Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)



  Q1  Chairman: Thank you, John, Robert and Richard, for coming to help us in our first session, which is on scientific publications. You will know that we have visited the British Library to breathe the city air and see what work is done and what the plans are, so we come from a little knowledge of the situation. We are looking forward to kicking off today with you guys. How you answer the questions is up to you.

  Mr Campbell: We have agreed that I will act as the co-ordinator of the three of us.

  Q2  Chairman: We will address all our questions to you but if others want to come in, please catch my eye. Do you grant access free of charge to digital content six months after the initial publication date?

  Mr Campbell: We do for one journal and for several journals we do it for 12 months. We are watching that and will obviously report to the societies for whom we publish; and on the basis of whether that has any serious impact on subscribers, they may well want to widen that policy.

  Q3  Chairman: Are you saying you have a differential policy for—

  Mr Campbell: Yes.

  Q4  Chairman: Why is that?

  Mr Campbell: We publish for about 550 societies, and they decide on the policy of individual journals. My two colleagues should speak on their own behalf because they are different companies with fewer society journals.

  Mr Charkin: By and large we do not make material available after six months free of charge. Rather like Bob said, on one of our journals, which is a society-owned one, we go along with their wishes.

  Dr Jarvis: We do not. One of the issues we have—and we are actively looking into this—is that we sell quite a lot of back-issue content, so open access would impact on our business model, so we are actively looking at how we can best provide access to archival content. We are not sure whether it will be six months or a year.

  Q5  Chairman: What has made you start looking at that again? You obviously had made a hard and fast decision; what is creating the climate now to change?

  Dr Jarvis: I think the whole open access movement has made us realise that there is a real requirement, and a desire, for people to have open access in certain circumstances. That is something that we have to address as a business.

  Chairman: Have you considered implementing a pay-to-publish rather a pay-for-access policy?

  Mr Campbell: Yes, and we have put that model to several societies for whom we publish; and their publications committees are considering it. At this stage none of them have decided to take it any further. We submitted an application for the JISC programme where they have a three-year programme funding some open access experiments. We were unsuccessful with that. We are certainly looking at the model, and we have several proposals out with societies, trying to cost the impact of—

  Q6  Chairman: Does this model have an impact on publishers and institutions, in your view?

  Mr Campbell: We could talk about that for the next hour.

  Q7  Chairman: No, you have not got an hour; you have got one minute.

  Mr Campbell: As we said in our submission, we think it will have an impact. We think there is a danger that an author-paid model could lead to lower standards. It is also not popular amongst authors, less well-funded institutes or from other countries, where even a ten-dollar charge to an author would seem excessive.

  Q8  Chairman: What effects would open access models have in costing terms, compared to existing publishing models?

  Mr Charkin: There are many answers because there are many journals for many disciplines, and the impact will be different depending upon which discipline or which journal you are talking about. In our letter to you, speaking on behalf of Nature Publishing Group, in the case of Nature itself, the British international journal, in order to replace our revenues you would have to charge the author somewhere between £10,000 and £30,000 because the costs of editorial design and support are so high. The reason for the big disparity is how much advertising—

  Q9  Chairman: Are you saying it is per article?

  Mr Charkin: Per article; it is a huge price and would, I believe, be completely unsustainable because I think people would not pay that. In that particular model it is a very serious and different answer to the one that one would get for a more specialised journal.

  Q10  Chairman: Do you think that would make a big dent in higher education funding, if you take all the top-up fee money away?

  Mr Campbell: We think it would be more expensive for Britain, certainly, because it is a net exporter of knowledge.

  Q11  Chairman: Is there a demand for open access publishing?

  Mr Charkin: We are just running a survey through all the authors to Nature to find out. We ran an open access debate about a year ago within Nature and there really was not overwhelming support. Clearly, there is some sort of a groundswell, but it certainly was not overwhelming, and early indications from proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in America and such like have not really supported the contention that it is huge.

  Q12  Chairman: Where is the groundswell coming from, in your opinion?

  Mr Charkin: It is a number of very distinguished scientists—there is no question of that. It is typically from the molecular biology end of the science spectrum rather than anywhere else.

  Q13  Chairman: Is this the Harold Varmus thing in the States?

  Mr Charkin: Yes.

  Q14  Chairman: We hope to be seeing Harold later on.

  Mr Charkin: It is a specialist area that is very well funded, and I think that is a distinction from many of the other parts of the scientific spectrum.

  Q15  Chairman: How would it affect your business, do you think?

  Dr Jarvis: To answer your previous question, we have been considering open access models. One of our concerns is, supported by those who have done research on open access, is that there is a great range to what it would cost, and we are trying to pin down an accurate figure. We are also concerned by how many people will be able to afford that figure, because although one can see a model with disciplines which are extremely well funded, there are certain geographic regions and subject disciplines where it would be extremely hard for people to pay these kinds of amounts. We have considered it for certain niche journals, which are difficult to sustain in a subscription model. That is a situation where we are trying to see if an open access model would work, where there is a limited number of people who want a journal in a particular area which is not sustainable by subscription revenue.

  Q16  Chairman: Can you give me a breakdown of the 10-30K per article and write to me?

  Mr Charkin: Absolutely, we would be very happy to. Very crudely, £30 million of sales: we get income of £30 million and we publish 1,000 papers a year. That is your £30 million. Hence the figure of £30 thousand.

  Q17  Mr McWalter: Professor Adrian Sutton said—just to illustrate the groundswell of opinion: "Academics provide their scientific papers for publishers free of charge. They review other scientific papers for those publishers free of charge, and they pay exorbitant prices for hard copy and/or electronic access to their own work in published volumes. What other business receives the goods that it sells to its customers from those same customers, the quality-control mechanisms provided by its customers, and a tremendous fee from those same customers?" Does that not seem to be a reasonable complaint, and should we not be doing something about it?

  Mr Campbell: In a way, that has been the forerunner of the open access movement. There was a "take back copyright" movement in the States among senior academics. That has been around for a while. The answer is that the journal publishing system has evolved, and we think it works very well. It is delivering more effectively than ever before; the downloads for most of us have doubled from what they were a year ago. It is very successful and academics like to use it. There is this argument that you have outline, but—

  Q18  Mr McWalter: Is there a gripe?

  Mr Campbell: Is it, if they find another system to publish their journals—or perhaps open access is another system? It has been around for a long time. You should remember that a lot of people are members of societies, and societies benefit hugely from the journal publishing system. They can refuse to referee if they do not want to do it, but on the whole they like to referee, to be involved in subjects and see what is happening and have some input. There is no shortage of people wanting any journals, and there is no shortage of authors. As Richard said, one of the problems with a high-quality journal is that you have to process so many articles that eventually have to be rejected. When you have a journal rejecting nine out of ten articles, particularly in some subjects like ecology, you cannot afford the open access type model or the author-pays model because you would land up with such huge costs to the individual author that it does not work. So we are left with a system where subscribers pay and we run the system.

  Q19  Geraldine Smith: Your general policy on access to journals: who do you think should pay and who should have free or nearly free access? Do you have any form of means-testing?

  Mr Campbell: That is a good question because what has happened is that the publishing industry has effectively, with the support of the societies it publishes for, given free access to poorer countries. There are various schemes, which you will see in the submissions—HINARI, AGORA for example, which deliver journals without charge to poorer countries; and that scheme is being enhanced and is lifting up to another level of slightly better-off countries.

  Dr Jarvis: One of the things that intrigues me is that there is evidence that some of the support for open access is coming from outside the research community. There are some reports of members of the public wanting to read this kind of information. Without being pejorative or elitist, I think that is an issue that we should think about very, very carefully, because there are very few members of the public, and very few people in this room, who would want to read this type of scientific information, and in fact draw wrong conclusions from it. As publishers of this very high-level, sometimes esoteric, information, when we have information that is of use to a broader audience, we make sure we use all the channels by contacting the press to make that happen. Having said that, I think the mechanisms are in place for anybody in this room to go into their public library, through inter-library loan, get access to any article they want. They can go to a machine now and press a button and see it on their screen. I don't believe that a section of our society is excluded from seeing this information. I will say again; let us be careful because this rather enticing statement that everybody should be able to see everything could lead to chaos. Speak to people in the medical profession, and they will say the last thing they want are people who may have illnesses reading this information, marching into surgeries and asking things. We need to be careful with this very, very high-level information.

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