Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Royal College of Psychiatrists


  1.1  The Royal College of Psychiatrists welcomes this opportunity to submit evidence to the Committee. Descriptions of the workings of scientific journals and detailed comments on the various questions put by the Committee will be amply covered by other submissions (such as that from ALPSP), and so this memorandum will address itself to several points of specific concern to the College that seem either not to have been widely considered or to have been misrepresented in much of the recent public discussion on the matter:

    —  Some observations about the College's subscription-based business model, which we don't believe is as dysfunctional as advocates of open access publishing tend to make out.

    —  The role of the STM publisher, and in particular the value added by the copy-editing process.

    —  Ways in which access to journal papers under the subscription model has already been extended.

    —  Some specific concerns we have about the open access model.


The Royal College of Psychiatrists

  2.1  The Royal College of Psychiatrists is the representative professional and educational body for psychiatrists in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Its aims are to:

    —  advance the science and practice of psychiatry and related subjects;

    —  further public education in psychiatry and related subjects; and

    —  promote study and research work in psychiatry and all sciences and disciplines connected with the understanding and treatment of mental disorder in all its forms and aspects and related subjects and publish the results of all such study and research.

  2.2  As well as running its membership examination (MRCPsych), and visiting and approving hospitals for training purposes, the College organises scientific and clinical conferences and lectures and continuing professional development activities. The publications programme includes books, reports and educational material for professionals and the general public, and three learned journals. The College has just over 10,000 members, of whom about 8,000 are in the UK.

The College's journals

  2.3  The British Journal of Psychiatry (BJP) is an internationally renowned primary research journal, with a good citation index and a wide circulation. It is free to members of the College (in both print and online forms), and in addition has about 3,400 subscribers, mostly institutional. The subscription income covers the cost of members' copies and furthermore provides a surplus which is used to help fund the College's other activities.

  2.4  The Psychiatric Bulletin is also concerned with primary research, principally on service delivery issues. Again, it is free to all members. The paid subscriptions (about 280) come nowhere near covering the publication costs, so in effect the journal is subsidised by the British Journal of Psychiatry.

  2.5  Advances in Psychiatric Treatment is a secondary journal concerned with continuing professional development.

  2.6  The online versions of the journals are hosted at HighWire Press.


  3.1  The College's business model differs in at least one important aspect from that of commercial publishers. Although papers from anyone are welcome, and all papers are considered for publication equally on their merits, in practice the majority of published papers are by members of the College. As noted above, members receive free print copies of the journal, and have free access to the online versions. We therefore have a system where our authors are not charged for publishing in our journals, and they and their colleagues are not charged to read the journals either. Costs are covered and income generated to a large extent by sales of subscriptions to libraries serving other groups of professionals who on the whole read our journals but don't publish in them.

  3.2  If we were to move to an open access model, our position as regards members would be made very difficult. If we wished to continue to supply them with free print copies, our author charges would have to be uncompetitively high, and the quality of the journal would drop as submissions tailed off. Those author charges would be imposed mainly on members, who would be entitled to ask why they now had to pay to publish in their own journal. If we were to cancel the print copies for members, this would be a substantial reduction in the benefits of membership; if we were to lose members as a result either of cancellation of free print or of provision of universal open access to the journals, this would have a negative impact on the other work of the College.

  3.3  As regards your Committee's question of whether the Government should actively support a move towards open access publishing, it should be noted that in our case, 75% of our subscription income comes from overseas. However, 66% of our published papers come from the UK. If we were simply to transfer our charges from our readers to our authors, the UK medical establishment would pick up a much greater proportion of the bill.


  4.1  There are many ways in which journal publishers work, either singly or together, to provide access to the information they publish, and the options are not limited to open access and access by subscription. For example, we have taken the following steps:

    —  All issues of our journals are made available free online to everyone 12 months after publication, on a rolling basis.

    —  The College's primary journals (print and online) are available to all College members at no cost.

    —  Journal papers accessed via a reference in other journals on the HighWire system (such as the BMJ or the American Journal of Psychiatry) can be viewed free of charge, regardless of whether the user has a subscription.

    —  We allow free access to the journal from 75 low-income countries, using a system which recognises the country of origin of the user's IP address.

    —  Print editions of the BJP, paid for by local advertising, are circulated free of charge to readers in India, Holland, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden.

    —  All contents lists (including electronic contents alerts) and search mechanisms are available to all free of charge. The journal is abstracted in PubMed and many other major listings services. In addition, the full text of the journals is indexed by Google. We are members of CrossRef, an industry-wide system which sets up links from reference lists in journal articles directly to the reference in question. Abstracts of all papers are available to view free of charge.

    —  Any article for which access by a particular user is restricted can be viewed using the pay-per-view system, for a fee of $8.00 (commercial publishers commonly charge around $30). For $15.00, the entire journal can be viewed for 24 hours.

Access for professionals

  4.2  The last two points in the list above, taken together, mean that any interested party should be able to easily locate an article of interest, and, if they do not already have access, can pay for access there and then for a modest fee. The College believes that the open access question is not an ideological issue, pitting "open" against "closed" access, but simply an economic one of who pays for access and at which point in the supply chain.

  4.3  It should be noted that the College does not charge authors to publish in its journals (except for colour reproduction, which is charged on at cost).

Access for the general public

  4.4  Many of the initiatives outlined above facilitate access for the general public. Although in general we are happy for the public to have access to the primary research we publish, we feel that such availability is unlikely to have a huge benefit. We expect our members, and other professionals reading the journals, to examine the papers with a critical eye, to understand the limitations and implications of the work, and to appreciate the background against which individual research projects are set. Without this insight, it is likely that individual papers may be opaque, or at worst misleading.

  4.5  The College invests a great deal of time and effort in producing public education materials which are straightforward, informative and comprehensive (see, and we believe that this sort of approach is a better way of fulfilling our objective of furthering public education in psychiatry than is encouraging wider readership of primary research. The surplus generated by sales of journal subscriptions is important in helping to fund this work.


  5.1  Since the College's objectives include the publication and promotion of research in psychiatry, it might seem that open access should be a welcome development, and its superficial attractions are indeed undeniable. However, we have concerns about the model (over and above the specific worries about the impact on the College itself noted above). In particular, it may have a negative effect on quality of scientific publications, on the independence (actual or perceived) of journals, and on the ability of researchers to get published.

  5.2  Exploration of the model is at such an early stage that there seems to be little agreement even about the price per paper that would need to be charged to make the model sustainable. While this will no doubt shake itself out, it should be noted that many of the open access experiments currently under way (eg PloS, Company of Biologists) are operating with the author's fees at subsidised rates. It is hard to see what reliance can be placed on the outcomes of such experiments if the most important variable is deliberately manipulated in this way.

  5.3  Of more concern to us is what the long-term effects of this economic model might be. Some of the pressures that might result may only show up over a long period of time. Also, the model is yet to be adopted by any of the large commercial publishers. No-one imagines that they will quietly go away, so the questions arises as to what spin they would put on it, and what effects that might have on the system as a whole.

Effects on quality

  5.4  There are a couple of factors which might adversely affect quality.

  5.5  Firstly, under the present system, journals have an incentive to restrict the number of papers they accept. In the case of the BJP, we accept about 25% of submissions. Accepting more papers would raise costs, without generating more income (at least in the short term, and it seems unlikely that future subscription rate increases to counter the increased costs would be welcomed by subscribers). On the other hand, with the open access model, accepting more papers would generate more income, partly because there would be a direct surplus per paper and partly because (since rejected papers represent costs without income) it is beneficial to reduce the proportion of rejected papers. As we try our hardest to only accept the best papers, any increase in the acceptance rate would lead to a drop in overall quality of accepted papers. Although it is to be hoped that editors would resist this pressure, it seems unwise to deliberately introduce such an incentive into the system.

  5.6  Secondly, it is conceivable that market forces will operate in the decisions of authors about which journals to submit to. If it turns out in the long run that authors are sensitive to price in such matters, there will be a pressure on the journals to cut prices. This in turn will lead to a pressure to cut costs, and the easiest place for journals to cut costs is in the copy editing and peer review processes. We would consider this to be detrimental to the literature (see "The role of the publisher", below).

Accessibility to authors

  5.7  It is hard to see how a move to open access publishing could fail to favour more senior researchers from large, well-funded institutions. Even assuming that free publication is offered to researchers in the developing countries, there is bound to be a tier of authors from countries which don't quite fall into that category but for whom nonetheless the fees would present a significant deterrent to submission. The system might also present problems for authors with small research projects, with studies based on one or just a few cases, those based in organisations without a strong research ethos, and so on.

  5.8  Even within a specialty such as psychiatry, there are distinct subspecialties with large variations in funding. We believe that an "author pays" approach would discriminate against subspecialties such as psychotherapy, where research budgets are typically small, in favour of better funded areas such as psychopharmacology. A bias in the literature would inevitably result.

  5.9  It seems reasonable to presume that, if market conditions apply, journals will eventually offer premium services at extra cost. The most obvious candidate would be accelerated publication. Most journals will currently offer accelerated publication for papers they consider particularly important; it may be in future that it will be on basis of the wealth of the funding body rather than the quality of the paper that such decisions are made.

Independence of journals

  5.10  There is already considerable concern and discussion in the medical publishing world about the publication practices of the major pharmaceutical companies. Any system whereby pharma companies pay directly to have their work published cannot be good for editorial independence, and even if everything is completely above board the mere appearances are enough to generate concern. It seems likely that pharma companies would be prime customers for any "premium services" (accelerated publication, specific positioning within an issue, etc) that might be offered by the journal, and this too could be regarded as unfortunate.

  5.11  Similarly, where a significant proportion of a journal's articles are funded by a single organisation (eg the NHS), that organisation would be in a position to put pressure, if it chose to do so, on the journal in respect of acceptance policies, direction, price, and so on. This could easily compromise the editorial freedom of the journal.


  6.1  Publishers perform a number of functions in the process of producing a journal. Some of these, such as managing subscriptions and marketing, would become irrelevant in an open access world. Some are core to the publications process regardless of the business model. In much of the recent discussion on the subject it seems to have been assumed that the peer review process is the only irreducible publisher's task, and that everything else is an optional extra. We would strongly contend that publishers have another absolutely essential task: copy-editing the manuscripts before publication.

  6.2  Good copy-editing is a service to both the author and the reader. A good copy-editor will polish prose, check arguments, tally numbers, locate references, elucidate acronyms, and in many other ways will remove the barriers to understanding that can prevent the reader from fully understanding the author's message. A reader should be able to approach a journal paper in the confidence not just that the research described is good, but that it has been described accurately and well.

  6.3  This is relevant to the question of access. A paper may be freely available on a researchers' own website, but if it is written in turgid, indigestible English, if the percentages don't add up to 100%, if Figure 3 is inexplicably missing, if the references aren't all there, and if it is full of obscure acronyms unheard of outside the NHS, then availability is not the same as accessibility for a student in Tanzania, or for a Japanese professor trying to make sense of it 15 years from now.

  6.4  We are concerned that the value added by conscientious publishers to published papers in this manner is in danger of being overlooked, and even lost. For example, it is easy to see how a large specialist research institute could set up its own peer review system, and publish papers on the open access model. However, without the tradition and experience of careful copy-editing behind it, and unless professional staff are employed to take on the role, there is no guarantee that the papers will get anything more than a cursory glance from the editing point of view.


  7.1  The College is concerned that there is a potential for research funders to push authors towards open access journals, resulting in an irresistible drive for us and other major journals to change our business model accordingly. We are worried that this may have worrying implications in the long term for the quality and financial health of our journals, and that this may have adverse effects on the rest of the College's work. We are also concerned that there is potential for negative effects on scientific publishing as a whole

  7.2  We recognise that there are problems with aspects of the existing model for scientific publishing, particularly in the pricing policies of some of the larger commercial companies. However, we do not see the open access route as necessarily a panacea for these problems. There are many unknowns, and some clear drawbacks to open access publishing. We would recommend that the Committee should support further evaluation of open access publishing, but should stop short of actively encouraging the trend.

February 2004

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