Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the British Entomological and Natural History Society

  This submission addresses the difficulties experienced by amateur and unsalaried researchers and by independent consultants when needing to access scientific journals. Today such people are making an increasingly important contribution to research in biodiversity, conservation and taxonomy. Current trends in publishing seem unlikely to benefit such researchers. This submission concentrates on the field of entomology but is probably equally relevant to other fields of whole organism biology.


  1.  The BENHS is a membership-based charity founded in 1872. Its aims are the promotion and advancement of research in entomology with particular emphasis on taxonomy, ecology and conservation. It has a library and taxonomic collections that are available, at no charge, to members and non-members, and which are housed in a purpose built building. The Society publishes a refereed journal, with a circulation of around 1,050, and major identification guides to the British insect fauna. The Society has about 900 members who are a mixture of amateur and professional entomologists with the former making up the majority. There are no paid staff and all the Society's activities are maintained by volunteers.


  2.  Within the field of entomology, much of the research supporting the government's Biodiversity Action Plan involves our members working either as self-employed consultants or as unpaid volunteers. It is probably true to say that this work could not continue were it to rely on researchers from universities and other institutions. The same is true in the field of insect conservation in general. The difficulties faced by universities and museums in finding funding to support taxonomic research mean that increasingly this work is being done by unpaid workers not linked to any institution. Some may never have received formal training, others may be retired professionals but all are amateurs in the true sense of the word. For some groups of insects our national experts are amateur workers. All these people need access to the scientific literature to progress their research effectively.


Current and future access and the problems involved

  3.  Our members access the literature in the following ways,

  3.1  As external readers of university or national museum libraries. This may involve paying a subscription and travel costs. Access granted is unlikely to include borrowing. There may be restricted access to on-line journals, as the libraries' subscriptions to these journals do not allow access to external readers. As the uptake of on-line journals, to the exclusion of printed journals, increases, so the usefulness of these libraries to the amateur will decrease, unless the on-line subscription rules are changed. Will access to on-line journals include printing them out and, if so, at what cost? Photocopying charges at some institutions (eg the Natural History Museum) are already set at unrealistically high prices; there will be a temptation to do the same with printing charges; this should be resisted.

  3.2  Via a local authority lending library. Currently this involves using the British Library's inter-library loan service from Boston Spa. The time taken to deliver and return such loans can mean that there is little time available within the loan period to read the material; this problem should be addressed. Inter-library loans are not really viable for large scale requests and do not allow for browsing. At first sight, on-line journals would seem to offer a solution, but local libraries are not going to be able to afford to subscribe to them. As on-line journals become more common, will hard copy journals still be available from Boston Spa? A solution would be to allow electronic transfer of requested items to local libraries, but would copyright considerations and library budgets allow this?

  3.3  Via the libraries of learned and other societies. These may be for members only or have restricted access for non-members. Their opening times may be very restricted and, except for one or two societies, their holdings are not comprehensive. An amateur may need to join several societies in order to obtain a good coverage of journals. Such libraries find it difficult to pay the subscriptions of commercially published journals and hence their holdings are restricted. These libraries would seem to be likely to benefit from cheaper on-line subscriptions but there would be a capital cost, in providing the computer software and hardware, which they may not be able to afford. In addition society libraries often benefit from arrangements whereby the journals they publish themselves are exchanged free of charge for the journals published by other societies. This practice is under threat from the growing tendency for UK societies and institutions to use commercial publishing houses to produce their journals. These exchanges may also be threatened by the extension of on-line publication, and so the benefit from cheaper on-line subscriptions may be countered by having more subscriptions to pay.

  3.4  As a favour from a friend or former colleague working in a university or other institute. This may be quite common but is unlikely to be appreciated by the friend's employer and there could be copyright issues. It is unlikely to be useful for anything other than occasional need. E-publishing is unlikely to change this situation.

  3.5  By personal subscription to journals. Although personal subscriptions are usually lower than those paid by institutions, individuals are unlikely to be able to afford more than one or two subscriptions to print journals. The cost of on-line subscriptions does not seem to be sufficiently low to enable individuals to take out more subscriptions, than they already do for print journals, and, of course, such individuals have to pay for the time on-line themselves.

  3.6  By using secondary sources such as textbooks. Textbooks are likely to reflect the views of the author(s), they may not give a balanced account and they may not be comprehensive. No effects of e-publishing have yet been discerned on this route to knowledge.


  4.  While, at first sight, it appears that e-publishing should benefit the amateur and unpaid researcher as journals can be down-loaded onto their home PCs, the cost of doing this will put it out of the reach of most of them. Such people are in danger of being left behind by the publishing revolution. It is important to remember one large difference between the salaried and unsalaried researcher. This is that while the former gets their internet access free of charge (via their employer), the latter has to pay for it. Future policy should take this into account.

  5.  To counter the problems outlined above, publicly funded scientific institutions should be required to welcome, not just tolerate, external readers and to give them full access (including browsing) to scientific journals in all formats. It is understood that a small fee would be reasonable for providing this service. It is to be hoped that inability to pay the fee would not deny access to the service. The problem of accessing on-line journals from local lending libraries needs to be addressed, if this is not already being done. A number of the problems highlighted above concern the cost of access. These problems might be overcome by making grants available to bona fide, and otherwise unfunded, researchers to enable them to visit libraries and carry out literature searches.


  6.  Scientific journals are published by societies and other institutions, by not-for-profit publishers, by commercial publishers on their own behalf and by commercial publishers on behalf of societies. The products of the two latter are unlikely to be found in the homes of many amateurs.

  7.  The most disturbing trend in recent years has been for societies to make arrangements for commercial publishers to publish their journals. Such arrangements seem to be regarded by the treasurers of these societies as a cash cow to be milked. While the offers made by these commercial publishers may be very tempting, it may be that it is the societies themselves and the scientific community that is being milked. Effectively these become commercial journals, but ones that need to make a profit for both the publisher and the society. This trend to commercial publishing seems to be a very British affair; elsewhere in Europe most societies still publish their own journals. Here we are faced with high-priced commercially produced journals. The independent researcher may be able to afford the subscription to just one of these journals. It is not just the independent researcher who stands to be disadvantaged. 80% of the current journals in this Society's library are obtained by exchange with other societies who publish their own journals. Should these societies change to using commercial publishers we could not afford the demand for subscriptions that would, no doubt, follow. It is, perhaps, significant that we have few UK published journals in our library.

  8.  In considering the price of commercially produced journals some thought might be given to the cost of producing them. The authors of scientific papers are not paid by the publishers nor are the referees who review the papers and, with a few exceptions, the editors are merely paid expenses and an honorarium. Thus the specialist work is done at no cost to the publisher whose role is merely to arrange for printing and marketing. The publisher also insists on the authors and institutions making over the copyright to the publisher. In these circumstances it is difficult to see why the cost of these commercially produced journals is so high. Of course the editors', authors' and referees' time is not free, it is paid for by their employers; these are the same employers whose libraries have to buy the journals at inflated prices. The giving of time freely dates from the days when all scientific journals were published by societies whose members co-operated to produce them without payment and with the objective of advancing knowledge not of making a profit. Although the journals are now produced to make a profit for the publishers, these practices have continued and the publishers have taken full advantage of them.

  9.  While the commercial market seems buoyant, it appears that not-for-profit journals may be struggling to survive unless they are linked to a society. This is probably because, without the benefit of distribution to members, their print runs are not large enough to allow the journals to be priced at a level acceptable to their potential readers. Recently this Society has had to grant-aid one such journal to ensure its survival.


  10.  The scientific community pays too much for its journals compared to the resources it puts into them. For the most part, the scientific community only has itself to blame for this situation by allowing itself to be taken advantage of by the commercial publishers. Societies such as the British Ecological Society, the Linnean Society and the Royal Entomological Society should consider taking their publications back in house, thus cutting out the middle man and allowing them to reduce prices while maintaining their profits. They might consider whether they could benefit from the publishing experience of societies, and other institutions, in other European countries. University Vice-Chancellors should consider whether they are getting value for money from the time their staff give to producing for profit journals. Independent not for profit publishers should consider whether they might seek an alliance with a like-minded society before their financial situation becomes desperate. Publishers should pay for the copyrights transferred to them. Charities that act as grant giving bodies should consider making it a condition of their grants that any papers resulting from their grants were offered, in the first place, to journals published directly by societies or to other not for profit journals. Ensuring such a throughput of research papers would make it easier for these journals to compete with the commercial publishers.

February 2004

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