Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the British Trust for Ornithology

  This submission concentrates on the problems that recent trends in publishing have caused for amateur researchers and those working in small, independent institutes, who make a disproportionate contribution to the knowledge-base required (by government and others) for addressing environmental policy issues.

  For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the field, we have included an annex that summarises the importance for that environmentally-related knowledge-base of small, independent institutes and amateurs (often focussing their attentions on particular taxa).


  The BTO is a membership-based charity whose aim is to undertake high quality research into bird populations and their habitats, through the collaborative fieldwork of large numbers of volunteers and the professional input of its staff; its work focuses particularly on issues of current environmental concern. It has a staff of 91 (29 PhDs), 12,500 members, and an annual budget of £3.1 million. Its income comes from a variety of sources, mainly contracts (especially from government departments and agencies), membership donations, and grants from charitable trusts.

  The Trust publishes two scientific journals and has published a number of major books. We have recently spent some time in investigating the issue of open access, on-line publication, which we have just started for one of our own journals. However, it is mainly as readers and authors of the literature that our interest in current debates over scientific publishing arises.


The problem

  The increasing availability of journals on-line is making them generally easier for academics and those working in large institutes to access. Paradoxically, the opposite is the case for those who work in small, independent institutes (with more limited funds available for library subscriptions) and for amateurs. The problem is that, while such people can readily become external readers at university libraries by paying a subscription, this does not allow them access to electronic holdings. This means that they have no access to journals that are available only electronically, either because print versions are not produced or because (for space reasons) they are not kept by the libraries to which they subscribe. In earlier times, such extra-mural scholars had access to everything available to the members of the university.


  1.   Access through an academic friend

  This is probably the most widely used method at present. Its drawbacks are:

    —  In most cases it represents breach of copyright.

    —  It is not conducive to browsing.

    —  Unless the friend is a very good one, it is not a possible route when large numbers of papers need to be consulted.

  2.  Paying to access individual articles

  This is an expensive way of accessing the literature, which makes it particularly unsuitable for small institutes and amateurs.

  3.  Publishers changing their rules

  The number of external readers at university libraries is small in relation to the number of internal readers. The proportion of them who can afford individual subscriptions to a wide range of journals is also small.

  It seems to us, therefore, that it would cost the publishers very little to allow libraries to extend access to e-journals to external readers, so long as the number to whom that was extended did not exceed some (small) percentage of the total readership of the library.

  4.  Open access publication

  This solves this problem completely. It does, however, bring other problems in its wake for those who work in small institutions and amateurs (see below).


  The introduction of the Web of Knowledge has provided researchers with their most powerful tool to date to search for and access information, revolutionising the way in which they work. Access to the Web of Knowledge is restricted in the same way as access to e-journals and thus small independent institutions and academics are at a disadvantage. A similar solution seems appropriate.


  Scientific publishing has become concentrated in a few hands. This disadvantages many taxon-based publications because they are generally not of interest to the major publishers, as a result of their small circulations and the restricted potential for increasing their subscription rates (because they cover poorly-funded fields and a significant proportion of their subscribers are often amateurs or from small institutes). Thus they are left in the hands of small publishers who are often incapable of protecting their market against aggressive marketing by the large publishers. "Bundling" of numbers of e-subscriptions by the larger publishers has severely exacerbated this competition.



  These are a major break-through in accessibility for all readers, though most on-line journals still need to produce designs that make it as easy to scan and browse their content as with print journals.


  Open access publication creates problems for authors in terms of paying the publication fee that most such journals have to charge. Should there be official support for the development of open access publication, it is important that it is comprehensive. That is to say, all government departments and agencies should routinely provide funding to meet publication costs in the grants and contracts they issue. For such funding to be provided only through research councils (for example) would disadvantage those whose main sources of funding are elsewhere. (The small, independent institutes undertaking so much of the taxon-based and environmental research that is fundamental for national policies on the environment get most of their funding from sources other than the research councils).

  Systems of support that minimize the need for authors to be charged need to be strongly encouraged. (One easy step, which would meet a small proportion of the costs of open access publishing, would be for the British Library to maintain a national archiving system that could be used without charge by any publisher of an open access journal. This is the modern equivalent to the traditional system of copyright libraries for print publications).

Down-side for the amateurs

  Amateur authors will be unable to publish in open access journals that do not operate waivers of charges for those without funds. We would therefore suggest that those promoting open access publishing strongly support the establishment of waiver policies.

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