many years!

  1.4  The central problem arises from the preference of many researchers (especially younger people) for online reading and even browsing of journals. This puts great pressure on libraries, which have to subscribe to online journals. Here we come to the most serious problem of all . . . the "big deal schemes": almost all libraries are being forced (the word is not too strong) to subscribe for a huge basket of many hundreds of journals published by one and the same publisher; they cannot pick and choose. Ultimate users then exert heavy pressure for their preferred journals (a minute subset of the basket) to be available online. Librarians who have challenged this requirement are faced by a pitiless insistence on the part of the big publishers. (In the USA recently, a big federal university has succeeded, after months of confrontation, in subduing the will of one major publisher and has been able to pick and choose to some measure, at a reduced price—a price which however they are not allowed to make public!).


  2.1  The big publishers are prepared to negotiate with the general run of librarians on everything EXCEPT the large profit margins on journal publishing, and big-deal schemes are getting to be the norm. The pricing of journals is clearly determined at the very top of a publisher's organisation; as an editor, I have never had the slightest influence on pricing of the journals for which I laboured, though I have tried. In my view, the only way of breaking this particular form of charging is for individual parliaments to legislate against it. This could in principle be done in various ways . . . either directly, by insisting legally that consumers must be allowed to pick and choose what they will buy, as in most other commercial transactions (without a disproportionate increase in unit prices for that privilege), or indirectly. One indirect approach is being considered by the US Congress: the suggestion there is that a paper based on research financed by a country's public funds cannot, in that country, be copyrighted by publishers. If such legislation, which has of course various pros and cons, should be passed, such papers can then be freely downloaded or copied without restriction by or for readers, from whatever site can be found. That, in turn, would weaken the legal stranglehold by the publishers.

  2.2  It is to be noted that a large publisher of scientific journals, especially when he has grown by takeovers of smaller publishers, is effectively exercising a monopoly. Journals are not mutually substitutable, at least in the short run: an active researcher feels he HAS to have access to certain journals which now receive a fair number of the best articles in a particular field. Other journals are no substitute.

  2.3  One dire consequence of the journal price explosion is that books (as distinct from periodicals) are being elbowed out of the library market. Many—probably most—academic libraries (other than the few legal deposit libraries) simply cannot afford to buy more than a very few (or, indeed, any) technical books, because all of their library grants have to be focused on journals. Clearly from what I have read, the publishers optimistically reckon that universities should be coerced into sharply increasing libraries' budgets (some claim that library budgets have gone up more slowly than total research expenditure, and that this is wrong), but—in the UK at least—anyone who has been following the parliamentary news is aware that universities cannot possibly increase library budgets. Nevertheless, the contention by some publishers that library budgets are unreasonably small deserves expert financial examination.) Technical books, of which I have very extensive experience, never have sold in large numbers (a title which sells 1,000 copies is reckoned to be doing pretty well). The big publishers do a good job of editing, producing and selling such books, and the relatively high prices here have always been recognised as inevitable. If books are finally edged out of the market, the consequence for scholarship (and also for research) will be very grave: one of the key functions of scientific books is to act as critical filters for a huge mass of information published in journals—in effect, as a supplementary refereeing process—and without such books, scientific indigestion must result. Incidentally, the pressure to put entire books on the internet is not strong, and in my experience, where it has been tried it is not very successful, at least not yet.

  2.4  A further concern arising from the widespread users' preference for online access to journals is that the archival aspect of the major journals is being compromised. Libraries hold old runs of journals on their shelves to fulfil that archival function, but if users cannot be bothered to go to the shelves, they will depend on online archives. Publishers usually charge extra for online access to old volumes (except for the last year or two), even though these have already been paid for once. This problem can be laid at the door of the consumers more than the publishers. If printed back volumes of journals become mere shelved ornaments, we have a very serious library problem indeed. In my view, libraries should pay nothing extra for online archives beyond two or three immediately preceding years, and it really is no grave hardship for researchers to look at old papers taken from library shelves, or summoned by interlibrary loan.

  2.5  Apart from the contentious issue of possible copyright legislation, there is one other important issue. numerous American journals (both those published by learned societies and those published commercially) levy page charges. Typically, the lead author of a paper (or his financial sponsor) is required to pay a charge of, typically, several hundred dollars (the total is often calculated on the basis of the number of printed pages) as a condition of publication; quite often, there is provision for forgiving this charge for impecunious, especially third-world authors . . . a form of means test. This arrangement permits the subscription price to be held within reasonable bounds, at least for journals published by learned societies. All this happens in America, but not in Europe. Perhaps European journals should now be encouraged, or conceivably even obliged, to reduce subscription charges (and their inflation) sharply in exchange for a reasonable pattern of page charges. This would be a counsel of despair (scientists like myself have long rejoiced in the absence of page charges in Europe) but perhaps there is no alternative. However, it is not immediately clear how publishers can be legally obliged to reduce subscription rates for journals as a quid-pro-quo for such a new form of income, and that would be crucial.

  2.6  A possible consequence of introducing page charges more widely might be a reduction in the number of scientific papers submitted for publication. This could be a considerable benefit to the world of scientific research: the large numbers of minor papers which are never cited and disappear into a black hole of forgetfulness would be discouraged. These appear mainly because of the academic "publish or perish" syndrome; the impact a particular paper makes on its community is often ignored by the people whose responsibility it is to promote or appoint academics. (When I contemplate my own list of over 200 publications, I would say by hindsight that many of them could very well be spared!). In my field, in Britain, I know of a few very eminent recent practitioners who published few papers, but every one a classic; such heroes of the profession do not overload the journal literature. A reduction in the number of papers submitted would also have a highly beneficial effect on the crisis in finding competent referees for the burgeoning literature. One extreme course of action might be to legally oblige journals which benefit from page-charges to pay a realistic fee for the services of referees; at present, referees perform their task in most cases without pay, out of public spirit. Their conscientious work enhances the reputation of the journals which they serve, and thus enables the publisher to raise the subscription price!



  5.1  The trend to open-access—if it is not accompanied by a contraction of commercial journals—may well reduce the standard of refereeing, and some journals may feel obliged to dispense with referees altogether. (There is one notorious editor in America who selects papers purely on the basis of his authors' established reputation). If so, in consequence there may come to be rather more cases of intellectual theft and fraud. Even then, the incidence of such problems in the scientific profession as a whole is tiny: though the press loves this kind of story and splashes it across the front page, serious cases are few and far between. There are no cabals of fraudsters actively supporting each other, and it is a long time since Lysenko in Russia was encouraged by his government in his life of scientific tyranny. Compared, say, to cases one reads about very major fraud in business, this is virtually a non-issue, particularly because the very nature of scientific research leads investigators, sooner rather than later, to try to confirm claims by doing new experiments, and then fraud must come out.

  A correspondent in the journal Nature, a few days ago, quotes a colleague on why people commit scientific fraud at all. "He drolly observed that the real question is not why scientists commit fraud, but why more don't do it. He went on to say that since the maximum penalty for getting caught (dismissal) was no worse than the routine penalty for not producing enough high-profile papers (no job), most junior scientists, at least, have nothing to lose by committing fraud."

  On the whole, we are a remarkably honest group of people.

January 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