Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


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 this centre.

  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 that review.

  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 publications.

What action should Government, academic institutions and publishers be taking to promote a competitive market in science publication?

  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.

February 2004

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