Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the British Ecological Society

  1.  The British Ecological Society is a learned society which aims to promote the science of ecology worldwide. It has 4,000 members. The Society is an independent body that receives no outside funding. The BES publishes four peer-reviewed, scientific journals in ecology. These journals all rank in the top 30 of the standard citation rankings but are relatively inexpensive. Its core income comes from publishing (77%), membership (10%) and investments (6%). This income is used to support the ecological community, both in the UK and overseas, in a wide variety of ways including:

    —  organising and subsidising international conferences;

    —  supporting the teaching of ecology in schools;

    —  promoting more effective use of ecological research in policy development the management of natural resources;

    —  increasing two-way dialogue between the public and academic ecologists; and

    —  providing an extensive range of grants to undertake ecological research, attend conferences, organise meetings and support ecologists in developing countries.

  2.  Many (but not all) commercial publishers are setting excessive prices for their journals; the large returns on capital employed that they can attain (up to 30%) represent a tax on science. Bundling of journals is superficially attractive to libraries and to their users, but in practice it involves a large subsidy by publicly-funded science to unsuccessful and marginal commercial journals from the overpricing of journals with a stronger scientific reputation. In that manner, it represents a distortion of the market.

  3.  The pressure to move to open-access publication is therefore a welcome restraint on the activities of the less scrupulous publishers. However, it also poses a serious threat to the activities of many learned societies that receive income from more responsible publishing practices. At present it is difficult to anticipate the likely market rate for author fees in an open access model but it seems very probable that overall income to learned societies will be significantly reduced if this publishing model is adopted universally. Societies in some fields have succeeded in diversifying their income sources; however, this is usually only possible where there is an active wealth-creating industry that is dependent on the science in question, notably in pharmaceuticals. Income from advertising and sponsorship can effectively replace publishing income in such cases. However, in disciplines such as ecology, alternative income streams are harder to identify.

  4.  In addition to reducing income from publishing, open access is likely to reduce income from membership for learned societies. The BES, in common with most learned societies, offers its members subscriptions to its journals at a nominal fee (£20 per journal per annum). This is a significant benefit and is one of the main reasons why members join. Open access would make this benefit to members redundant, resulting in fewer members and a further erosion of income. Please see the written evidence to the Committee from the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers and from the Institute of Biology for more comments on the impact of open access on learned societies.

  5.  The BES is actively exploring the possibility of moving one or more of its journals to an open-access basis, but it has serious concerns about the ability to offer access to scientists whose research is effectively unfunded. Quite apart from the need to provide access to authors from developing countries who cannot pay publication fees, there is an issue about the publication of research conducted without substantial external support. Although ecology as a discipline is increasingly embracing new (and expensive) technologies, which therefore require the substantial grant funding that enables open-access publication, it is still possible to make major advances in the science from data gathered by volunteers or students, especially in field work. Such projects can be undertaken, for example, in tropical regions where many key ecological questions need to be tackled. The volume of papers likely to be received by an ecological journal from authors without the funds to pay for publication is therefore likely to be greater than in other, more lab-based disciplines.

  6.  The British Ecological Society therefore supports the principle of open-access publishing, but is concerned that the motivation behind it has come from the excessive prices charged by a small number of commercial publishers, and that a consequence of its widespread adoption may well be a reduction of the beneficial influence that learned societies can play in science.

February 2004

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