Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Biochemical Society


  1  The Biochemical Society is committed to the scientific community, and to its members, to foster scholarly communication through high-quality publications delivered quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively, using the best economic model available to enable it to continue its other vital areas of activity.

  2  The surplus from the Society's publishing activities, the so-called "science dividend" supports its other charitable objectives and it is not clear how these vital activities could continue to take place if the Biochemical Society was unable to continue funding them. This contrasts with the commercial sector where profits are used to support shareholders.

  3  Government intervention is needed to increase the amount available to its higher education institutions for library acquisitions to keep pace with the research output.

  4  Government action in resolving the adverse effects of VAT on electronic journals would be welcome.

  5  On the open-access question, "It is the competitive and well-functioning market, and not governments, that must choose which business models and which publishers are best equipped to stay apace of the ever-increasing demand for information exchange".

  6  It is essential that the British Library be provided with the funding to enable it to undertake the archiving, management and long-term preservation of electronic material.

  7  The author-pays model is likely to lead to lower rejection rates and a reduction in quality. The incidence of undetected plagiarism and malpractice seems likely to increase in any environment light on peer-review.

1.   What is the Biochemical Society?

  1.1  The Biochemical Society, established in 1911, is the UK's largest and most successful learned society in the area of the biosciences. The mission of the Biochemical Society is to promote the advancement of the science of biochemistry. This is accomplished by:

    —  efficiently publishing a range of excellent journals and books;

    —  organizing a major annual international scientific meeting in the UK and a number of Harden Conferences and other specialized focus meetings around the regions;

    —  rewarding academic excellence via its prestigious named-Medal awards;

    —  providing grants and bursaries for scientists (particularly students) to attend its own and other meetings both in the UK and overseas;

    —  providing support for scientific educational activities, including communication with the public; and

    —  acting as an advocate for biochemistry, and the biosciences in general, to government agencies with regard to policy matters.

  1.2  The Society has around 7000 members, approximately 27% of whom are based overseas, including N and S America, Asia, Africa and Australasia. The majority of the members are active research scientists, although in any one year it has around 2000 student members (who pay a heavily discounted membership fee). Revenues from members' subscriptions barely cover the direct benefits that members receive.

  1.3  The Biochemical Society is a major sustaining member of the UK Biosciences Federation. It has provided, and indeed continues to provide, much of the financial support necessary for the establishment and maintenance of this important representative body.

  1.4  The surplus from the Society's publishing activities, the so-called "science dividend" supports its other charitable objectives and it is not clear how these vital activities could continue to take place if the Biochemical Society was unable to continue funding them. This contrasts with the commercial sector where profits are used to support shareholders.

  1.5  The Biochemical Society carries out its scholarly communication under the auspices of its wholly owned, successful, publishing subsidiary, Portland Press Limited. The Biochemical Society thus retains complete control over its publishing policy (in relation to price, access, etc.) and in this respect it is different from many other learned societies who have contracted out this activity to commercial publishers and some of whom have sacrificed their "mission" in favour of the "money" in the process.

2.   Portland Press Limited

  2.2  Portland Press Limited publishes and distributes the Biochemical Journal, Biochemical Society Transactions, Clinical Science, Biochemical Society Symposia, Essays in Biochemistry and The Biochemist (and its on-line counterpart Biochemist e-volution) on behalf of its owner, The Biochemical Society.

  2.3  It has also published a prize-winning series of nine children's books under the makingsenseofscience imprint as part of its commitment to the public awareness of science. Portland Press Limited also publishes journals on behalf of third parties and provides an extensive range of publishing services (eg membership, and journal and book fulfilment, distribution and meetings registration) to other publishers and sister societies via its Customer Services Centre, Colchester.

  2.4  Portland Press delivers between one-half and three-quarters of a million pounds each year via gift aid to the Biochemical Society to enable it to carry out its charitable objectives. This is the so-called `science dividend'.

3.   The Biochemical Journal

  3.1  The Biochemical Society's flagship journal, the Biochemical Journal is Europe's leading biochemistry journal (ISI impact factor 4.589; cited half-life 7.8).

  3.2  The publishing policy of this Journal serves to illustrate the fine balance that a learned society publisher achieves between its mission (namely to maximize dissemination of its subject), while at the same time providing an adequate source of revenue to support its other important activities.

  3.3  The Biochemical Society has made strenuous efforts to make its scientific information as accessible as possible to research scientists, the teaching community and the public via its online journals.

  3.4  The Biochemical Journal was among the first to make its accepted papers available online free of charge on the day that they were accepted as Immediate Publications (IMPs). The final papers with the value that Portland Press adds (editing, integration of text and graphics, inclusion of video clips, three-dimensional structures and reference linking), are also freely available online at the end of each calendar year. In addition, as part of the celebrations of the Journal's centenary (2006), the entire electronic archive will be made freely available to anyone with internet access anywhere in the world.

  3.5  The high costs of peer-review (including investment in a web-enabled online submission and peer-review system and substantial financial support for the Editorial Board - £186,000 per annum for the Biochemical Journal alone) and subsequent publication of the Journal, online or as paper copies, have traditionally been covered by subscription revenues from libraries in academia and industry, and from individuals. Unlike many N American journals, there are no page charges levied on any of the Society's journals.

  3.6  The Society's publishing subsidiary has a strategy of reasonable (close to inflation only) pricing, and liberal licensing arrangements. At around £0.18 per page to libraries, the Biochemical Journal is clearly affordable and represents extremely good value for money. Subscriptions to the Biochemical Journal and other Society journals also include site-wide online access by subscribing institutions for one contiguous site. In addition, multi-site or multi-journal access is also available at an additional charge.

  3.7  The Society provides free access to current and past journal issues to many developing countries without subscriptions. This is accomplished via the HINARI initiative led by the World Health Organization.

  3.8  There is a very high usage rate of the Society's online publications: there are over five million total page views of the Society's online journals per annum (just over four million of which were of the Biochemical Journal) and usage continues to increase. These figures are COUNTER level 2 compliant.

4.   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?

  4.1  Publishing is an expensive business and these not insubstantial costs need to be recovered regardless of the business model employed. Publishers need to make profits, not only to support the activities of scholarly societies (or shareholders in the case of commercial publishers), but also to support the massive investment in new hardware and software systems, and processes, such as the provision of technical support for electronic journals, necessary to stay in business.

  4.2  Publishers in the commercial and not-for-profit sectors have collaborated to adopt standards for greater interoperability, such as CrossRef, and for electronic usage statistics, such as COUNTER. Without reasonable profit margins, publishers would not be able to invest in these enhancements to the scientific record.

  4.3  While it would be hard to disagree that the very high margins enjoyed by some commercial publishers (notably Reed Elsevier) have contributed to the "library crisis" in serial purchasing, another major contributory factor has been that research output, encouraged by Government through the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), has consistently outstripped the acquisition budgets available to libraries.

  4.4  Both commercial and not-for-profit publishers have invested heavily in electronic publishing and the availability of electronic versions has facilitated the evolution of new add-ons to the basic subscription model, for example, site-licences and consortia deals.

  4.5  However, electronic publishing has not so far led to a major decrease in the cost of publishing. This is largely owing to the slow speed of cultural change, which has led to what many perceive to be the unreasonable persistence of print.

  4.6  Publishers' fixed costs (cost of peer review, staff costs, cost of origination of digital information and posting and maintaining online and associated overheads and capital expenditure) are the same whether publishing takes place online or in print. Manufacturing and distributing the paper versions are variable costs and may decline in the long term, but the change from paper subscriptions to online only by subscribing institutions has been slow (for example, only 4% of subscriptions to Biochemical Journal were online-only in 2003).

  4.7  As the electronic version (with its multi-media adjuncts and other online-only features) has become the journal of record, academic researchers have become more familiar with, and trusting of, the electronic publishing environment.

  4.8  A real answer would be for more librarians to opt for online-only journals in the existing model. Savings on the cost of purchasing hard copies, binding and storage, shelving, etc. would reduce their overhead costs considerably and free up additional funds for acquisitions. Publishers' costs would then also be considerably reduced (although the usual commercial suspects might just increase their margins even more!). However, librarians remain concerned about archiving issues in the digital environment and an important role for the Legal Deposit Libraries could be envisaged in this respect.

  4.9  The Big Deal (BD) is a term used to describe the situation where a publisher bundles online access to its entire journal content for a fixed price—usually based on current spend plus a negotiated increase. The BD usually refers to deals negotiated by the largest journal publishers with hundreds of journals (the three largest players are Elsevier, Taylor and Francis, and the recently merged Kluwer/Springer) locking libraries into multi-year, no-cancellation agreements. These larger publishers admit to protecting their share of the available funds, but point out the BD also encourages usage. In theory the pricing is simple, but in practice it has proved quite complex.

  4.10  The main recipients of the publisher BDs are the larger library consortia groups. These are either state-wide consortia in North America (eg OhioLink), national or regional library groups in Europe (eg BIBSAM, Sweden; NESLI, UK) and the rest of the world, or multi-national companies, eg pharmaceutical companies.

  4.11  From the library point of view, opinions are split. The OhioLink consortium has been one of the most active in signing up for the BD and its experience is widely cited for the considerable increase in usage of both journals already subscribed to and to those not previously taken. Others who have participated in the BD (eg University of North Carolina) have said that the BD is difficult to administer/manage and that they want more subject-relevant deals. Even supporters of the BD are unsure whether the model is sustainable.

  4.12  One of the main concerns about BDs is that these will "top-slice" a larger and larger share of the library budget, leading to cancellations of journals published by smaller publishers, of which the learned society publishers are a large group. To counter this, some of the better-resourced society publishers [for example, the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) and the Institute of Physics (IOP)] have been quite successful in selling subject bundles. This still leaves out the smaller (1-5 journal) society publishers, without such resources, although there have been attempts to address this by intermediaries like Ingenta and ALPSP Learned Journals Collection (ALJC).

  4.13  Libraries do, of course, have a choice as to whether to sign up for these deals or not. Larger consortia have discovered that that they can use their considerable buying power to influence change in the terms and conditions of the BD in a way that individual libraries could not. There have been a number of high-profile cases recently of institutions in the USA (California in particular) threatening to drop out of the Elsevier BD.

  4.14  Some publishers are beginning to explore tiered pricing models based on the size of the institutions (in terms of numbers of student FTEs and faculty), although this is not yet widespread.

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

  5.1  The UK is fortunate in possessing a number of world-class scholarly Societies, such as the Biochemical Society, the Society for General Microbiology, the IOP and the RSC, to name but a few, who all contribute to a thriving science, technical and medical (STM) publishing industry sector. This sector as a whole contributes to the financial health of "UK plc".

  5.2  The UK has much that would be put at risk by any de-stabilization of its successful scholarly publishing industry in terms of exports, employment and sources of non-governmental support for the science base.

  5.3  In any event, publishing is an international activity and for many publishers, including Portland Press Limited, the UK is a comparatively small market for both subscriptions and submissions.

  5.4  For the Society's flagship journal, the Biochemical Journal, for example:

SubscribersSubmissions from authors

-13% in UK-13% from UK
-36% in USA-28% from the Americas (of which 26% from USA)
-24% Rest of Europe-34% from rest of Europe
-27% Rest of World-25% from the rest of World

  5.5  It is interesting to explore why so few submissions originate from the UK. This used not to be the case and can be traced back to the undue emphasis placed on publishing only in the highest-impact journals possible in the original RAE. This led to the wholesale flight of British researchers away from reasonably priced, well-respected UK learned society journals to American Society journals (with their inherent bias to citing only US-published authors). This pressure has also reinforced the dominant position of commercial publishers, such as Nature Publishing Group and Cell Press—who publish exactly the type of journal that Public Library of Science (PLoS) Biology (arguably the most influential open-access journal) has been created to compete with.

  5.6  The resulting "publish or perish" culture that has developed in science has fuelled the steady increase in research output as measured by the number of articles published. For the Government to throw its support behind open-access publishers, whose stated aim is to change the publishing paradigm that its funding bodies have helped to create and sustain (grants and promotion are only awarded to academics with a track record of publishing in the highest-impact journals) would seem to show a distinct lack of joined-up thinking.

  5.7  It would be helpful if the STC could lend its support to " scholarly-friendly" learned society journals by ensuring that publication in such journals (with high standards of peer-review, an existing degree of open-access (free archives, IMPs), liberal copyright and licensing policies, and the "science dividend", etc.) is given full weight in any future RAE or at the very least by ensuring that such publication is not viewed pejoratively.

  5.8  There has been insufficient funding for the acquisitions budget of University libraries in the UK to keep pace with the increases in University research output (in fact, library budgets have often fallen in real terms). Government intervention to increase the amount available would be helpful, but seems unlikely.

  5.9  The Government could also ensure that adequate funds are available to the Legal Deposit Libraries to enable them to take on the task of the preservation of electronic data. Confidence in the preservation of digital archives should shift the trend towards online-only subscriptions and help the publishing community to realize some of the saving originally envisaged in the early days of electronic publishing.

  5.10  One important area where the Government could assist the market for scientific publications in a real sense would be removing the adverse effects of VAT on scientific publications. Currently, the sale of electronic publications within the UK is treated more harshly than the delivery of print-only publications, or than electronic publications outside the UK. This discriminates against UK libraries buying non-print journals. The easiest way of overcoming this problem would be to zero rate the supply of electronic journals within the UK.

6.   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?

  6.1  While Governments and other funding bodies have paid for research, traditionally publishers have been the agency through which this science is validated, via the peer-review process. Publishers have provided a neutral environment, free from financial taint, in which authors may publish their work and the cost of this validation has traditionally been paid by subscriptions.

  6.2  Many of the recent open-access initiatives are inherently flawed as it is openly acknowledged that the author acceptance fees charged by such journals ($500-$1,500) do not cover the costs of publication. In the case of PLoS, acceptance fees are heavily subsidized by a nine million dollar grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, but it is not clear how the funding gap is going to be filled in the long run when such subsidies come to an end.

  6.3  These subsidized experiments have led to completely unrealistic expectations among members of the research community as shown by the recent survey undertaken by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America [PNAS (2004), vol. 101, p. 1111].

  6.4  PNAS surveyed 600 corresponding authors of accepted papers and received 210 responses (34.4%). Almost half of the respondents were in favour of an open-access option. However, the vast majority of these (80%), were willing to pay a surcharge of only $500—about one-quarter of the amount that might be needed to cover the cost of operating this journal without subscription income. Only two respondents were willing to pay $2,000 for open access to their work.

  6.5  It is not clear what the effect on the amount of money available to carry out research would be if the open-access model is adopted—where will the extra money come from to pay the acceptance fee at a realistic rate (anything from $2,000-$10,000 for the most highly cited journals)? There is a distinct possibility that there will be less money available to actually carry out the research in the first place.

  6.6  There are a number of other worrisome features of the open-access model, besides any impact of the law of unintended consequences.

  6.7  Publication will be based on the authors' ability to pay. Although open-access publishers state that they will be willing to waive fees, say to authors from developing countries, it is not clear how this will be able to work in practice unless the percentage of such waivers is kept below an economically viable threshold, say less than 10%? Not all authors are in receipt of large research grants and it seem likely that the percentage of authors who cannot pay will be higher than 10%.

  6.8  The Biochemical Journal, along with many other journals has a rejection rate of 60%. It seems invidious that the authors of accepted papers should subsidize authors of rejected papers. In fact, why should an author pay at all for open-access when he or she could publish for free in a good journal like the Biochemical Journal that already makes its back archives freely available and its accepted un-edited papers freely available within five min of acceptance, has no page charges and in addition supports a major learned society via the "science dividend"? It may be that authors are not enough aware of the benefits of publishing in learned society journals. However, the likely answer is that such publication is discouraged by Heads of Departments seeking for higher departmental RAE ratings.

  6.9  Quality and authenticity are protected under the existing system, ie the final authentic version of an accepted paper is the value-added paper published under the aegis of a particular trusted journal brand. Open-access could jeopardize the value publishers currently add to the scholarly record in terms of copy-editing to ensure the correct use of scientific nomenclature, to ensure reproducibility and improve readability (some open-access publishers do not carry out any copy-editing at all).

  6.10  In the open-access world it would appear that the only real winners are going to be corporate pharmaceutical companies who would no longer have to pay to access information (and whose employees are not subject to so much pressure to publish or perish). Where would the money come from to make up the shortfall caused by these vanished subscriptions? It would be naïve to assume that such companies would donate the money saved from corporate subscriptions to support open access.

  6.11  Proponents of open access conveniently overlook the vast overhead in the current HE library system by comparison with the small (and declining) proportion going toward journal collections. As open-access is not a suitable model for journals containing invited reviews, journals containing commissioned news and views, conference proceedings, books, etc., the costs of maintaining the library is unlikely to reduce by the amount necessary to pay for open access. It is wishful thinking to assume that it will be possible to re-direct money away from HE libraries to government funding bodies to pay for author acceptance fees at an economically viable rate.

  6.12  Even if an existing journal publisher decides that open access is a desirable objective, it is difficult to imagine a transitional state that will not run into financial difficulties along the way: the perennial "how do you get there from here?" question.

  6.13  While publishers might not need to collect subscriptions from institutions in an open-access model, they will need to collect fees from multiple individuals instead, which is likely to be much more time-consuming and troublesome—and therefore more expensive to both the paying and collecting institutions.

  6.14  There is a real lack of evidence that an author-pays model can be economically viable, but there are, however, examples of publishers who have previously made their publications open-access, but who have not been able to sustain this model for economic reasons. The most well-known examples are the British Medical Journal, which has allowed unfettered access online for a number of years, but has announced the introduction of access controls in 2004, and the Journal of High Energy Physics, published by the Institute of Physics, which has also been unable to sustain an open-access model on reaching a certain level of article submission.

  6.15  There have been many studies carried out by ALPSP and others that show what authors want out of publishing. Authors should be allowed to continue be the best judges of where it is appropriate to publish their work, to advance their careers, and secure future funding.

  6.16  The Wellcome Trust (UK) and the Howard Hughes Foundation (USA) have indicated that they will permit their grants to be used to pay for open-access and it would seem appropriate for the Government to decide whether to encourage its research councils to follow suit, provided there is no element of coercion, which could be construed as an attack on academic freedom. However, such encouragement would be mere gesture politics if additional funds were not made available to cover realistic publication charges. Such money, if forthcoming, would surely be better employed in improving the career prospects and rewards of research scientists?

  6.17  Publishing is a billion dollar global industry and it seems like a pie-in-the-sky scenario to imagine that it could be supplanted by open-access journals. Indeed it is not clear whether there is sufficient incentive on the part of the author community for such change. After all, if authors were really so concerned about these issues they could already refuse to publish in, or serve as editors for, over-priced commercial journals.

  6.18  The risk to learned society publishers, with their lower operating margins, is likely to be greater than to their commercial brethren. Any artificial interference in the current system could result in the disappearance of the "science dividend" generated by learned society publishers. The valuable services they provide to their scientific communities could thus disappear.

  6.19  It seems apposite to quote the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers (STM), which, in its recent (November 2003) statement on open access, was of the view that:

    ""It is the competitive and well-functioning market, and not governments, that must choose which business models and which publishers are best equipped to stay apace of the ever-increasing demand for information exchange".

7.   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?

  7.1  Enabling legislation has been passed recently that will make it possible to regulate electronic journals in the future, but the current situation is that non-print scientific publications are not yet subject to the requirement of legal deposit.

  7.2  It is important that the legislation for access to deposited works should not be allowed to undermine publishers' subscription revenues or revenue from non-subscription sources (photocopying, document delivery, etc) and that is not its intention.

  7.3  Under "Library privilege", legal deposit libraries are allowed to supply copies of individual journal articles and book chapters for research and private study, so-called "Fair Dealing"". Other copies outwith this scope may be supplied under licence for which the publisher receives a copyright fee. The British Library working in collaboration with publishers has developed a system for the secure electronic delivery of such copies, improving the access of UK researchers to the information that they require.

  7.4  It is essential that the British Library be provided with the funding to enable it to undertake the archiving, management and long-term preservation of electronic material.

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

  8.1  Whether a journal is open-access or available on subscription should not inherently increase the risk of scientific fraud and malpractice, provided that the highest standards of peer-review are observed.

  8.2  However, in a model where the only revenue stream is from the authors of accepted manuscripts, it is possible that an insidious bias towards acceptance could be created. The author-pays model is likely to lead to lower rejection rates and a reduction in quality. The incidence of undetected plagiarism and malpractice seems likely to increase in any environment light on peer-review.

  8.3  The extreme ease with which readers can cut and paste text in a digital environment obviously makes it easier to plagiarize large quantities of text. But the ease of searching large amounts of data also makes it easier to detect.

  8.4  The major driver of fraud and malpractice would seem to be the extreme pressure on researchers to publish on order to progress their careers and receive reward and recognition.

  8.5  Peer-review, although not perfect, has proved adept at revealing instances of fraud and breaches of ethics in publication.

9.   Useful sources (legal deposit update) (Copyright Licensing Agency update on changes to UK Copyright Law)

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