Memorandum from the Royal Academy of Engineering
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?
1.1 Publishers' pricing policies for scientific
publishing have had, and continue to have, a significant negative
impact on libraries and the teaching and research communities
1.2 It is well documented that after more
than a decade of price inflation averaging +10% a year, UK higher
education libraries are unable to purchase many of the journals
which researchers deem essential for their work because of a lack
of funding. In comparison the average US research library purchases
four times as many research journals as a UK research library.
1.3 The underlying causes of this price
inflation is a subject of debate but includes a rise in the average
number of pages or articles in a journal volume. However, perhaps
the major underlying cause is the monopoly position of the publisher.
Authors are required by publishers to transfer copyright to the
publisher when they submit an article for publication. Journal
articles are not interchangeable; their uniqueness is one of their
essential qualities. The publisher therefore becomes the monopoly
supplier of the articles published.
1.4 Evidence of this monopoly position is
provided by the profit levels of commercial publishers of scientific/technical/medical
journals: Reed Elsevier, for example, reported an adjusted operating
profit margin for 2002 of 33% for its Science & Medical Division
(the most profitable of its four divisions). The position of the
leading commercial publishers has been further reinforced in recent
years as a result of a spate of merger and takeover activity.
Even learned societies seek to subsidise other activities from
surpluses on their journal publishing operations by extracting
from universities money over and above the cost of the production
and distribution of their journals.
1.5 It is becoming increasingly difficult
to resource adequately the library requirements associated with
new and developing research interests; it is frequently the case
that academics are advised that to fund journals in new research
areas it will be necessary to cancel other titles (which may already
be perceived as "core") of similar cost.
1.6 Although articles can be obtained via
inter-library loan schemes, they are not immediately available
to hand. This deters some researchers from requesting information
that could be of importance to their research.
1.7 The issue of "big deal schemes"
is perhaps more complex and more mixed in its impact. These schemes
are often multi-year, forcing libraries to commit future budgets
before either the budgets themselves or new claims upon them are
1.8 The availability of electronic journals
and related sectoral initiatives (eg the Pilot Site Licence Initiative
and similar subsequent developments) has enabled libraries to
increase the number of journal titles they can make available
to their users. Such deals, for instance, are of the "print
plus" variety where the individual institution will pay a
mark-up on the cost of their existing print journal subscriptions
and, in return, receive electronic access to the full range of
titles offered under the deal. However, the library has no choice
but to take the whole package. This drastically reduces the library's
control over the journals it makes available and its ability to
fine-tune the deployment of its budget. Although some of the additional
journals are useful, others are not.
1.9 Initially librarians and academics welcomed
"big deal schemes" since it appeared that by spending
a little extra there was a significant gain in access to sources
hitherto impossible to afford. However, because of the high rates
of inflation, the length of the deals and the inflexibility surrounding
cancellations there is increasing disquiet with "big deal
schemes". They are in effect a barrier to access. Ultimately
it may be that in retrospect these deals are seen as a backwards
1.10 An additional problem for university
library budgets in the shift from print to electronic publication
arises from the fact that electronic publications are subject
to the full rate of VAT, whereas printed publications are zero-rated.
2. What action should Government, academic
institutions and publishers be taking to promote a competitive
market in scientific publications?
2.1 Given the monopoly position of publishers,
and the recognition by the Office of Fair Trading
that "the market for STM journals may not be working well"
and that "many commercial journal prices appear high, at
the expense of education and research institutions", intervention
by the competition authorities seems necessary.
2.2 Future merger proposals should be strictly
monitored and investigated, to avoid the further enhancement of
a monopoly market. However, given the international nature of
the journals market, this will require co-operation with other
nations' competition authorities.
2.3 A review of pricing methods should be
implemented to ensure that they are transparent. Currently there
is a self-reinforcing hierarchy of journals where the best articles
are submitted for publication in the best journals, which thus
retain their positions in the future. This limits competition,
because it is almost impossible to set up a prestigious journal
2.4 Government could ease the pressure on
research library budgets by exempting educational institutions
from payment of VAT on electronic information resources, including
2.5 The development of institutional article
web repositories has made it feasible to consider a network whereby
all researchers will be encouraged to "self-archive"
their articles, which will then be accessible without charge.
The prototype for such a repository is the US-based high-energy
physics archive that has been in existence for more than a decade.
This has become an essential source for all such physics researchers.
2.6 The Joint Information Systems Committee
(JISC) has funded a number of projects in the UK, in which university
libraries are playing a leading role. Experience to date suggests
that the technical issues are relatively easy to solve, but encouraging
researchers to deposit their articles is more problematic. One
major reason for this is the perception that copyright transfer
prevents such an action: this may be a barrier in some cases,
but 55% of publishers already allow submissions to be deposited
in this way. Self-archiving can occur alongside traditional publishing.
There is little or no evidence that open access undermines the
commercial position of traditional publications. Such a process
would be greatly facilitated if project funding from the Research
Councils and similar bodies included a condition that resulting
research should be publicly available without precluding researchers
from continuing to publish in the standard peer-reviewed journals.
2.7 In promoting a competitive market universities
could also group together (eg under Universities UK) to bulk buy
journals and drive a harder bargain with the publishers.
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?
3.1 "Open-access" journals are
freely available to all web users. They are financed from fees
to publish in them, as opposed to subscriptions by purchasers.
The expectation, however, is that author fees will be paid from
research grants. The content is available to all without financial
3.2 JISC has recently brokered a deal with
the biggest open-access journal publisher, BioMed Central, to
waive the $500 per article author fee per accepted article for
UK higher education researchers, in order to encourage them to
try this new form of publication. JISC is also inviting bids to
fund, on a pilot basis, further examples of "open-access"
publications. In the medium term, the survival and growth of open-access
journals will depend on their ability to attract quality submissions
and the number of citations to articles in them. This discipline
should ensure that peer review remains stringent, and that ability
to pay is not the main criterion for acceptance.
3.3 It would also be an extremely important
step forward if funding bodies agreed that authors' publication
fees were an appropriate charge on research funds. The Wellcome
Trust has taken a lead in this respect in the UK. In the Berlin
Declaration late last year, all of Germany's principal scientific
and scholarly institutions, including the Max plank Society, as
well as a growing number of their counterparts in other countries
(eg the CNRS in France) have pledged their commitment to "open
access" in scientific and scholarly research.
3.4 Increasing numbers of open access journals
may, over time, cause the impact factors of certain titles to
change. Electronically available publications may well have higher
impact, as they are available more widely. This is bound to influence
research behaviour and the operation of the Research Assessment
3.5 It is thought to be advantageous if
the Science and Technology Select Committee were to recommend
that all authors, whose research is funded by the public purse,
should place a copy of their final publication in an Open Archive
repository or journal.
3.6 It is proposed also that the Select
Committee asks the Funding Councils to review their approach to
assessing research impact, and through agencies, such as the JISC
develop model publication licences and procedures which will promote
3.7 Authors, whose research is funded by
the public purse, should be encouraged to not sign away copyright
in their material to a commercial publisher and that the Funding
and Research Councils budget for the payment of author charges
in research grants.
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?
4.1 The Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003
is critical in terms of securing the deposit and preservation
of non-print scientific publications. The role of these libraries
should be defined as part of a national strategy to secure, maintain,
manage and make available the archive. It will take time and significant
resource for this to be implemented fully. Government must provide
sufficient funding to ensure the long-term preservation of this
4.2 The maintenance of e-sources in perpetuity
demands an ongoing investment in equipment along with the replacement
cycle costs that are involved. Additionally, it is difficult to
predict what media may become available in the future requiring
the wholesale transfer of data. It would be naïve to think
that new legislation alone will guarantee preservation and access.
5. What impact will trends in academic journal
publishing have on the risks of scientific fraud and malpractice?
5.1 On the basis of appropriate quality
control procedures being in place, it may be argued that the method
of publication should not affect adversely the present level of
risk. Safeguards need to be put in place to ensure that articles
deposited within institutional repositories cannot be amended
once entered. This would help alleviate concerns over which source
to cite when there is the potential for different versions of
the same article to exist in differing formats and repositories.
5.2 Increasing numbers of publications and
hence submissions may result in a less efficient or rigorous reviewing
process but the best long-term defence is a thriving commercially
led research publication. The broader the access to a published
article, the more likely it is that any fraud or malpractice in
it will be detected. Additionally, the practice of using large
international editorial boards and multiple geographically spread
editors is good to help identify fraud and to exclude it from
5.3 Even with adequate peer review procedures
there remains the issue of plagiarism. Evidence of abuse of the
web demonstrates that fraudulent use of information is already
with us. However, although e-sources are more open to manipulation
the development of anti-plagiarism software means it is easier
to detect and therefore restrain this type of activity.
5.4 If copyright is to be retained by the
authors then it will be for academic institutions or government,
rather than the commercial publishers, who will have to be prepared
to take legal action in response to acts of plagiarism.
212 Office of Fair Trading. "The market for
scientific, technical and medical journals". September
2002, p1. Back