Memorandum from Professor D F Williams,
University of Liverpool
I refer to the inquiry into publishing in Science
Technology and Medicine and am pleased to submit my views to you.
These views are based on the following experiences.
1. I am currently Director of the UK Centre
for Tissue Engineering at the University of Liverpool, an interdisciplinary
research centre established and resourced by OST through BBSRC,
EPSRC and MRC. I have the responsibility of optimising the quality
and quantity of the published output of all staff employed in
2. I am Editor-in-Chief of the journal Biomaterials,
published by Elsevier. This is one of Elsevier's leading journals
and is itself a leading journal in the interdisciplinary field
of medical engineering. We publish the journal in hard copy, typically
24 issues and 5,000 pages per year, and papers are published on-line
in a pre-print archive after peer review. I have the responsibility
to the scientific community of providing the highest level of
peer review and the shortest publication times consistent with
3. I have recently held the position of
Senior Pro Vice Chancellor of a Russell Group University with
responsibility for resource allocation of both academic and IT/library
sectors and for the planning of RAE submissions.
4. I am a Fellow of the Royal Academy of
Engineering. A copy of this submission is being provided to the
Academy, who may use it in the preparation of their submission
to your committee.
My views are given first in general terms and
then in answer to the specific questions raised.
Much has been written and said recently about
the putative profit-taking of the STM publishing sector and the
claims that these profits are unreasonably derived from the work
of scientists who provide this output free of charge.
There is no doubt that publishers did increase
subscription rates to journals in the last decade by amounts greater
than the rate of inflation, and that this was facilitated by the
flurry of mergers and acquisitions in the industry at that time,
which has resulted in the creation of a small number of powerful
STM publishing houses. I have no strong views on whether this
is a good or bad situation; it is certainly a matter of theoretical
concern if monopolies or cartels arise from this process but I
see no evidence of this yet and I am more inclined to the view
that the concentration of expertise in advanced technical publishing
and economies of scale outweigh the disadvantages. I am also of
the view that this situation is a matter of commercial reality,
which operates on a global scale, and which is no different to
that seen in other service, manufacturing and retail sectors.
I see no role at all for government intervention and indeed I
cannot see how government would be sufficiently competent to intervene
in any helpful, constructive way.
What does matter is whether the rapidly changing
publishing environment is best serving the scientific community
and those that provide the resource for scientific research. This
cannot be entirely separated from the financial basis of publishing,
but it is important to establish the factors that control the
quality of scientific publishing and the effective distribution
of published output rather than concentrating solely on financial
matters. In my view, the optimal financial basis should follow
from an analysis of these factors and not be pre-determined by
some philosophical concern about the control of the scientific
media. It is immensely important that we all recognise the fact
(as indeed OST has done recently with the adjustment of research
council overheads) that scientific research is expensive and that
the publication of research output is as important and as expensive
as any other part of the process. If governments espouse the principle
that the outcome of scientific research should be independent
of political process and ideology, then it follows that publishing
the conclusions of scientific research should also be, and seen
to be, independent of any political or governmental interference.
It is also frequently implied that the speed
of publication is a critical factor in this process, especially
in those areas of science that are moving fast. As an Editor-in-Chief
of a journal that is in such a position, I strive to shorten publication
times, but not at the expense of the quality of the review process
and I caution against the apparently remorseless drive towards
instantaneous publication. In my view, this is largely driven
by the career goals of the authors (PhD theses, promotion, grant
submission etc) and it is rarely in the interests of the promotion
of good quality science.
There is no shortage of material to publish
and there is no shortage of publishing outlets. Supply and demand,
overall, are equivalent. The real issues are the differentiation
of good quality scientific material from second rate inferior
science, and the differentiation of reputable, quality publications
from other forms of scientific publishing. The best interests
of academia, the publishing sector and of government are best
served by recognising these issues and ensuring that systems exist
for the promotion of excellence in science publishing.
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?
There is no doubt that recent trends in subscriptions
to journals through the major publishing houses has perturbed
the academic libraries, which may still be struggling to adapt.
Equally, when faced with the up-front costs of some of these "big
deal schemes", they do seem to be expensive. Several points
should be borne in mind.
(a) In reality, scientists, and their students,
in well-found institutions (which could be a university, a department,
a research laboratory and so on) are far better off today than
they were five years ago in relation to their access to the scientific
literature. The publishers that make available both hard copy
and on-line access to their journals are providing a very important
service, which has increased the efficiency of literature searching
and awareness very considerably. This cannot be achieved without
cost and, although the subscriptions are high, they are not excessive.
(b) Even though many publishers are now large
and appear to have powerful positions with respect to setting
prices, the institutions themselves are capable of forming consortia
with equal purchasing power and it is logical that market forces
should equalise and provide an effective solution that meets the
requirements of both.
(c) The comment in (a) above refers to well-found
institutions. It is accepted that there will be many institutions,
both in the UK and overseas, that cannot reasonably afford these
subscriptions. With respect to overseas institutions from less
well-off countries, the publishers and some other organisations
are already putting in place schemes to assist some of these institutions,
which is to be welcomed. With respect to the UK, it has to be
said that there is no reason at all why all Higher Education Institutions
should have the same access to scientific publications. Not all
institutions work at the cutting edge of science, technology and
medicine, and many do not need access to the highest quality science
What action should Government, academic institutions
and publishers be taking to promote a competitive market in science
There is already a competitive market and nothing
should be done to interfere with it. Although there are several
deficiencies in its calculation and application, the Impact Factor
is an effective indicator of quality and the most efficient vehicle
for competition. In most sectors of science, technology and medicine
there is more than one good quality journal available for authors
and experience very clearly shows that there is strong competition
between editors as well as publishers. At the high quality end
of the spectrum it is difficult to see how academic institutions
can promote competition, and there is absolutely no role for Government.
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?
(a) Equally the Government should neither
support nor detract from the introduction of open-access journals.
Again I believe we should separate out the consideration of the
high quality journals from the remainder of science publishing.
I personally do not believe that open access is comparable with
high quality, peer reviewed scientific journals. To give an example,
my journal typically publishes 24 issues per year of some 5,000
pages. It is highly efficient through a web submission and review
procedure that turns around 2,000 papers per year with decisions
made in around 30 days, and with an eventual rejection rate of
80%. It has the highest Impact Factor in its subject area. The
publisher has no real interest in increasing page numbers even
more (they have doubled over the last four years) since this would
increase costs and subscription prices. I have every incentive
to optimise the review process so that high numbers of papers
are rejecting, thus ensuring the quality of the journal. An open
access journal, in which the author pays for the publication of
his work, and subscriptions are free, can only have the opposite
effect. The income is based on author payments and so there is
every incentive to reduce rejection rates in order to maintain
or increase income.
(b) It is a logical conclusion that high
quality journals will retain the current traditional subscription
basis. This leaves a large amount of science, which by definition
is of lesser quality science, which needs an outlet for publication.
I suspect that it is in this area that open-access journals will
thrive. Inevitably the difference between high and low quality
science and scientific publications will become more pronounced,
to the benefit of all. As such, the Research Assessment Exercise,
or its replacement, will clearly reflect the quality of individuals
who publish in the higher spectrum of journals. Editorial processes
will be enhanced by this separation. In other words, open-access
will help differentiate average science, which it will support,
from the higher quality science, which it will not.
(c) It should be said that this difference
will be good for all concerned. Peer review is essential for the
maintenance of quality and I suspect that peer review, which is
exceedingly difficult to manage, will only be effective in this
upper group. It will become recognised that these journals are
authoritative and the citation to these papers will continue to
be used in many important situations, including scientific, legal,
policy and other sectors. It is not so important that open access
journals have this cache, and such publications should be considered
as information exchanges rather than authoritative depositories
of scientific knowledge. Having said that, it is by no means clear
that open-access journals will be any less expensive to run, and
so market forces may well intervene.
How effective 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?
I have no views on this matter since I have
too little knowledge of Legal Deposit Libraries.
What impact will trends in academic journal publishing
have on the risks of scientific fraud and malpractice?
This is a difficult question since there are
many different aspects of "scientific fraud and malpractice".
It is known that there has been a tendency for some prestigious
journals to seek the more "sensational" papers, and
in doing so appear to favour, through favourable review processes,
the work of the better known scientists from better known institutions.
It is impossible for an individual to determine how widespread
this sort of action is outside of his or her own specific experience.
I personally do not know that this occurs although it is easy
to see how the editorial process could have such a bias and, on
this basis, could lead to scientific fraud in the context of publishing
work that has not actually been done. On the other hand, I do
not believe that this is really a function of the trends in academic
journal publishing but rather of the societal pressures on scientists
and their need to further their own career goals. The only way
to minimise the occurrence of such scientific fraud is to have
the highest standards of editorial and review processes, and in
the light of earlier comments, this is better achieved with current
top level editorial and publishing practices. I should add that
I am very concerned over the standards of publishing honesty and
etiquette on behalf of authors, with respect to minor plagiarism,
especially with authors of non-English speaking countries, and
multiple publishing of the same or similar work. Again, however,
I do not believe that this is a function of the publication media
but more of the society in which scientists work.
It will be clear from the tone of my general
comments and answers to specific questions that I do not believe
that there are serious problems within the scientific publishing
sector and that this is not an area for Government intervention.
I also believe that there is some serious misunderstanding about
the relative costs of traditional and open access routes to publication.
Good quality publishing is expensive, with actual costs being
in the region of US$ 3-4,000 per article, and there is no logic
in trying to minimise this cost if quality is sacrificed, especially
when considering that this cost is usually only a small fraction
of the cost of performing the research in the first place. There
is absolutely no reason for Government to be involved in controlling
the cost of the research (including staff salaries, consumables,
facilities etc) and equally there is no logic in Government being
involved in controlling the costs and procedures for this last
phase of the process.