Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Professional Engineering Publishing Limited (subsidiary of The Institution of Mechanical Engineers)


  Professional Engineering Publishing Ltd. is the publishing trading subsidiary of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. In addition to 15 learned journals, it publishes a range of professional engineering magazines and 40-50 technical books a year. It also publishes on behalf of a number of other learned societies and professional institutions. It publishes on the web, including electronic versions of all journals, as well as a variety of other electronic products and services. It has an annual turnover of approximately £8 million and employs 50 staff.


  IMechE is the UK learned society and professional body for mechanical engineers. It is a registered educational charity and the qualifying body for mechanical engineers. It has around 80,000 members (some 11,000 outside the UK). Founded by George Stephenson, of "Rocket" railway fame, in 1847 IMechE has grown to cover the entire range of technologies and industries in which engineers work. As well as qualification and professional development, it offers a range of services, including technical meetings, policy positions, library and information services and, of course, publishing through PE Publishing Ltd. It employs around 200 staff in central London and Bury St Edmunds.


  3.1  Relation to ALPSP—PE Publishing (via its antecedent) was a founder member of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP). We have had input to their submission to the inquiry. As part of our response we should say that we entirely support their submission. We believe that theirs is fairly comprehensive. Our purpose here is to add or emphasise points from our own perspective, as well as to offer illustration by example. This submission, therefore, should be read in conjunction with that from ALPSP. We largely follow the sequence of that submission.

  3.2  The Journal editorial process—At PE Publishing, there are seven full-time staff employed on overseeing this process. They take manuscripts from submission and see them through to final publication or rejection.

  They also carry staff responsibility for ensuring that journals develop in line with the needs of the community and the changes in the subjects covered by the journals. They are supported technically by sophisticated software which facilitates the management and tracking of the refereeing process, from a database for characterising referees to enable referee selection and monitoring (eg on their load, availability, subject specialism etc), to systems that accept electronic manuscripts and track and progress-chase the manuscript. (With particular relevance to Question 5 of the committee's request) The staff also ensure that publication rights are obtained and that any issues that arise in relation to potential malpractice, plagiarism etc are addressed appropriately.

  A good staff editor not only carries out the operation, but exercises tact, skill and diplomacy. The better this is done, the less noticeable it is to the community being served.

  3.2.1  Editorial Boards—Each journal has an Honorary Editor and international editorial board of experts, all drawn from the community active in the area. In a topic like engineering, these are naturally not just academics but also representatives from industrial and government research. The board's role is to oversee the editorial direction of the journal and to be responsible for the quality standards achieved by the journal. They have a rotating membership (ie a proportion retire each year) to maintain a lively and fresh approach to their task.

  As well as conducting business by e-mail, phone and correspondence, these editorial boards actually physically meet at least once a year, at PE Publishing's expense. The Honorary Editor (and, in some cases, a Deputy Editor) is normally paid an "honorarium" of between £1,400 to £4,000 each (depending on the size of the journal). We will also pay additional fees to offset secretarial or administrative costs incurred.

  3.2.2  Investment and costs in editorial work—As is apparent from the above, this operation involves significant cost and investment and without doubt adds value to the resulting publication. While authors and referees see this process in operation they are not always aware of the effort and cost involved. The whole process, and its cost, are effectively hidden from librarians and many readers, who just see, and benefit from, the end result.

  3.2.3  Quantitative features of the process—A few statistics serve to show the effect of the process, as well as the community involvement:

    (a) At any one time over 400 experts are serving on the editorial boards.

    (b) We have over 5,000 experts "live" on our database of referees.

    (c) 1,500 papers are submitted per year.

    (d) 34% of these are destined to be rejected in a typical year—a further 4% are withdrawn—if an author takes too long to revise, the article is withdrawn (this avoids publication of out-of-date material) and the author is encouraged to resubmit at a later date.

    (e) 88% of those that we eventually publish have to be revised as a result of the refereeing process. Each revision involves further intermediation by staff.

    (f) 13% are subject to a second revision before being published; a further 3% are accepted after three or more revisions.

  3.3  International features—To us, it is very important that the inquiry recognises how international scientific, technical and medical (stm) publishing is. Such recognition should immediately inform consideration on the scope for, desirability, and effects of any unilateral UK action. A few of our own statistics serve to make this point:

    (a) Journals publishing is very much an export business, to the benefit of "UK Ltd". At PE Publishing, over 63% of our journal revenue comes from outside the UK (Publishers in pure science will typically have an even higher export percentage). A corollary is, of course, that the majority of our readers are also outside the UK.

    (b) Overall, PE Publishing sells its products to 109 countries. Customers include academic and industrial libraries, as well as individuals (including members of the Institution).

    (c) 73% of our journal paper submissions are from non-UK authors. In common with most stm journals, ours are truly international. This is congruent with subject development itself—sometimes a researcher's closest colleague is located several thousand miles away.

    (d) All our journals are available in electronic format. Of the last 50,000 "hits" on journal papers, almost half were from outside the UK.

  3.4  Finance—While we support the statements made in the ALPSP submission, we would wish to add our own perspective. For us, journals are now a profitable part of our enterprise (Note that several have their origins in titles over a century old). Once established and successful (a considerable caveat), journals are attractive financially principally because of continuity (relatively stable from year to year), and cash flow (on the prevailing economic model, much of the income is received in advance of the associated costs being incurred). This is only a part of our business, however. Part of our rationale as a learned society publisher is to provide a mix of product types (eg including books, magazines and now web services) in furtherance of the subject and the profession. This is also part of the art and science of being a publisher (and this can apply equally well to commercial publishers)—that is, to be able to maintain a balanced portfolio of products as an aid to overall stability. In other words, a balance helps ensure that one type can help sustain another through difficult times. Just a few years ago our technical magazines were our premium product in terms of income and surplus (because of advertising revenues). In such times, any surplus can in part be used to support journal, book or electronic development, or even to moderate price increases. The last two or three years have been quite different. Being able to offer continuity of supply is important, and a mix of products assists this. Thus it follows that treating just one part of stm publishing in isolation risks unbalancing that portfolio.

  In addition, as the ALPSP submission mentions, we have to invest in product development, which both costs money and carries risks. We recognise that many commercial publishers have had, historically, an important role in backing projects in new or interdisciplinary areas which might be eschewed by single discipline learned societies. Sometimes these have resulted in important new journals.

  Many worthwhile journals from commercial and learned society publishers serve specialist, interdisciplinary, and relatively small communities. These journals will have low circulations which can account, in some measure, for the disparity in price between journals (since a relatively high fixed cost, independent of circulation, is incurred no matter how high or low the circulation).

  Profit or surplus at PE Publishing is transferred to the IMechE under covenant. This surplus is ploughed back into the learned society and professional activities of the institution. The rationale is that the society is, via its prestige, reputation and skill, able to manage and develop a publishing operation for the profession, by selling to those within the immediate engineering community and outside (who can make use of this knowledge). Any surplus gained by so doing can legitimately be used to further enhance the operation of the Institution, and hence ensure its continuing survival.

  4.  On the specific questions posed by the inquiry, we have a little to add to the extensive and comprehensive replies by ALPSP. We would like to emphasise a few points:

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?

  We would make two points:

    (i) Publishers and libraries alike recognise that the traditional model, which has been under some strain for 30 years, cannot be sustained indefinitely (ie reducing circulation leading to higher-than-inflation pricing leading to further cancellations and so on). Although we believe that restrictions in library funding have exacerbated the problem, it nevertheless behoves all stakeholders (eg authors, publishers, libraries and other intermediaries) to experiment with new models. However, we do not believe experimentation should be such as to warrant large centralised funding which would have, as a central aim, the removal of any one of these stakeholders.

    (ii) The "big deal" schemes have some merits, but can become pernicious in two ways: (a) if they approach monopoly or oligopoly pricing, such as to squeeze out legitimate small to medium publishers (like PE Publishing). If special funds are made available to finance big deals, small to medium publishers are further, and illegitimately disadvantaged. (b) if they are such as to allow no "market mechanism" to operate, and that purchasers are effectively "locked into" a deal in perpetuity. We would urge that any "special funding" is conditional on a fair approach across a range of publishers.

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

  To some extent our response to this is covered by the response to Question 1 ie Government and government funded institutions should encourage experimentation, but subject to the caveat that it is not designed to facilitate removal of a current stakeholder. In our view, any such removal, were it to happen, should happen as a result of normal market forces.

  Actions that promote choice are to be encouraged, recognising that, given the international nature of the publishing, that the effect of unilateral UK action is likely to be limited. One example would be an explicit undertaking, in research grant provision, that a proportion of funding can be used to support publication, whether in not for profit or for profit journals. Although PE Publishing is not currently engaged in Open-Access (or "author pays") publishing, we recognise that it has some merit, either alone or as part of a mix of models.

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?

  We agree with the ALPSP submission in that there are, in principle, no reasons why publication in open-access peer reviewed journals should be any less regarded for assessment. However, simply because they are young, (and like any new journal on the conventional model) there will often be no reliable method of judging quality, and citation counts may be suspect. We would not recommend the establishment of any specific guidelines or codes of practice in their operation. Subjective assessment of the quality of journals will inevitably remain a large factor.

  Whether or not Government should support such a trend is covered in our answer to Question 2.

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?

  We agree with the ALPSP submission. It is a moot point how effective Legal Deposit libraries should be in making non-print scientific publications available. We support the collection, preservation, and controlled access to non-print publications. We believe that the type of unfettered and rapid access to copyright materials which would undermine the operation of the current publishing system would not only be detrimental to publishers such as ourselves, but to the whole system of scholarship and communication.

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

  The ALPSP submission points out that peer review systems, although they have their faults, are the best (or least bad!) system that we know, and are readily transferable to electronic systems. It also correctly points out some of the uncertainties associated with pre-print systems, but again points to the value of the internet in facilitating the detection of plagiarism.

  We agree with these points, but would like further to point out that, with the internet, in economic jargon, "entry" into the world of journals is much easier.

  When much lower investment is involved in a start-up, there is less risk, and this can promote "good" innovation. At the same time, however, there becomes less inhibition on plagiarism, passing off, and the publishing of false, wildly inaccurate or just very shoddy or misleading work. It is in such an environment that "brands" of high quality provide a measure of protection, confidence and trusted safe havens. PE Publishing and many other publishers provide such a brand. When they are supported by organisations of known integrity and independence (who may be commercial publishers or learned societies) this may add further confidence. At the same time, the new environment can foster new players who, over time, should establish their legitimacy and reputation for quality.

February 2004

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