Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180
MONDAY 8 MARCH 2004
HAROLD E VARMUS
Q180 Dr Iddon: May I just concentrate
on another difficulty, that is the developing world, where the
hardware and the software is not readily available and the cost
of publication to them is difficult now and might be more difficult
in future if we move over to this line of publishing called open
Dr Varmus: We accept the idea
that many people who work in the developing world cannot afford
the author's fees. We will publish those papers at reduced or
zero cost. It would be a very small fraction of the total number
of papers, just based on an analysis of who publishes papers now.
The hardware and software problem is a real one, but I have spent
quite a lot of time in the developing world. While not every worker
may have a desktop computer, every institution has a desktop computer
and you can download the appropriate articles. Compared with what
goes on now in a place like Bamako in Mali, where I am very familiar
with the processes, where there is almost no access to papers
unless you travel to France or the United States, this is a revolutionary
change which they welcome with open arms. I cannot imagine anything
more important at a time when diseases of the developing world
need to be conquered.
Q181 Mr McWalter: I just want to
pick up a point which Mr Tracz raised earlier before we lose it
entirely. You said basically, when you are talking about your
book reviews, that you commissioned those, so it was reasonable
to charge for those, but when you come to the papers themselves
you said the scientists themselves largely do it. The commercial
people we have talked to emphasise a very considerable degree
of input to that process as well, both, for instance, in the form
of seeing who are going to be the people doing the peer review,
but also from time to time having the courage to take on editors
of journals who have got a bit stale or a bit out of touch or
a bit too linked into the old boy network and who then need to
be removed so that somebody who is a bit more in touch with what
is going on can actually take over that job. Do you not agree
that the commercial sector manages that pretty well? Do you not
think that in fact you also have to replicate some of those processes
in the open access market and therefore actually there is an ongoing
expense which you do not seem to have factored in to your earlier
Mr Tracz: The first thing I want
to say is that I am the commercial sector. I am part of a commercial
company. The fact that I am open access does not mean that I am
not commercial. I am completely commercial, no less commercial
than the commercial sector.
Q182 Mr McWalter: I am thinking of
the non-commercial sector.
Mr Tracz: I think that the role
of publishers in the process of publishing scientific papers is
wildly, incredibly exaggerated and overblown, completely out of
Q183 Mr McWalter: Why?
Mr Tracz: The process is primarily
done by the scientific community
Q184 Mr McWalter: I should just like
my Chairman to make sure he is hearing this.
Mr Tracz:Some of the interference
we publishers do is not necessarily always beneficial; sometimes
it is necessary and then we do it. We publishers are facilitators
here. It is the scientists who do the research, who publish, who
referee, who decide. Most of the referees are chosen by another
scientist. This is a process run by scientists and for us publishers
to presume that we have some major scientific role or influence
is wrong. In my opinion it is not correct. It is occasionally
correct in some very particular situation: in general it is not.
We do not need to do that much.
Q185 Mr McWalter: You said, when
you were commending the quality of your publications, that in
the range of people you have doing the reviewing and so on were
people who, for instance, had performed a similar function for
Nature. You are still drawing down some sort of benefit
or kudos from that connection and therefore in a way using their
status to bump up your own.
Mr Tracz: We need to choose the
people with whom we work carefully and have some taste in doing
that. It is very different. It is not like literary book publishers
who have editors who really work a lot on the books to make them
better. These are scientists reporting their findings.
Dr Varmus: It is also important
to remember that the editors Vitek has, and we have very similar
ones, are professional editors who trained as scientists, who
frankly are often disgusted by what they encountered in part of
the commercial publishing industry.
Q186 Mr McWalter: Presumably if they
got sacked, for instance, that might account for it.
Dr Varmus: No, they were hired
away through aggressive recruiting by our organisation. They know
the scientific community very well, they go to scientific meetings
and they bring to the review process the most distinguished scientists
we can find and they are very, very good. It is the scientific
community which determines who gets published in our journals.
Q187 Dr Iddon: May I just look at
the hard costs of open access now? The Institute of Physics have
told us that their authors are reluctant to pay the fee of $560
for open access publishing. What is your experience? What are
your costs and do they put the authors off?
Dr Varmus: We do not know entirely
what our costs are. We are too new, we are doing too many other
things, and we are publishing only one very complicated flagship
journal. We charge $1,500 for an article and we have only had
two people who have asked for cost reductions. When you ask that
question you can get a variety of answers about what they are
willing to pay. We know that many people pay $2,000 or $3,000
or more for publishing in subscription-based journals. You will
find very little opposition in the biomedical research community
in the advanced economies. There is obviously concern, as we discussed
a moment ago, in developing countries, where there is much less
money for research, and in certain disciplines, like ecology,
grants are much smaller. There we have to figure out other ways
to ensure that a journal like ours, which deals with all biology,
including ecology and evolution and cell biology, can take care
of the best papers in these fields.
Mr Tracz: We have a lot of experience
of charging. We have published many thousands of papers and we
have hundreds of journals. We have a number of different charges;
different journals require different charges. It is partly to
do with the rejection rates, but most of our journals, more than
90% of our journals, charge $525, or something similar. In addition
I think we have about a 25% waiver rate, that is charges for all
papers from all the third world countries, poor countries, are
waived automatically and then people can request waiver and we
almost always grant them. We believe that at this rate we can
be a profitable, successful publisher. It is possible for us to
do that. That is our judgment and that is how we do it. We have
established those prices based on some analysis of what it is
possible to do.
Q188 Dr Iddon: Let me just challenge
that. We understand that you are running at round aboutit
varies of course from operator to operator, journal to journala
50% subsidy at the moment. When do you expect to become self-sustaining?
Mr Tracz: We are now getting about
500 to 600 papers a month. We need about 2,000 papers a month.
We grew by about more than 150% in the last year. I expect that
we will become self-sustaining in about a year and a half.
Dr Varmus: We shall be self-sustaining
in about two and half years or so, as we create more journals,
especially journals where the rejection rate is relatively low
and where the editorial process of recruiting the papers is less
intensive. For example, in our flagship journal, PLOS Biology,
we provide with every article a layman's summary to make it highly
accessible to the public. That is expensive. The other way to
think about this is that the Wellcome Trust and others have emphasised
that in biomedical research roughly one% of the cost of the research
is used for publications. For every $200,000 NIH spends on research
one paper is published. That is a very important number, if you
believe that publication is essential to the research process.
Without that extra one% the research never gets seen by anybody,
so it is meaningless. It seems like a very small cost to pay.
Q189 Dr Iddon: As open access competition
grows, do you not fear that your profit margins will be eaten
into, thus preventing you becoming sustainable even in the periods
you have announced?
Dr Varmus: I think the opposite
is probably true: with more authors wanting to publish with us,
we will have a bigger volume. Volume is key.
Q190 Dr Iddon: I have one last simple
question. What kind of profit levels would open access journals
be looking at?
Dr Varmus: In our case we do not
think about profit, because we are a non-profit organisation.
But we would like to be bringing in slightly more than we spend
so that we can make investments in innovative technology and continue
our advocacy for transition to open access by society journals
and commercial journals.
Mr Tracz: In our case we expect
that the profit margins of an open access publisher like us will
be much lower than the current margins of a commercial publisher
but that they will be sustainable. If they are not sustainable,
we will not survive. I comfortably expect to have 10 or 15% profit
margin from our publishing and all our calculations suggest that
is sustainable at a reasonable margin.
Q191 Mr Key: May I turn to the question
of copyright? BioMed Central ensures that your authors allow the
free use of their work by others. How do you ensure that they
do not lose out on their own intellectual property rights?
Mr Tracz: Authors keep the copyright
in our case. They keep the intellectual property rights to their
papers. Remember that in science the author is mostly interested
in having his information propagated as much as possible and the
intellectual value of his findings increase by having it distributed
as widely as possible. The whole process is biased towards effective
and wide distribution. The copyright protection of the intellectual
property remains basically the same.
Q192 Mr Key: What about a paper which
had already been included in patent applications, work which had
been included in patent applications? What would be the position
of BioMed Central then?
Mr Tracz: No different. You would
have to ask the editors of specific journals what their policy
was, but no different to the current one.
Q193 Mr Key: Generally speaking you
Mr Tracz: Yes, of course, why
Dr Varmus: These are highly separable
issues. Claims to intellectual property, at least under US patent
law, proceed independently of the mode of publication. It is required
that you make the information accessible. Disclosure is part of
the patent process. Whether you do that in a lecture or an article
in any kind of journal is irrelevant to the patent process. The
authors retain copyright, we have a licence under the Creative
Commons terms which ensure distribution and use of any kind, with
the only stringent criterion that adequate attribution of authorship
be given whenever the paper is used.
Dr Goddard: It is worth looking
at an example of open access to data in this regard. In the entire
genomics era all the data was made fully available in the public
databases and no scientist ever complained that their copyright
was being infringed. That in itself enabled a huge industry to
Q194 Mr Key: Is the normal protocol
that authors sign away their copyright on publication?
Mr Tracz: Traditionally it was
and it is.
Q195 Mr Key: So what happens when
open access prevails? Who should manage the copyright of authors
Mr Tracz: What do you mean by
"manage"? In what sense manage? In cases of infringement?
Q196 Mr Key: We have been given evidence,
for example, that some publishers feel they have a vital role
in the management of copyright which some authors do not feel
competent to handle.
Dr Varmus: I have been publishing
articles for over 30 years and have published over 300 articles;
the only time the copyright has ever been an issue was when I
have been asked to scratch my signature on permission forms to
use a figure from one of my papers in another publication. I am
only too happy to do that. I could not care less, as long as they
attribute the data to me. Management of copyright is nothing.
Mr Tracz: I know of no evidence
that publishers can do anything about it in practice.
Dr Varmus: Authors just want to
control it themselves and the danger here occurs in relation to
an important matter we have not touched on: and that is the creation
of a digital database. Ms Smith raised this earlier, the creation
of an historical database of digital information so that we can
pursue the past and search and find information which was paid
for 10 or 20 years ago. I believe that publishers are in a sense
threatening to restrict our ability to create a large public database
of published information on the grounds that they own the copyright,
and they will sell it at a price we may not be able to afford
to pay. Having individual publishers create databases is of limited
use. There has to be a coherent, cohesive, fully searchable database
to make it worthwhile.
Q197 Mr Key: We have been told that
NASA lost 25% of its digital data because there is no technology
which can archive digital information adequately. Is that your
understanding? I do not mean of NASA's particular figures, but
is there a general problem here?
Dr Varmus: Sure; absolutely.
Q198 How do you address that problem.
Dr Goddard: There is a general
problem, but fortunately the entire business world faces exactly
this problem and they will solve it. It is not something which
publishers specifically have to deal with. The transition in data
formats from one format to another is something which will be
taken care of.
Mr Tracz: A very important point
about archiving which is very crucial and important and an important
unsolved problem in the digital age is electronic archiving. However,
there is one hope in which open access plays an important role.
Usage preserves data. Non usage loses data. As long as the data
is available and used and appears in many places, as long as it
is used, it tends to be preserved. Formats change and users adapt
and change their format. Usage is the key to preservation of data
and open access encourages and preserves usage.
Dr Varmus: There are two general
strategies. One is to say everybody will create their own database
and will have sophisticated search engines which can go through
all these databases and search out information. My own preference
is for the simpler solution which we pioneered when I was director
at the NIH, the creation of PubMed Central. This is a centralised
database for everybody, where all the information is provided
by individual publishers in a common format, where the search
is truly powerful. The weakness of PubMed Central so far is not
the design. The weakness is that we do not have contributions
from more publishers. Eventually we should and we should have
similar databases in Europe and other places in the world so that
we can have different ways of preserving the data and also mirror
sites so that we can ensure preservation.
Mr Tracz: This is where the British
Government can play an important role which has not been happening
up to now. At this point the only central database of biomedical
literature which is available is PubMed Central run by NIH, by
the National Library of Medicine. It is possible to create mirror
images. I think it is important that different countries have
that and it would be very worthwhile for Britain to have a central
database of biomedical data, international worldwide data, which
will mirror NIH and be able itself to be mirrored and permit itself
to accept data in. It is a very important part of the future to
have this centralised database.
Q199 Dr Iddon: I want to address
this question specifically to Mr Goddard, who has written to us
". . . opening access to written publications is only the
first step in using information technology to improve scientific
productivity: the really exciting possibility is to open up access
to the actual research data underlying publications . . .".
I assume you remember that piece of evidence.
Dr Goddard: Sure.