Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200 - 209)



  Q200  Dr Iddon: Considering that, I should like to ask you how successful your particular service has been. How widely known is it? What other new ideas could you give the inquiry which are related to the open access angle we are discussing now?

  Dr Goddard: Our effort is very new. We are producing software which will help scientists to organise their data and thereby make it easy for them to publish it on the web and put it into databases which will integrate across labs and consortia of labs and indeed whole communities. It is just in its first version and we take it out to scientific labs and people are very keen on it. They see the possibilities for using it to share information within collaborations. It is too early to say that we have any substantial evidence that it is going to increase productivity, but the example to look at is the genomic project where scientists did contribute their data to a communitywide database and as a result we have entire industries and we transformed biomedical science completely. That is the context of where our effort is at right now. In terms of ideas for the committee and recommendations which could be made, the key difference here in dealing with data is that we do not have an existing model where everybody puts their data behind some commercial database and you have to pay to access it. The existing model is in fact open access. In some sense, great, there should be no problem. But in fact there is a problem, because scientists do not have a culture and they do not have the incentives, either financial or in terms of career, to make their data accessible. It takes some work to organise data so that other people can use it effectively and there is not much incentive at the moment. Financial provision needs to be made in research grants, just as for publishing the writing. Financial provision needs to be made for the cost of doing this data organising, which should be very low given the current electronic technology. There also needs to be a move towards a recognition that this is an important thing to do. In fact the Medical Research Council and the other research councils are starting to move in this direction. The Medical Research Council has a policy, which is not being completely implemented at the moment, of people publishing their data. Those are the kinds of things which need to get done.

  Q201  Dr Iddon: I hope that you are all going to persuade particularly chemists to scan in their spectral data, the actual spectrum rather than the particular peaks, so that we can actually see them and print them off. That would be great.

  Mr Tracz: There is an important issue here which is a very good example of the issue of data and something which needs to be happening, something for which there is a real role for the Committee and for government and that is the situation with clinical trials and the data accumulated behind clinical trials and particularly the situation which happens currently with the publicly funded clinical trials which are happening in England with English citizens participating in them and which are either not published at all or published in places which are inaccessible. We have made a submission here giving some studies which are inaccessible. It is a real issue for people working in England, not only patients but doctors as well, where some push from above would be helpful and is really needed to make sure that clinical trials are published, even when they have negative results. We have created a special vehicle[4] for it. We have discussed it with NIH, NHS, with other groups. They need to publish clinical trials in a new way by including the data, as much data as is practical, as part of the publication. It is something which can be recommended and which can be done. It is now practical and possible to do and will bring great real benefits to medical practice.

  Q202  Chairman: Reed Elsevier claims that a government mandate for open access would be against the UK's financial interests because the UK publishes more than it reads. I will not go on because you will know the issue. What would be the advantages to the UK of switching to a pay-to-publish from a pay-to-read policy?

  Dr Varmus: It may in fact be the case that the proportion of the total worldwide publishing effort which the UK supports might go up slightly, but the overall costs would go down. More importantly, the utility of the information would go up and the access your citizens would have to that information would increase enormously. I assume that you all feel the moral imperative of ensuring that everyone in this country who has curiosity about this information should have access to it, especially when government pays for it and, as exemplified by the power of sharing information on the genome project, you have interest in seeing that scientific information be maximally exploited to take the next step in pursuit of discovery.

  Mr Tracz: To go back to the important and key issue. The key issue here is that often access is essential to science and of benefit to society in a whole number of ways; simply knowing more and everything being easy to know. There is also a financial argument here. One is that we are open access publishers and currently the biggest in the world, which might be something useful to have, but, more importantly, open access encourages other industries. The genome project really showed the variety of commercial organisations which grew up from it by exploiting, analysing, reporting and providing services. Information in the open encourages activity and encourages things which will be beneficial to the UK, just like it is beneficial everywhere else.

  Q203  Chairman: Last week we had oral evidence which suggested—it was not put as crudely as this—that the public were too ignorant to understand all the information in scientific journals. I remember it being indicated and said. Are you fighting the right battle to get everyone access? Harold, I can hear your answer now.

  Dr Varmus: We have a tremendous amount of support from the non-scientific communities, especially in the States where the advocacy groups are particularly strong. They want information. I notice it was mentioned last week that doctors do not want to hear from patients who are informed. First of all, patients are going to get informed; right now they can try to get informed by looking at the junk on the internet. We want to put the best that biomedical research offers on the internet so that patients read information which is solid. We want physicians who are not associated with major medical funders, who are working in a farm town in Idaho, to be able to look up information which has been made available through publicly funded research and see the answers. We want, as emblazoned on the front of the British Museum and stated by the librarian of the British Museum in 1836, every young poor student to be able to satisfy his learned curiosity just as a rich person does. These are themes which ring very strong in the States.

  Mr Tracz: The belief is strong here too. We believe it.

  Q204  Chairman: Two quick ones just to finish up. There may be disparities in different countries between publishing policies. How does open access handle that situation? Pay-to-publish or pay-to-read; it might be different. How would you handle that?

  Dr Varmus: I am not sure what you mean by differences.

  Q205  Chairman: Different countries may have different policies about publishing articles and so on. I could imagine the French might have one way of doing it in their journals; we might have another and India and China and so on. How would open access feed into that?

  Dr Varmus: It seems to me that the one place we could run into difficulty would be if a country said you cannot use research funds of any kind to publish. We have not encountered that as yet. I think countries are going to recognise that with the success of open access publishing this is the way to pursue it. There are going to be costs, the costs are going to be lower overall, and the impact of findings much grander on the future of science. So far we have been very gratified. The movement is in its early phases, and we are already getting very strong testimonials from national funding agencies in Germany, France, England, US and many other places. Aside from the concern about ensuring that even the poorer scientists in the poorest countries are able to publish in open access journals, once that is dealt with, that is the only thing which is of concern.

  Q206  Chairman: Do you think the American Government would allow the Cubans to publish in proceedings the National Academy of Science has held?

  Dr Varmus: The Academy would certainly welcome the articles.

  Q207  Chairman: That was not the question and you know it was not the question.

  Dr Varmus: I know. We are fighting the battle. I have been to Cuba myself and we are trying to fight the battle.

  Q208  Dr Iddon: Anybody from a learned society should hang on to their seat now. Do you think that the way publications are developing will be the death knell of learned societies?

  Dr Varmus: I certainly hope not. You heard from some societies earlier. My own concern about the transition is most heavily focused on the fate of societies. Some of the members here made crucial points about the need for adaptation to change the environment of these societies. There are societies which function very well without revenues from their journals. The societies are guilds. They are there to serve the constituents of the societies. Those constituents want open access publication. Societies need to survive, but they will need to do so by adjusting their business plan. It is obviously convenient not to change a society business plan which is working, but the fact is that if they want to serve their constituencies in the best possible way they may have to charge the membership more for their meetings, or maybe there are too many societies. I do not know. It is important that these very valuable journals, which societies publish, undergo changes within the context of the entire society business plan so that they can continue to do their good work, but not deny their members the advantages of open access publishing.

  Q209  Chairman: May I bring it to an end now by saying thank you very much to all three of you, we are much better informed now than we were about the thinking behind open access, and to you, Howard Varmus, for coming from the States to help us. It has been a great pleasure to hear you and we look forward to seeing you many times again over here. Good luck in the projects you are developing over there.

  Dr Varmus: It has been a pleasure for me to participate in this high-minded conversation. I appreciate it greatly.

  Chairman: Thank you very much.

4   Note by the witness: Current Controlled Trials Ltd., part of BioMed Central Back

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