Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the University Library, University of Abertay, Dundee

1.   "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?"

  On a superficial level it might be thought that the development of electronic publications has been of great benefit to libraries and the communities they serve. Provision of "big deal schemes" by publishers like Elsevier, and aggregators like Ebsco, mean that library users have access to hundreds of electronic journals which would not readily be available to them in print form.

  Electronic publications can be accessed 24 hours a day.

  A widely accepted authentication system such as Athens means electronic publications can be accessed by authorised users from wherever they are in the world.

  Sophisticated search engines mean users can find relevant journal articles or chapters in books much more quickly than in print format.

  Library staff time is saved by not having to check in, shelve, re-shelve and replace lost issues of journals. Fines for overdue items are eliminated.

  Lecturers can make links to specific items in reading lists and other teaching materials.

  Libraries accept that all this has made a positive impact on the service they provide.


  There is a lack of any common policy among publishers and their provision of electronic journals. The drawbacks can be roughly classified as inflexibility, lack of consultation, financial planning, licensing, and user support.


  Some publishers or aggregators provide "big deal" packages with access to all or most of their journals regardless of whether the titles are relevant to the readership of the Library concerned. A better model is operated by other publishers which require a minimum purchase of say 20 titles at a flat rate per title, sometimes a substantial reduction on the print subscription.

  Deals are restrictive in that they do not usually permit any cancellation of print spend in order to benefit from an increased spend on electronic packages.


  Publishers and aggregators are not generally pro-active in communicating information about their pricing and access policies. They change the rules at their discretion with little or no notice or consultation, eg

    —  change from print with optional online access to a choice of three levels of subscription, with the cheapest level being online only and no option for print only;

    —  change archival access from "all available issues" (as initially signed up for) to "build your own archive" over the years as paid to have a "rolling archive" eg access to the current year plus one previous year. This makes it difficult for lecturers using reading lists from year to year, where the lists contain references to electronic journal articles;

    —  "bundle" titles so that in order to have access to the individual title already subscribed to libraries must also purchase (at greater cost) unwanted titles;

    —  require libraries to purchase a site licence;

    —  charge an institutional subscription (significantly more expensive than a personal one), but provide full archival access only to one named individual within the organisation;

    —  withdraw 34 titles and add three over a two-three year period; and

    —  transfer titles to other publishers whose policy on pricing and provision is usually different eg off-campus access may not be permitted.


  Deals often take a long time to negotiate or re-negotiate meaning financial planning is difficult and access can be interrupted. Long term deals eg five years make financial planning easier but may cause problems if the teaching profile changes in that time and libraries need to purchase new titles in a different subject area.

  Users become accustomed to access to a large variety of electronic journals. If a "big deal" package becomes too expensive for the Library to maintain a subscription, users do not necessarily understand the economic argument. Most publishers currently operate on an "all or nothing" basis whereas most libraries would prefer the option to have a personalised package to suit their users.

  VAT is added to electronic publication costs and cannot be reclaimed by universities. A significant and growing proportion of our materials budget is lost in this way each year. SCONUL (Society of College, National and University Libraries) and the Publishers Association lobbied the European Commission on this issue in 2003, but were unsuccessful.

  Publishers are less than transparent about the proportion of a joint print/online subscription on which VAT is charged.

  Currently a substantial amount of money is top sliced and given to agents such as CHEST to negotiate deals on behalf of higher education. Frequently these negotiations take a long time and deals then have to be signed up to at short notice. Sometimes there is a requirement for a minimum number of HEIs to sign up. As a result HEIs may resort to doing their own negotiations, sometimes achieving better deals, but creating the wrong sort of competition, and using valuable staff time in duplication of effort.


  Off campus access is not universal. Some publishers permit this, others do not. Some publishers permit access outwith the UK; others do not.

  Some publishers embargo recent issues of journals for sometimes up to a year. This can vary among aggregators, so that some do provide access to current issues and others do not.

  Licensing conditions vary among publishers, and often do not make provision for the specific uses of electronic publications made by academic institutions eg making multiple copies of individual articles for classroom use. Some publishers permit this; others permit a specified number of copies; others charge large fees for permission.

  Government are encouraging increased participation in and expansion of higher education so resources must be available to authorised users however, whenever and wherever they choose to use them.


  The lack of consistency in provision among publishers and aggregators means a considerable amount of staff time is required to ascertain and communicate accurately to library users what titles are available electronically and what the level of access is to them.

  Management tools have been developed which will help to a certain extent. However, additional staff time is required for user education, as there is little consistency of interface, search syntax etc in electronic publication, and in most cases it is less than intuitive for the unskilled or inexperienced user.

  24 hour access depends on a robust infrastructure. Users working off campus may be dependent on a slower internet connection than on-campus users and this can cause frustration and confusion.

  Some electronic publications require specialist software to be downloaded to the user's PC.

  Library staff may spend further time diagnosing whether the fault lies with the network, the hardware, the software, or at the publisher's server. If the last, is it a temporary fault, or one which requires notification.

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

  We would like to see publishers

    —  adopt a minimum standard for pricing, provision and licensing of electronic journals, with freedom to grant additional benefits if they wish;

    —  state clearly what options are available for subscriptions;

    —  maintain access without change for the period of the subscription;

    —  state clearly what archival access is available;

    —  state clearly who may have access and from where;

    —  offer a site licence as standard with common authentication eg Athens; not single user or restricted numbers or individual passwords unless there is obvious financial advantage;

    —  state clearly what use is permitted eg inter-library loan, reserve collections, course packs, virtual learning environments, multiple copies;

    —  allow flexibility of choice of titles from publisher portfolio, not "all or nothing"; and

    —  negotiate quickly and fairly with agents to achieve the best deals for HE.

  We would like to see the government remove or reduce VAT for electronic publications.

3.   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?

  As librarians we would welcome this development. However there would need to be procedures in place to ensure the same rigorous review as exists in peer-reviewed print journals. There must be increased recognition that these are quality journals. The RAE must recognise and encourage this, and not penalise researchers for publishing in open access journals.

4.   "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?"

  Traditionally access to legal deposit libraries by researchers has not been easy, and has not been actively encouraged. The Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003 gives these libraries the right to claim electronic publications as well as print. It will be interesting to see how the National Library of Scotland is able to implement its plans to negotiate licensing agreements with publishers and make remote access to electronic resources available through partnerships with other libraries.

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

  It could be argued that there is less chance of fraud as electronic publications are more accessible to more people and therefore subject to more scrutiny. On the other hand, electronic publications are easier to copy from and amend, thus increasing the risk of plagiarism and other illegal use.

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