Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180 - 199)

MONDAY 8 MARCH 2004

DR NIGEL GODDARD, MR VITEK TRACZ AND DR 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 access?

  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 remarks?

  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 proportion.

  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 about—it varies of course from operator to operator, journal to journal—a 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 would publish?

  Mr Tracz: Yes, of course, why not?

  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 develop.

  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 then?

  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.


 
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