Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the University of Hertfordshire


  Over recent years the University of Hertfordshire has adopted policies and practices to exploit the benefits of digital technology for learning, teaching and research. The successful impact of this strategy is manifest in the embedded institution-wide use of a virtual managed learning environment, an integrated management information system and substantial digital library collections of e-journals, information databases and other e-sources, available 24/7 for on and off campus use.

  In implementing these significant cultural and practical changes, the University has accrued varied and extensive experience of the challenges and difficulties involved in making e-publications available to a large community of researchers, students and academic staff.

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.  Licensing and pricing of e-journals

  Whilst we are pleased to note the increasing use by publishers of the JISC recommended model licence, there remain many other licensing and pricing arrangements which appear to be overly complex, restrictive, unjustifiable and ill-suited to the needs of a modern university.

  Examples include:

    (i)  Pricing differentials between alternative delivery modes of the same e-journals so that subscription to a web-based delivery service may be prohibitively more expensive than the same service for local networking on CDRom.

    (ii)  Pricing based on the number of simultaneous users with significant differentials between single user and even low numbers (4-5) of concurrent users, when in practice actual usage patterns and service requirements fluctuate at different times of day from no one using the materials to a number of concurrent users.

    (iii)  Licensing restrictions to bar the content from also being delivered and used effectively by staff in conjunction with learning materials within the on-line virtual learning environment to enhance the student learning experience.

    (iv)  Licensing restrictions to bar archive file access to past years purchased unless a current subscription is continued.

  The shift to digital publications has had a significant impact on library budgets given the VAT differential between print publications which are zero-rated and digital publications which attract the standard 17.5% rate of VAT. The significant cost difference for the same content in a different format is anomalous and a disincentive to widespread availability of scholarly information to UK higher education.

2.  Big deal schemes

  At their inception, some of the big deal schemes, where the price for the "bundled" content was predicated on the previous level of expenditure for the publisher's printed journal titles, presented advantages to this University given the relatively lower level of print journal holdings than in some universities. The subsequent availability of more journal titles within the digital "bundle" did allow researchers and students more choice of some relevant titles, but amongst a large number of others not relevant to their work.

  The "all or nothing" basis of the "big deal" scheme limits ability to select for relevance to local learning, teaching and research requirements; requires significant funding commitment to the particular package, possibly at the expense of other publications from smaller publishers; allows the publisher control over the size of the digital "bundle" and concomitant price variations as contracts come up for renewal and may add a further layer of user searching where titles within the "bundle" can only be accessed via the publisher's gateway rather than by going directly to the specific journal. Some schemes fail to allow a choice between print or e-journal and only provide the e-journal where the print is also taken. In our case, where we have a clear preference for the e-journal, the requirement to receive the print title as well is an unnecessary and wasteful overhead.

3.  Access and performance issues

  Whilst many and an increasing number of digital services are now available through Athens authentication, there remains a significant number of publishers and providers with complex and unsuitable access arrangements for a large diverse university population.

  Reliability and continuity of access to web-based digital publication services can be poor, particularly with respect to frequent and unannounced link changes; as a result responsibility for service continuity falls heavily on the "customer" to detect the changes and take local action to ensure updated connectivity.

  Meaningful usage data for on-line services is often not available from the publishers to inform future decision-making about relevance and funding allocation.

  As yet very few publishers have made their digital sources OpenURL capable to allow effective implementation of the cross-searching and resource discovery tools now available to support relevant accurate information retrieval in the e-environment by researchers, academics and students.

  Given the critical importance of easy and widespread availability of scientific information to support UK higher education, research and development, it would be in the national interest for consideration should be given to appropriate measures and incentives to encourage publishers and providers to adopt recommended model licence(s), making e-services accessible through the Athens authentication, ensuring e-services are OpenURL capable, and available to academic and research institutions at reasonable prices.

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

  Re-structuring in the publishing world in recent years has led to increased concerns about the growing monopoly position where a small number of large journal publishers dominate the market. In addition to company merger and acquisitions activities, there appears to be evidence of other market control moves. For example, large publishers now offering other publisher's journals under their own deals at rates lower than those quoted by the original publisher. If this then becomes the only route for obtaining these titles in the future, the large publisher will have a free hand in setting higher prices subsequently. The monopoly situation should be monitored and investigated as the publishing market continues to change.

  The developing initiatives to establish e-print repositories and open access archives, whilst in their infancy potentially offer alternative scholarly communications processes. Government support and funding for the further development of such initiatives in national and discipline-based contexts would encourage diversity of scholarly communication and e-publishing.

  We would request that in drawing up recommendations, the Committee also take account of the likely effects on and relevance of their proposals to other forms of e-publishing which have yet to gather momentum but which may present similar concerns in the future, including e-books and possible new formats of e-content as the traditional print formats breakdown in the e-environment.

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?

  As indicated above these developments have the potential to positively benefit the scholarly communication processes through diversification of the market. However, the primary requirement of application of a rigorous peer review process remains essential whether research is published in the traditional print academic journal or through e-publishing. The ease with which material can be made available electronically also promotes the "publication" of draft versions, early uncorroborated findings, and unsubstantiated opinions and views. It then becomes increasingly difficult for researchers, students and other readers to distinguish the proven scientific conclusions from other material.

  The development of rigorous peer review processes for the e-publishing context should be supported. Given the range of e-publishing opportunities not bound by a framework equivalent to the recognised authoritative print academic journal, it may also be appropriate to consider the assignment of a universally recognised quality assured "kitemark" to denote the proven refereed e-publication.

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?

  The British Library is a great strength in the UK and much envied in other countries without a similar national library. It has a key role to play in collecting and delivering e-content to support academic study, research and development. The British Library should have a major role in setting up and running national e-print repositories and open access archives, in the co-ordination of the development of any discipline-based repositories and in ensuring e-archives to house collections of personal and scientific e-papers of national importance. It will need funding to do this.

What impacts will trends in academic journal publishing have on the risk of scientific fraud and malpractice?

  Spoofs, fraud and malpractice have occurred from time to time in print publishing, in photographic material, in audio and video recording. In the e-environment this is neither more nor less likely, but capable of faster dissemination. On the otherhand, the electronic technology is also capable of offering more effective means of detection. Considerable work is already going on to develop plagiarism detection tools. There is clearly a need to ensure the development of peer review, editorial responsibilities, authentication stamps, audit trails and detection tools appropriate to the e-environment in parallel to the development of e-publication of scholarly materials.

  We would also wish to draw attention to the substantial evidence submitted to the Inquiry jointly by CURL (Consortium of University Research Libraries) and SCONUL (Society of College, National and University Libraries).

February 2004

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