Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor John C Fry, Cardiff University

  1.  I am a Professor of Microbial Ecology in Cardiff University and have been a University academic for over 35 years. Throughout this time I have carried out research, held research grants, published scientific papers, taught both undergraduates and postgraduates and played my part contributing to science in a more general way. I am currently Publications Manager for the Federation of European Microbiology Societies (FEMS) and so am responsible to the FEMS Executive Committee and Council for all the FEMS publications. I have also been Editorial Board Member, Editor and then Chief Editor of the journal FEMS Microbiology Ecology. I have been on the Editorial Boards of three other journals and served on the Council and Publications Committee for the Society for General Microbiology.

  2.  FEMS owns five journals namely FEMS Microbiology Letters (started 1977), FEMS Microbiology Reviews, FEMS Microbiology Ecology (both started 1985), FEMS Immunology and Medical Microbiology (started 1988) and FEMS Yeast Research (started 2001). Elsevier publishes these journals for FEMS under a formal contract between us; FEMS and Elsevier are in regular and close contact over a wide range of publication matters. In 2002 the FEMS journals comprised 798 articles in 7,350 pages. Each journal is led by a Chief Editor who, with a team of Editors and/or Editorial Board members, is responsible for the scientific quality of the articles published in his/her journal. We operate an online submission, peer review and manuscript tracking system supported by a Publications Division within our central Office in Delft, The Netherlands. All articles are peer reviewed confidentially by FEMS and appropriate, helpful feedback provided to authors, whether or not the paper is published. Our journals are available on subscription in hard copy via normal access channels and electronically via Elsevier's online access tool Science Direct. More details can be found on the FEMS website ( and via that on the Elsevier website.

  3.  FEMS is a charity registered in England and Wales (No. 1072117). Its remit is to "Support Microbiology in Europe" and it does this in a variety of ways through, for example, grants, fellowships, supporting meetings, a Congress and through its scientific publications. This support is provided by income generated mainly through its publications (87% of total income in 2002). Its members are over 40 microbiological societies in Europe who pay subscriptions.

  4.  The above three paragraphs provide the general background against which I provide this written evidence to the Science and Technology Committee. I write below under the five bullet points the committee seeks written evidence against (here numbered 6-10).

5.   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?

  5.1  Types of Journals. The single term publishers is used in this question but in reality there are many different ways journals are published. Briefly these are as follows.

    (a)  Commercial publishers own journals which can be viewed as entirely for profit.

    (b)  Scientific society journals published by a learned society, which contribute to their objectives.

    (c)  Journals owned at least in part by a learned society and published for them by a commercial publisher, here some profits go back to the society which are used for their objectives.

  5.1.1.  Commercial journals ((a) above) are often the most expensive and have been the cause of attack recently. However many of these are of very high scientific merit (eg Nature) and of great use to the scientific community.

  5.1.2  Society journals ((b) above) are often the cheapest and are vital to support the societies objectives. Such objectives help science in may ways and these activities have become an integral part of the UK science system. If these journals were driven out of the market place UK science would be greatly poorer for it.

  5.1.3  Joint journals ((c) above) offer a mixture of the two points mentioned above. They vary in price according to publisher's past and present policy. It is very hard to quickly reduce the price of a journal as markets change.

  5.2  Pricing, the Market Place and Electronic Journals. As mentioned above prices between journal vary greatly for print subscriptions. This price variation does not just reflect the number of papers but the publishers and societies pricing policies. There is a very active market place for journals and academic libraries in Universities and research institutes have not had enough money to buy print copies of all the journals they would ideally like for many years now, as real budgets have declined. All publishers and societies have been concerned about how to react to electronic access for several years and have been trying to find models by which they can make money to support their aims (profit for shareholders and supporting science) over this period. This is the climate that has resulted in large publishers making "big deal schemes" with large groups of libraries in various ways. Most publishers and societies link print subscriptions with online access charges in some way, to protect income. Whether or not a journal survives in the market place depends on both scientific value and price. There are examples of both high price/excellent science journals and low price/poorer science journals doing well. Electronic online access has been a great benefit to scientists and over the last four years or so most researchers and students use electronic access as their primary means of accessing the literature. Online searching tools like the ISI Web of Science make it much easier to find relevant literature than when print copies and abstracting journals were the main access route. The big deals have allowed a much wider access to journals and the scientific literature. Such wide access is so valuable that most scientists would agree that it must be maintained. The perceived problem is that small numbers of large companies could hold science to ransom and this must be avoided at all costs. The problem is similar to the difficulties over monopolies in other market places and so perhaps it could be addressed in similar ways.

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

  6.1  Value of Scientific Journals. Journals are absolutely central to how science works. They provide the main source of information flow between scientists, which is especially true for the rigorously peer reviewed journals, which tend to be the most successful anyway. Science could not operate as effectively as it does without journals. Furthermore, institutions running undergraduate and postgraduate courses could not teach students science without access to journals.

  6.2  Who pays? Scientific articles are difficult to read especially for students learning science, but they are an efficient and well tried and tested means of communication. This means that their content is only accessible if they are well presented, as in a print journal—typescripts mounted on the web would not do. Most scientists still print out papers accessed electronically. It is also vital that papers are peer reviewed and edited—which is an activity supported freely by scientists, at no charge, for the benefit of science. Even with this free peer reviewing and editing it has been estimated that it still costs at least £3,000 to produce a scientific paper. Even for a scientific society publishing its own journals the cost is at least £1,500 per article. The cost of printing and distribution is a small part of these overall costs and so electronic journals do not mean cheap journals—someone still has to pay.

  6.2.1.  In Europe it is predominately libraries that pay these costs in the charges they pay for both print subscriptions and electronic access.

  6.2.2.  For the main microbiology journals in the USA a page charge system is used. However, charges are only about £400 for a 10 page article and so page charges only fund part of the full costs.

  6.2.3.  Another suggested model is that research funding agencies should pay the costs. This would mean adding say £3,500 per paper produced to the value of a grant. So assuming that three papers are produced on average from a three year grant for a postdoctoral researcher this would add about 8% to the grant costs. I believe this model will be problematic for the following reasons.  It is hard to predict at the grant application stage how many papers will be published.  Money cannot be spent after the grant has ended and most papers are published after grants have finished.  How would PhD students get money to publish papers?  Winning grant funding is just as competitive as publishing, perhaps more so and budget is often one consideration as grant funds are squeezed. This occurs despite the more flexible rules that are supposed to operate for UK Research Councils.  Charities will not even fund overheads, so are they likely to fund publication?

  6.3.  What should be done? This is very hard to decide as the issue is so complex. In the UK most science is government funded in one way or another. However, the scientific publication market place is thoroughly international and so it is hard for the UK to act alone.

  6.3.1.  One very important problem is that as print subscriptions decrease, and in my view this will continue to occur as electronic access is used more and more, society journals publishing on their own will find it very difficult to make money out of online access and so may well be forced to move to publishers for support. If this happens then the market place will get more dependant on commercial publishers who by offering big deals could hold science to ransom. I do not believe that free electronic journals are the answer because I cannot see an acceptable funding model to support their production.

  6.3.2.  Academic institutions cannot do much because they are the purchasers and rely on publications to support science. Academics withholding labour for peer reviewing and editing for all but free access journals has been suggested. However, without a funding model that is internationally agreed it is hard to see how this will work. Furthermore, current evidence does not suggest the community could hold together in this way, especially when science is so dependent of learned societies. So many scientists have split loyalties between wanting free access in a utopian world and wanting to support their scientific societies which are vital to how science functions.

  6.3.3.  Publishers are there to make profits in our capitalist society and provide vital employment through their activities. They are also working in an international competitive marketplace. So I do not hold much hope for them doing a lot to help the situation.

  6.3.4.  Governments could help restrict the power that publishers have over science spending on journals, and the following suggestions are perhaps possibilities.  Operate a system like the monopolies commission to restrict the power of big deals.  Support scientific societies and their publishing activities by special support grants or by buying online access from them for say all UK Universities at reasonable prices.  Help the Universities and Research institutions in the negotiations for big deals for electronic access.

7.   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?

  7.1.  In biology open access journals are not an important part of the current market place. I cannot see them expanding much further without a solid funding model.

  7.2.  To be taken seriously and attract UK scientists to publish they must gain high esteem amongst scientists. To do this they must attract good papers from the best scientists, they must be easily accessible through article searching interfaces and probably gain access to the ISI impact factor listings. The progress in the development of electronic only publications has been relatively slow. In the mid 1990s it was predicted that print journals would vanish in five years—this has not happened. I believe that progress will remain slow as the vested interests discussed above are too powerful.

  7.3.  The government should only support this trend if it can (a) identify a strong, viable funding model and (b) find a way to support learned scientific societies and/or their activities.

8.   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?

  8.1.  No response as I have no direct experience of this issue.

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

  9.1.  Scientific fraud and malpractice can never be completely irradiated. The major checks and balances on this are provided by the use of scientists as Editors and our peer reviewing system. As long as scientists still give their time to these activities the incidence of fraud and malpractice should not increase. So the proliferation of non peer reviewed electronic journals would increase malpractice. As long as peer reviewing is maintained and scientists manage the science in journals good honest science is likely to be the norm.

February 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