Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Ray Spier, University of Surrey

  I am a senior editor of three journals: Vaccine (Elsevier), Enzyme and Microbial Technology (Elsevier), and Science and Engineering Ethics (Opragen Publications).

  In relation to the first journal I am in receipt of funds that cover office and travel expenses, an honorarium and a royalty while for the second I obtain office and travel expenses and an honorarium. The third journal is a product of "The Spier Partnership" which established "Opragen Publications" that is wholly run by M.Spier (my wife). At present the income from this journal covers its operating expenses, which includes some travel expenses, leaving a small profit for the partnership.

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?

  They require purchaser institutions to formulate policies about journal usage and expenditure. It is also envisioned that the miles of shelving that the current rates of publication are demanding may finally be coming under a viable control. Also, big deal schemes enable increases in purchasing efficiency as one order may cover several hundred journal titles. In addition to the journals purchased, provisions may be made to use gateway facilities to the journals of other publishers via a functioning linking network.

  The teaching and research communities need information quickly (normally, now) and comprehensively. They need to have the sense that their resource base will not let them down when they seek the information they require. They also need to be able to generate paper copies of reviews and articles both for teaching purposes and for research. The physical process of conversion should be cheap, simple, reliable and readily to hand.

  So, from the teachers and researchers points of view, the more information that is available with the minimum of expenditure of energy and time is the ideal. The big schemes are more likely to provide these facilities to this kind of specification.

  It should also be noted that an open-access system that bye-passes academic and professional societies may deprive them of that necessary funding that enables them to effect their activities. This would lead to the enfeeblement of this sector of the professional world which would severely jeopardise the relationship between scientists, engineers and the public.

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

  Clearly, competition between publishing houses is the primary area for such interactions. For publishers to compete as a group with an open access system where the authors pay for their publication to appear on the web (where on the web?) is as yet an untried and untested approach to publication. There are several other issues that need to be considered. One is that authors in paying for publication expect to be published. This will lead to the flooding of the system with papers of widely varying degrees of excellence. Secondly, it will also make the archiving of such literature difficult as people, web sites and effort will be needed to both establish and maintain such sites with a high degree of access and reliability for an indefinite and extended future time.

  Should the academics want such a site there is nothing preventing them from proceeding. Indeed there are many such sites available today. However, some have come and gone while others survive by up-front funding provided by grant giving agencies.

  I would also wish the committee to note that scientific publications are not a commodity. They do not wax and wane in value as do the markets in silver or oil. Each publication constitutes an element in a self-supporting and growing entity that is the body-of-knowledge. Every such element has its shape, time and place and when these are out of kilter with the zeitgeist the publications are virtually worthless. However, each of these publications is needed to provide the groundwork for the next outstanding discovery or invention. By analogy, you may need a quarry full of gravel to find the odd precious stone; without the bulk of the supporting gravel the stone of real and exceptional value may not be formed.

  Nevertheless, when converted to intellectual property via the patent or secrecy system a value may be achieved by overt or blind auction with industry with little reversion to government, academia or the publishers to facilitate this process. It should be noted that this is a relatively rare process as most developments of commercial value are more efficiently generated in research institutions or in the R&D departments of industry.

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?

  I would imagine that judgements of quality would be more difficult were all publications subject to the vicissitudes of the open-access system. The laissez-faire ethos of the open-access procedures will leave referees and selection panel members with greater uncertainties than at present.

  Were the government to support this situation, then there will be an even larger increase in the ambiguity that necessarily results from the uncontrolled and unsupervised deposition on the web of publications of uncertain value.

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?

  I have no experience of this facility. As these libraries acquire paper versions of publications, I am not sure how well equipped they are to supply electronic publications to individual academics or researchers, particularly as many such electronic publications require subscription.

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

  The more publications, the greater the financial and personal pressures, the lower the quality of supervision and example by hard-pressed academics the more malpractice can be assumed. The frenetic nature of the present find collaborators-put in grant application-do the research- publish system the greater the pressures to cut corners and be either economical or overly-enthusiastic with the material at one's disposal.

  So we are seeing:

    —  multiple publication of the same or similar work;

    —  work that is bacon sliced into its minimal new information content;

    —  work that is statistically insignificant posing as worthwhile science;

    —  the operation of publication mills based on the application of a new technique to all and sundry;

    —  compliance to the dominant paradigm; and

    —  the misuse and abuse of the audiovisual media.

  In short, when the establishment withdrew its trust from academics and scientists as it made them compete with one another for scarce resources there was a radical decrease in quality (although not quantity) of the overall research output. Outstanding research, that takes years of patient, critical and stringent experimentation to achieve, was made harder, if not altogether impossible, to effect.

  As you sow; so do you reap.

February 2004

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