Select Committee on Science and Technology Fourteenth Report

Scientific Publications: Free for all?: the Government Response

1. We published our Tenth Report of Session 2003—04, Scientific Publications: Free for all?, on Tuesday 20 July 2004. We received the Government Response to our Report on Tuesday 26 October. This Response appears as Appendix 1 to this Report. We have also received responses from other organisations that are the subject of our recommendations, namely the Office of Fair Trading (OFT); the Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL) and the Consortium of University Research Libraries (CURL); the Securing a Hybrid Environment for Research Preservation and Access (SHERPA) project; Research Councils UK (RCUK); and the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC). These are published as appendices to this Report. Many other organisations have also published comments on our original Report.

2. The Government Response is a distillation of responses from all the Government departments and other Government organisations that have an interest in the Report. They are: the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), which took responsibility for co-ordinating the Government Response; the Department for International Development (DFID); the Department for Education and Skills (DfES); the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS); Her Majesty's Customs and Excise (HMC&E); the Department of Health (DoH); RCUK; the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE); and JISC. We have had to consider whether the Government Response that we received accurately reflects the diversity of views and interests represented by these departments and bodies.

3. Having received the Government Response, we asked the Joint Information Systems Committee for a copy of the response that it had independently prepared to our Report.[1] We were sent a copy of this document, but were asked not to treat it as formal evidence to be published because it had already been used to inform the official Government Response co-ordinated by DTI. We understand that JISC has been under pressure to amend this original response. We suspect that this is because it differs substantially in both tone and content from that of the Government, as is apparent from JISC's original evidence to the Committee. The version of JISC's response published here has been amended by JISC to reflect its negotiations with DTI. It is regrettable that an expert body should feel constrained in carrying out its advisory role, assigned to it by Government. We regard the approach taken by DTI to independent advice that conflicts with its own view as unduly sensitive. We will be raising this issue with the Liaison Committee in the context of the Cabinet Office's revised "Guidance, Evidence and Response to Select Committees" on the provision of evidence by Government to Select Committees.

4. The response from JISC endorses the Committee's Report both in principle and in practice. The Government Response, on the other hand, says that it endorses much of the Committee's Report "in principle", but in practice undertakes to implement none of the main recommendations. This approach will prevent the main thrust of the Report being taken forward.[2] For example, the Committee recommended that "institutions need an incentive to set up repositories", and that "Government appoints and funds a central body […] to co-ordinate the implementation of a network of institutional repositories".[3] JISC agrees in its response: "if the UK is to remain at the forefront of educational and technological progress […] a Common Information environment is required".[4] It goes on to note that, "significant additional funding will be required from Government for a sustainable initiative on a larger scale".[5] However, in its Response, the Government states that, although it "recognises the potential benefits of institutional repositories and sees them as a significant development worthy of encouragement", it also "believes that each institution has to make its own decision about institutional repositories depending on individual circumstances".[6]

5. By abdicating responsibility for implementing institutional repositories at a national level, the Government severely limits the benefits that such repositories can yield for access to scientific publications. Furthermore, the Government Response does not reflect the call for a coherent national strategy made by the Committee and by JISC in its response.

6. The differences between the responses to our Report from the Government and JISC go to the very core of the issue. Whereas, for example, "the Government is not aware that there are major problems in accessing scientific information", and at one point describes the publishing industry as "healthy and competitive", JISC states that it has "already identified the need for change in the scientific publishing model in order to improve access and has been funding projects and reports to stimulate change".[7] Whilst it is frustrating that the Government should ignore evidence of a problem that has been collected and reported by a Select Committee, it is worrying that it should ignore such evidence when it is compiled by the Joint Information Systems Committee, a body that is Government-funded and well placed to make an assessment of the issue. We suspect that JISC's view and advice have been disregarded in the Government Response because it conflicts with interests held elsewhere in Government, particularly at DTI. We are not convinced that ignoring the position of an expert body in this way is in the best interests of the scientific community in particular, or the public in general. It is certainly not a good example of evidence-based policy making.

7. In our Report, we pointed out that the interests of the Office of Science and Technology (OST) and DTI, of which OST forms a part, are not necessarily synchronised on the issue of scientific publications. In its Response, the Government rejected this, stating that "since it is Ministers who decide policy and not officials, and OST and the sector unit are responsible to the same Secretary of State, the language of 'conflict of interest' is not appropriate here".[8] This evades the point. Just as different departments within Government have different, and competing, interests, different sections within one department can have conflicting stances on a particular issue. That the various departments and organisations that have an interest in scientific publications do not always agree is obvious from the collection of responses that we received to our Report. JISC's enthusiastic and assertive response has become, in the official Government document, bland and non-committal. It is clear to us that, in the Government Response, DTI has sought to neutralise some of views put forward by the Joint Information Systems Committee and other organisations and departments. This will prevent the Government from making any significant progress on this issue.

8. Even when taken on its own, the Government Response is clearly unsatisfactory. It fails to reply to the substance of some arguments and appears to misinterpret others. From the outset, the Government argues against the wholesale adoption of the author-pays publishing model as if this is what the Committee had recommended. This is not a recommendation that the Committee made. Indeed, we were very careful to ensure that our conclusions on the author-pays model were balanced and fair. Although the Committee considered that "the arguments for the author-pays publishing model are in many ways attractive", it stopped short of recommending a mandate. We chose instead to advocate further investigation, particularly of the "free rider" issue and the impact of author-pays publishing on learned societies.[9] It is a deliberate misunderstanding, if not a misrepresentation, of the Committee's Report to state that "the Government is […] not convinced that the 'author-pays' model is inherently superior to the current model", and "it is not obvious […] that the 'author-pays' business model would give better value for money than the current one".[10] These statements do not address the Committee's findings. Furthermore, rather than engaging in the complex issues posed by the Committee's Report, the Government has clearly decided against the author-pays model ahead of the further investigation that it was urged to pursue. This approach prejudges the issue.

9. The Government's Response leaves much of the work in ensuring the effective dissemination of research findings to the whim of the publishing industry. Given that the publishing industry has not yet proved itself inclined to address many of the problems identified in the Committee's Report, this stance is unacceptable. We are disappointed that the Government has chosen this approach rather than seizing the opportunity to make a positive difference.

10. We note, too, with disappointment the Office of Fair Trading's response to the recommendations of our Report. Following completion of the European Commission study into the market for scientific publications, to which the OFT response refers, we request that the Director General of Fair Trading agrees to write again to the Committee setting out the actions he proposes to take on the basis of the Commission's findings and the concerns expressed in our Report.

11. The Government Response does herald progress on a number of important issues. In particular, the Government is to be commended for its stated intention to establish a Content Procurement Company to provide effective national co-ordination of purchasing of academic content. We are pleased that the Government agrees that "the data underpinning the results of publicly-funded research should be made available as widely and rapidly as possible, along with the results themselves", and hope that this will lead to a new policy on the publication of "negative" results, particularly in the field of clinical trials.[11] We also hope that DFID will follow up its stated intention to work "with publisher, the UN and other bilateral donors to develop mechanisms that improve access in low bandwidth environments and [to work] to improve the ICT infrastructure and regulatory environments of developing countries".[12] These are all very positive steps towards improving the global provision of scientific content.

12. The debate about scientific publications is still evolving, and the Committee will be pursuing the issues in a variety of ways. We are disappointed that the Government has missed the opportunity to take more decisive action in response to our Report. We recommend that the Government reconsider its position on this important issue in the light of the other responses to our Report published here; the forthcoming RCUK policy on the publication of, and access to, research outputs; and in view of the support for the Committee's stance from the Wellcome Trust, an important research funder. In this context, we do not believe that Government should continue to refuse to provide the modest funds necessary to make institutional repositories workable, and to allow the experimentation necessary to properly test the feasibility of the author-pays publishing model.

1   The Joint Information System Committee is a non-departmental public body funded by the UK Higher and Further Education funding bodies, under the auspices of the Department for Education and Skills. It is an advisory body tasked with providing world-class leadership in the innovative use of information and communications technology to support education and research. Back

2   p 12 Back

3   HC 399, Recommendations 43, 55. Institutional repositories are online archives set up and managed by research institutions to house articles published by authors at the institutions involved. Such repositories can accept articles either before or after publication (pre-print repositories and post-print repositories). Back

4   p 52 Back

5   p 53 Back

6   p 26 Back

7   pp 14, 21 Back

8   p 9 Back

9   HC 399, Para 190 Back

10   p 9 Back

11   p 11 Back

12   p 16 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 8 November 2004