Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Research Councils UK


  1.  Research Councils UK (RCUK) is a strategic partnership set up to champion the research, engineering and technology supported by the seven UK Research Councils. Through RCUK the Research Councils are working together with the Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB) to create a common framework for research, training and knowledge transfer. RCUK was launched on 1 May 2002 and further details are available at

  2.  The RCUK Strategy Group leads this partnership. The members of the RCUK Strategy Group are the Research Councils' Chief Executives along with the Director General of Research Councils; the AHRB Chief Executive attends meetings as an observer.

  3.  This memorandum is submitted by Research Councils UK on behalf of all the Research Councils and the AHRB, and represents our independent views. It does not include or necessarily reflect the views of the Office of Science and Technology (OST). RCUK welcomes the opportunity to respond to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee inquiry into scientific publications, which we have interpreted as covering all research publications, including the humanities and social sciences.

  4.  The following annexes are appended:

    —  recent initiatives in open-access publication Annex 1

    —  additional views from the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CCLRC)

Annex 2

    —  additional views from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Annex 3

    —  additional views from the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC)

Annex 4


  5.  For the Research Councils, the fundamental principle underpinning the issues considered by this Inquiry is that ideas and knowledge derived from publicly-funded research should be publicly available. Research Councils believe that the peer reviewed and published output of their funded research must be made available as widely and rapidly as possible to academic and other communities, eg public sector, business, voluntary sector[271]. Councils recognise that new Internet-based models for the publication of such output could play a useful role in the widening and speeding of this access, which in turn support the Research Councils' knowledge transfer strategies.

  6.  Another key principle for Research Councils is that researchers should be free to publish their output wherever they consider most appropriate for their audience.

  7.  Research Councils are taking a keen interest in the questions posed by this inquiry. The response below provides an indication of the issues that Research Councils are currently considering (see paragraph 14).

A.   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?

  8.  Scientific and learned journals are an important and necessary part of scholarly communication. Researchers use these journals to publish their findings, discover and challenge other people's findings and to further the development of their research. Journals are a highly specialised resource: a particular title is only available from its publisher and it is not interchangeable. This leads to weak competition and no pressure to restrict price rises.

  9.  For 20 years, journal subscription prices have been rising well above the rate of inflation—caused partly by the increased volume of papers submitted and published, and partly by the increased commercialisation of scientific and scholarly publishing. Thus the total expenditure on journal subscriptions by UK university libraries in 2001-02 was £75 million and journal prices rose by 7.1% in 2001[272]. Access to journals from smaller academic societies is being disproportionately affected, as the major scientific publishers "bundle" their journals to secure purchasing. Libraries everywhere find that, through subscription, they are acquiring a diminishing proportion of the world scholarship for the communities they serve. This restriction on access obviously affects poorer institutions and countries most. Researchers have begun to complain about a system that asks them to submit (donate) their research to publishers, and provide peer review and editing services for free, but which then requires them (or their institutions) to pay journal subscriptions to the publishers. In addition, some journals also require payment of page or colour charges.

  10.  Research Councils are concerned that the output from publicly funded research is handed free of charge to commercial organisations that appear increasingly to make it more difficult to gain access to publications derived from the same research. This perception reflects a worldwide problem being faced by academics, librarians and other interested parties. Consequently, there has been a great deal of debate in the research community around the issue of free online access to research results—open-access publication.

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

  11.  Research Councils have noted (paragraphs 8 and 9) that the market in publications is imperfect. Open-access publication may help to create a more competitive market through the development of alternative models to printed publication (see paragraph 13). Proponents of the open-access approach suggest that such models provide variety and can genuinely enhance competition.

  12.  A more specific issue is that electronic publications attract a VAT rate of 17.5%, whereas printed publications are zero rated. The Government should consider rectifying this anomaly if it wishes to create a level playing field in the publications market.

C.   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?

  13.  Open-access publication is the process whereby the full text of original research articles is made freely available to readers via the Internet, thereby reducing or eliminating the need to subscribe to paper journals. The perceived benefit is that the results of research would become much more globally and instantly available. There are three possible models for making information available in open-access:

    —  Publishing peer-reviewed material in electronic, open-access journals.

    —  Creating archives on institutional websites (eg universities, research funders), where the author places a copy of the work, before or after publication, in a system belonging to, for example, the institution for which s/he works. Such archives could apply to Research Councils which run Institutes and directly employ their own staff as well as other Research Councils wishing to provide increased access to research funded by them[0]. These archives are usually structured and organized for optimal retrieval and interoperability with other archives.

    —  Researchers' self-archiving on their own websites, often in advance of peer review and publication, relying on computer-based search techniques to provide access routes to their publication(s).

  14.  Open-access publication is just starting to influence the way that research papers are published; a number of recent developments and initiatives are listed at Annex 1. It is too early to gauge the longer-term impact of open-access publication or to reach a judgement about how widespread it will become in future. In the context of these ongoing developments, it is clear that Research Councils have an interest in helping to shape the way that new publication regimes evolve. At this stage, however, Research Councils are still in the process of formulating a view on how best to approach the challenges and concerns posed by the spread of open-access publication - for instance, the MRC is currently conducting a web-based consultation[273] and NERC will be conducting a consultation within its own community during March-April. There is a need for more evidence on the merits of open publication from the research community, not least from librarians, who have a good understanding of the needs of their users. Research Councils recognise that many issues need to be addressed jointly, where appropriate in conjunction with other parties such as Universities UK and the Wellcome Trust.

  15.  There are five broad issues that Research Councils will consider in framing their approach to open-access publication:

    —  economic model;

    —  peer review and evaluation;

    —  digital preservation;

    —  legal issues; and

    —  the position of Learned Societies.

  16.   Economic model

  16.1  With printed journal publication, the direct cost is borne by subscribers (ie libraries, institutional and individual subscribers). In open-access models, costs of publication are not eliminated, but merely shifted (although they may be reduced—see paragraph 16.3). With open-access journals, it is the researchers who pay for the publication of their material[274], raising the question of whether and how research funders, including the Research Councils, should cover the cost of publication in their grants[275].

  16.2  The costs of publishing could increase considerably were open-access publication to become more generalised. The journal Science has estimated that it would have to charge $10,000 per paper were it to move to open-access publication[276]. The flat fee model exemplified by BioMed Central (see Annex 1 paragraph 4) may be relatively cheap at the moment[277], but this is on the basis of a low current level of publication in BioMed Central electronic journals. Any further development of open-access publication could significantly increase the cost of such agreements.

  16.3  Conversely, there is evidence to suggest that electronic journal publication is cheaper than its printed equivalent because of lower costs of production and of competition from self-publishing. For instance, where it does not have a flat fee arrangement, BioMed Central charges $500 and the Public Library of Science $1,500 per accepted article; Oxford University Press charges £300 for an article to appear in the open-access database for Nucleic Acids Research. These costs are considerably lower that that suggested above by Science. Open-access publishers themselves claim that eventually the electronic journal model would be cost-neutral or lead to lower costs, as there would in time be savings to libraries based on their ability to cancel subscriptions to paper journals. However, until authors publish more in open-access journals this will not happen, and authors will not publish in e-journals until the latter's impact values increase. During the transition phase, overall costs may therefore increase before any savings can be made.

  16.4  There has not yet been any extensive modelling of the economics of open-access publication; this absence of good models underlines the uncertainty about the cost of publishing in electronic journals. Neither is there a full and shared understanding about the economic model of electronic publishing in a commercial environment.

  16.5  There is a danger that Research Councils may find themselves not only paying directly towards publishing/library charges, but also for publication costs. At present, most Research Councils do not permit grant-holders to apply for, or use, direct costs on grants for author charges[278], though they (or more strictly their institutions) may use the indirect costs (awarded as a 46 per cent supplement to salary costs) for this purpose[279]. Under the proposed transfer of responsibility stemming from the reform of the Dual Support system, Research Councils would contribute directly to library costs (currently paid entirely by the Education Departments through the Funding Council streams) through meeting their proportion of full economic costs, thereby paying towards subscription charges for journals. At the same time, they would also meet the same proportion of the costs of publishing their funded researchers' material in journals. Research Councils feel that the new TRAC[280] accounting methodology being introduced in universities should be sufficiently robust to ensure that institutions and research funders are not paying excessive author and subscription charges. In addition, Government should recognise that, as a consequence of Dual Support reform, Research Councils would be taking on additional publishing costs, and that this should be taken into account in setting Research Council budgets.

  16.6  The creation of archives on institutional websites does not carry any up-front publication costs. This type of open-access may be appealing because of its apparent cheapness. However, Research Councils (and in particular those with their own Institutes) are aware that the maintenance of such repositories could require a significant level of resourcing and management. There are also legal issues to consider (see paragraph 19.1).

  17.   Peer review and assessment

  17.1  The careers of researchers are dependent on assessment of quality (for appointments, promotions, formal reviews of research programmes etc); currently, data about where researchers publish and how much their publications are cited are often used a key piece of evidence to underpin such assessment. It is therefore important to ensure that peer reviewers and interview panels use the intrinsic quality of papers in open-access journals as the main measure of quality, not solely the journals in which they were published. Researchers would need to have the confidence that this was the case.

  17.2  It follows that it is critical for material published in open-access journals, as long as they are peer reviewed, to be included in any exercise (including the Research Assessment Exercise) which judges the worth of research output.

  17.3  A concern is that open-access could provide a financial incentive for some publishers to accept more papers (as income would be from payment to publish and not to subscribe) and maybe reduce the quality threshold for publications and subject them to less rigorous peer review. For others, it will clearly be in their interest to maintain rigorous standards, and conceivably to charge a premium accordingly. Research Councils strongly believe that rigorous, high quality peer review—which has served printed journals well for a very long time—remains a guarantor of quality whatever the medium and must be the norm for open-access journals.

  17.4  The open-access model has the flexibility to allow institutional archives and researchers' self-archiving to include material that has not yet been peer reviewed and published (preprints). This allows research results to rapidly be accessed in the public domain and to receive wide, critical exposure, in some fields (but by no means all) obviating the need for formal pre-publication peer-review. However, it is extremely important to distinguish such material from articles that are published electronically following peer review (postprints). Research Councils should be attentive to drawing the distinction between preprints and postprints for any material published on their own electronic archives.

  18.   Digital preservation

  Publications in printed form have survived and been archived for centuries. The challenge for open-access publication is to ensure that digital media remain as durable as printed material, and that the costs of long-term archiving are manageable[281],[282]. The issues in question extend beyond publication, into the realm of research datasets and linkage between papers and source data. It is conceivable to envisage the emergence of sophisticated cross-referencing between archives using developing technologies such as distributed networking. In particular:

    —  citations of other work and cross-references through hyperlinks make for much more efficient and effective use of a researcher's time;

    —  with an institutional or e-journal repository it is possible to have continuous peer-review with digitally-signed annotations linked to the publication; and

    —  the technology can make it possible to link to and use computer software and data referenced from a publication, allowing in-depth peer review and even experiment replication in silico.

  19.   Legal issues

  19.1  The placing of published material into repositories is dependent on authors having the right to make their output available for free. Over half of publishers now permit this but for those that do not, the impediment is the transfer of copyright that authors are expected to make to publishers. Research Councils would like to see retention of this copyright by authors in as many circumstances as possible. An important recent development is that the journal Nature has set up an agreement that allows authors to retain copyright, including the right to self-archive[283], in return for granting the journal a licence to publish and reproduce.

  19.2  At a fundamental level, the very definition of open-access publication, as contained in such authoritative declarations as the Bethesda Statement (see Annex 1 paragraph 7), might be problematic because it is not clear what the open-access domain could cover or exclude. NERC has voiced particular concern about entering into a commitment that could undermine its own role as an organisation that licenses key national data sets and information products.

  20.   Learned Societies

  Research Councils are aware of the concerns expressed by many Learned Societies. Some of these institutions generate significant income through publishing revenue (which feeds back into UK research, for example through sponsored meetings of researchers, fellowships and bursaries). Open-access publication could present a threat towards what is an important income stream for such organisations. Research Councils view Learned Societies as key members of their communities and are concerned to ensure that developing open-access publishing models do not impact on the Societies' long term financial viability.

  21.  Pending further consideration of the issues, Research Councils emphasise their commitment to the research they fund being as widely available as possible, whilst allowing scientists freedom to decide how to put this into effect. Moreover, worthwhile dissemination of research is also dependent on effective peer review. The current system has evolved to balance commercial considerations with the constraints of such review. Open-access is clearly a potential way forward for publishing, but an ill-considered rush into open-access would seem risky. A key "early win" would be for all publishers to make their back archives (say more than three or six months old) freely available, ideally all electronically in due course. Although an overnight revolution in publishing seems unlikely, there is already a need for scientists to be able to pay some publishing fees; Research Councils will need to ensure that this can be met, within reasonable limits. Research Councils will look at the scope for a pan-Research Council policy on publication—there is as yet no such policy, and each Council has its own approach.

D.   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?

  22.  The Research Councils do not have a view on this question.

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

  23.  If the publishing process remains peer-reviewed, or has some other form of quality control, then the production method should not affect the present level of risk. For items deposited within institutional repositories there should be safeguards to ensure that articles cannot be amended once entered.

  24.  Cases of scientific fraud and malpractice are rare, although the few cases that hit the headlines get a large coverage. This, in itself, acts as a deterrent against future malpractice. In principle, the wider the access is to a published article, the more likely it is that any fraud or malpractice in it will be detected. Plagiarism is rare, but electronic publication arguably makes it easier to detect, through word-matching.

  25.  On-line publication can offer opportunities to utilise technology, to link and use computer software and data referenced from a publication, to allow in-depth peer review (see paragraph 18). This has real potential to help support the European Science Foundation guidelines for good scientific practice[284].

February 2004

271   Some caution in relation to access is required in sensitive areas such as defence-related and work allowing the identification of individuals. In addition some material may be commercially exploitable and thus publishing may preclude or affect adversely patenting or claim of IPR. Back

272   Figure provided by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) in a paper to the RCUK Strategy Group, August 2003. Back

273   See Back

274   In some cases, national publication deals have been negotiated with open-access publishers-for instance, BioMed Central (See BioMed Central, in paragraph 4 of Annex 1). Back

275   Bearing in mind also that publication usually occurs after the end of the lifespan of the grant. Back

276   Science, 24 October 2003, page 550-554. Back

277   Research Council librarians have been quoted £10,000 pa for a scheme that would cover all Research Council staff. Back

278   EPSRC allows grantholders to apply for page charge as a direct cost. Back

279   Other funders, such as the Wellcome Trust, permit grant-holders to use some of the award for author charges. Back

280   TRAC: Transparency Review of Costing. Back

281   The long-term management of digital materials is currently an area of active research, for example, through the Digital Preservation Centre, funded through the JISC and the e-Science Core Programme. Back

282   In many areas of social sciences and in the arts and humanities, access to digital research resources is of critical importance. The preservation and access to archives of research publications which may retain a useful life for many decades are also vital issues. Back

283   As long as the author acknowledges the publication in Nature and provides URL links as appropriate. Back

284   "Good Scientific Practice in Research and Scholarship"-European Science Foundation policy briefing, 10 December 2000. Back

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