Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. That is an important, is it not, that the Library is seen as part and parcel of the infrastructure?
  (Sir Howard Newby) Indeed.

  21. Have you just made a submission or has there been dialogue?
  (Mrs Brindley) We were able to invite members of that Committee to visit us and also we made a formal submission. We understand that there will be some inclusion in their report of the importance of the British Library to underpin the science base. Of course that stretches through to the fact that we underpin quite a lot of the SME activity in terms of exploitation of research, particularly through the Document Supply Centre.

  22. You have told us that 50 per cent of your customers are from higher education and research. Where does the Department for Education and Skills sit in this discussion?
  (Mrs Brindley) It does not sit there. Our sponsoring department is the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

  23. On all the points that I have made about the strategy, supporting the infrastructure for research, the Department is not there at all?
  (Lord Eatwell) We have a rather complicated relationship because clearly DCMS is our sponsoring ministry.

  24. You are a big chunk of their budget, are you not?
  (Lord Eatwell) We are a big chunk of their budget, yes.

  25. A huge chunk of their budget.
  (Lord Eatwell) Well, I would not say huge. I think there are bigger chunks. As you have said, about 50 per cent of our activities are in support of higher education. Another 25 per cent are broadly in support of DTI activities. This is my standard dinner party question: given that three million documents are consulted in the Library's Reading Rooms each year, what proportion do you think are science and technology and which proportion do you think are arts and humanities? Everybody thinks that the biggest part is arts and humanities. Actually 75 per cent of it is science and technology document provision. One of our biggest customers is Glaxo SmithKline. A very important part is supporting hi-tech SMEs, particularly in the biochemical area. That is very much a DTI concern. Here we are, we have got 50 per cent higher education, 25 per cent DTI, and that only leaves a rather small proportion of our activity which falls under the general issues of access to culture and cultural exhibitions and all these sorts of things that we do. We lead a rather complicated life in this respect.

  26. You have told us that in the survey of libraries across the world that the British Library came out tops, number one.
  (Lord Eatwell) That is UK and US.

  27. Do you think you arrived at this position by luck or design and, if you are looking in your crystal ball into the future as to where you want to be, large projects in co-operation have not always been an outstanding success in this country. Will we still be number one in 10 years' time and what could go wrong? What are the banana skins or pitfalls that we have to avoid in order to stay at the top?
  (Lord Eatwell) As to how we arrive where we are today, I think it was a combination of the collecting genius of the 18th and 19th centuries. Remember, we grew out of the British Museum, and so that was the basis of those historical collections. Then there was the tremendous emphasis on and interest in developing information services and collections after the Second World War, the general collections described earlier by Sir Brian. These were all brought together by the British Library Act in 1972, and so now we have this remarkable institution. The criterion used by the American Association of Research Libraries was to look at the overall collections' budgets and compositions. That was how they were doing their rankings and that was how we ranked because our collections budget is higher than Harvard's and the composition fitted in with what they defined as the basis of a research library. What could undermine that? There are key things for us to stay number one in the world. First of all is to sustain those collections and maintain the collection strategy across the range of areas in which we collect. That is the engine room of the whole thing. There is no point worrying about access if there is nothing to have access to. The second thing is to make sure those collections are managed effectively by curators, that they are really organised well, and then that we have access to them. It is this access issue which feeds into the higher educational issues which Sir Brian was discussing, how do we co-ordinate the central collecting policy of the British Library with the needs of British higher education, as well as the needs of British business, which is another part of our activity, but, for the purpose of this Committee, the needs of higher education, and how do we make sure that people can effectively access those collections, hopefully from their desk top or, in so far as it is paper based, they can get them in 24 hours from Boston Spa.

Mr Baron

  28. Can I explore your relation to business a bit more? There is closer co-operation now between universities and business when it comes to science and technology and bioscience. To what extent do you solicit the views of business with regard to your review?
  (Mrs Brindley) You are referring to Sir Brian through me?

  29. Yes.
  (Mrs Brindley) It is primarily focused on researchers in universities.

  30. But have you solicited business views on that, or at least researchers involved in collaboration with business?
  (Sir Brian Follett) No, we have not. We have not gone to SMEs or to large industrial firms. In terms of what they require though, it is improbable that they are going to be very different. What the younger researchers are saying very clearly to us is, "Why do you ask the question? It is self-evident. We want the material available on a screen in our laboratory and we want access to all of it at no cost." The essence of it is this desire of the younger generation, as we can all understand, to shift across to screen based work. If you look at it from the point of view particularly of SMEs, all one's experience of SMEs in other contexts is that time is probably the most precious commodity of all for them, and so one imagines that the way to handle the SMEs is by packaged, highly targeted information going in. That is not so difficult these days. It is perfectly possible for any of us to create an individual scanning system that will look at our particular research interest and every morning it will throw up what has occurred during the night. The technology has been developed in that sense but it is very important that they have that access.
  (Mrs Brindley) We have recently completed some work in relation to the ways in which we would wish to develop our services for SMEs and we have done quite a major piece of market research. We have talked to a large number of both large R&D based companies but also SMEs. What is very clear is that the major demand for our developing services is around medium sized companies with large R&D components. There are two ways in which they wish us to develop. One is to increasingly package our service so that they can have a one-stop "virtual" service to include documents, information and intelligence, if you like, and research work done and delivered virtually to the desk top. That is one proposition that is very heavily supported. The second is very much a physical manifestation in what we are calling the Innovation Centre. The key figure here is that 44 per cent of SMEs within the UK are within one hour of our St Pancras building, so the notion would be to replicate these services there and to plan, because we are the major patents focus of the UK, to have patents advice, financial advice, small companies advice, and this is work we would prosecute with DTI support through their department for small business services. That is very recent market research.

  31. I imagine that is quite interesting. It is certainly going to be very relevant, going forward on this basis, of university libraries embracing business more and more, not only as a way of exchanging ideas but as a source of revenue. It is encouraging to hear that these views are being aired. What can we expect to see within the next two or three years, say, from the British Library? I am broadening this out quite considerably now but with regard to closer links with business in order to ensure that the British Library remains in pole position.
  (Mrs Brindley) Those two propositions that I have just mentioned, the Innovation Centre and the virtual service, the virtual service would of course have to be profit making. That would be the basis on which we would deliver it to business. We have had a lot of support from the CBI for these propositions as well. They have helped us, as have the Chambers of Commerce and the RDAs. We would wish to see that implemented and delivered within the next 18 months.

  32. Do you see yourself becoming a sort of centre of excellence in this area in the sense that there are a number of universities that have a very good working relationship with business, such as Nottingham? Do you see yourself not competing with universities but supplementing them and becoming a centre of excellence with regard to being a conduit between business and perhaps the DTI, perhaps research and development facilities generally?
  (Mrs Brindley) Quite frankly, we already are that centre of excellence. We do supply well over a million documents per annum to business and industry. We supply almost all the top R&D companies in the UK. About 30-odd per cent of our readers are from the science and industry, and indeed for people like patent researchers we are their office so to speak. There is an excellence there already and our objective is to build on that excellence but to make a more integrated offering that I think frankly only the British Library can do because we will position that integration around our enormous collections, around our research and curatorial expertise, and around an ability to put all that together in a system on which we would probably work with a partner.

  33. You are in a favoured position, are you not?
  (Mrs Brindley) I think we are in a position to really support UK industry in that regard.

Valerie Davey

  34. You specifically mentioned the cost in terms of the inflation rise for periodicals being 10 per cent. Why is it 10 per cent for periodicals?
  (Sir Brian Follett) If we all knew the answer to that we would all want to go and buy shares in publishing companies. It is a complicated business as to why the inflation rate in this whole area of periodicals, particularly in science and medicine, has exceeded the average. I think in the end the publishers have a very strong market position. It is an absolute necessity for a scientist that he or she publishes their material in first line journals, peer reviewed journals. That is a principle we have adopted for 400 years and it seems to be the bedrock upon which our entire knowledge base has been developed, and so in many ways the individual researcher has a need to publish. The costs of publishing for the individual researcher are actually a relatively low part of the total cost of that individual's research. They always complain about it but it is a very small percentage. Put together, that has enabled a number of organisations to realise that they can charge well above inflation year on year. It really is quite a remarkable sustained growth. I am sure Lynne Brindley knows much more than I do but it has gone on for nearly 20 years, I would have thought.
  (Mrs Brindley) Yes.
  (Sir Brian Follett) At that rate, or at three times the rate of inflation.

  35. Do you think perhaps they feel as well somewhat threatened? It seems to me that there is difficulty for them that, once you have got it, and once you have bought the licence, then initially the original author saw their book going to a library and a lot of people borrowing it, whereas now, good heavens, it is on the screen and anyone can access it internationally. I would have expected the licensing to be a problem as well in terms of expense. Is the licence also going up well above inflation?
  (Sir Brian Follett) Yes. We are dealing with a number of complications. As far as the publication of pieces of scientific research is concerned, let us take that, the material is provided to the publishers free of charge. The author receives no royalty for offering the material. Indeed, he or she will actually buy back the material at well above cost so that in that sense the publisher is in a situation where they are receiving the material free. They are receiving most of the editorial work on it free, so that it is a very good business proposition for them. They are naturally very concerned about how all this will play out over the next 20 years, not least of course because for them if they get the equation wrong they will go bankrupt. The situation is very different for books. There of course the author retains the copyright and receives a royalty, and so there is a very different business relationship between the author and the publisher.

  36. It seems to me that as the potential users the universities in this position are really in a win-win situation. I think it is incredibly valuable for them, the work that you are now doing. I am still concerned at the cost to the researchers, the cost to people in the interim, those middle people who are taking the cost out of it rather, who are benefiting. How do we ensure that the work you do is paid for at a reasonable level without people exploiting it en route?
  (Sir Brian Follett) I am not too worried about the publishers. They will make licensing arrangements as far as their material which they have published is concerned. Those licensing arrangements may be local at a university or they may be national. There are certain countries, like Canada and Finland, where there are now national arrangements for a number of journals and scientific periodicals. There are complicated negotiations inevitably in such a licensing arrangement, but I think the publishers themselves are well able to work out their cost base as far. The vital component in the university, to go back to something Howard Newby said, is that these materials should be free at the point of use for the university academic or the postgraduate research student. They are not involved in this. Nobody is expecting that. That is part and parcel of being an employee of a research-led university, that you receive these materials free. They are a given along with electricity and a variety of other things. We are trying to organise that behind the scenes as it were. They do not need to know that at this point.

Mr Chaytor

  37. Pursuing the question of the relative bargaining power of the publisher and the university, has there been no effort in the United Kingdom to do what you say Canada and Finland have done? Is that not what this is about, shifting the balance of power by preferably all universities collaborating so that there is a sole customer, because the publishers' ability to add 10 per cent a year is obviously reduced if the number of customers is reduced?
  (Sir Brian Follett) There is a long history, sir, of trying to resolve this problem. The United Kingdom by itself is a very small component of the world market and so our ability as a nation to lever this is minimal. However, about eight years ago the funding council in Bristol did indeed begin a series of national site licence agreements with a number of publishers and some of those have held very well. In other cases, after a few years the publishers withdrew because they believe they can do better elsewhere. I think it is possible to put it together but, having consulted with the Canadians a few weeks ago, it is clear that they have had some success, but very large publishing companies have enormous muscle. They are not all automatically going to wish to go down this road. I imagine the British Library has already run into this.
  (Mrs Brindley) We have certainly had very robust negotiations with publishers over licence arrangements. To some extent they are in a monopolistic position because you cannot easily substitute the materials supplied by one publisher by those of another. That limits the kind of bargaining space. If that publisher has the major journals in a discipline then quite simply you cannot get them from anywhere else so, whilst it is a market, it is not quite operating like a normal market would.

  Mr Chaytor: Can I just pursue this a bit further because, looking forward to the time at which you are planning that the electronic research library is established, the obvious question to us is, if you have an electronic research library who is the publisher? If I am beavering away on some obscure topic at one of the British universities, and if I have no copyright over my research and I am entirely dependent for the enhancement of my career in getting it published in the Journal of Theoretical Physics, why do I not simply post it on your web site? Why do I not allow you to get on with the job of classifying it and making it accessible to peer review?


  38. That is not peer review, is it?
  (Sir Brian Follett) There are two things. Part of it is the quality control of peer review. These scientific journals really are bundling mechanisms and some of them have enormous prestige. If you can get a paper published in this particular journal that will be very good and everybody will read it. Certainly though, as I did say towards the end of what I said about a national electronic library, one of the things we will be trying to do will be to look at the provision of electronic platforms upon which individuals or individual groups of researchers in the United Kingdom might develop alternative scholarly publishing models. Such models are being developed around the world but I cannot say that over the last five or 10 years one has seen very much movement there.

Mr Chaytor

  39. In terms of the funding mechanism of the new attachment, this is a sort of Gutenberg-ish concept, is it not? We have moved beyond that. My son and daughter are doing their studies now and they spend all their time at the screen. They do not have an emotional attachment to books and prints that our generation had. I just come back to this question of peer review as a near obligation. On this platform you are proposing is it not possible to construct a platform where there is stage one, which is articles posted on the web which have not been subject to peer review, they are then available for peer review, and stage two is when they have been peer reviewed? I do not see why it is not possible to essentially destroy the monopoly of power that publishers of scientific journals have through the world wide web.
  (Sir Howard Newby) What you describe is happening. You mentioned physics and that is one area where it certainly is happening. Psychology is another, where precisely what you have described does take place. There is a posting of an article on the web which is not peer reviewed but, as Brian was saying, there are a number of other reasons, not least of which are ones of status enhancement, as to why there is still quite a drive to see something published in the conventional manner in a high prestige journal.

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