Select Committee on Science and Technology Tenth Report

1 Introduction

1. This Committee is appointed by the House of Commons to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Office of Science and Technology (OST) and its associated bodies. As well as its role in advising the Chief Scientific Advisor and the Director General of the Research Councils on the allocation of the Science Budget, OST has a role in overseeing science and technology policy across Government. The Committee has a similarly broad remit.

2. The scientific, technical and medical publishing industry has recently come under intense scrutiny. Whilst the volume of research output and the price of scientific journals has been steadily increasing - one respected source cites average journal price increases of 58% between 1998 and 2003 - library budgets have seen funding decreases.[1] As a consequence, the ability of libraries to purchase journals has come under severe pressure. This phenomenon is often dubbed the "serials crisis". The Government has an interest in ensuring that public money invested in scientific research is translated into outputs that benefit the public. The Government invests significantly in scientific research, the output of which is, for the most part, published in research articles. Subscription prices to journals vary - we have been quoted figures from £87 to £2,843 per annum for a range of individual journals of differing quality.[2] Many libraries subscribe to thousands of journals each year. Yet whilst libraries are struggling to purchase journals, scientific, technical and medical publishers' profit margins remain exceptionally high compared with the rest of the publishing industry — as much as 34% at the operating level in the case of Reed Elsevier, the market leader.[3] There is mounting concern that the financial benefits from the Government's substantial investment in research are being diverted to an excessive degree into the pockets of publishers' shareholders.

3. Technology has made it possible to envisage a fundamental change to the way scientific articles are published. By removing some of the non-editorial overheads associated with print publications, digitisation makes it relatively cheap to set up and run new journals. The internet makes it feasible, in theory, for readers to access the articles they need online, without charge. Several publishing models based around the central concept of free online access have emerged: collectively their proponents form the "Open Access" movement. The future of the scientific publishing industry has yet to be determined in the light of these new developments.

4. We announced our inquiry into scientific publications on 10 December 2003. Our aim was to examine the provision of scientific journals to the academic community and wider public. We wanted to establish whether the market for scientific publications was working well; how trends in journal pricing affected libraries and other users; the impact that new publishing trends would have on the scientific process; and what provisions were in place to support a secure national archive. We also looked at the risk to the integrity of journals posed by scientific fraud and malpractice, particularly in the light of recent publishing trends. Our inquiry tapped into an already lively public debate. In 2002, the Office of Fair Trading conducted an informal consultation on the market for scientific, technical and medical journals. Its report concluded that no further action should be taken at present but that further action might be required in future.[4] In January 2003 the Wellcome Trust, the UK's biggest single funder outside Government of medical research, published an analysis of the scientific publishing market and publicly adopted a pro-Open Access stance.[5] Many other organisations have also been prompted into a consideration of the issues, some taking up the Open Access cause, some defending the interests of the existing commercial publishers and others remaining neutral. The arguments on all sides have been aired extensively in the media and online. The Committee has received an unprecedented volume of letters expressing support for its decision to conduct the inquiry. Many individuals and organisations volunteered to give oral evidence to the inquiry: unfortunately it was not possible to see everyone in the time available.

5. In the course of our inquiry we held four oral evidence sessions with Government; the Research Councils; commercial, not-for-profit and author-pays publishers; libraries and academics. The transcripts of these sessions are published with this Report, along with the 150 written submissions we received in response to our call for evidence and as answers to supplementary questions. We visited the British Library at St Pancras and Reed Elsevier's Holborn offices in London and took part in a seminar on scientific publishing hosted by the Wellcome Trust. We would like to place on record our thanks to all those who contributed to this inquiry, by giving evidence or by assisting us on our visits. We would also like to thank our specialist advisers: David Worlock, the Chairman of Electronic Publishing Services Limited; and Professor Michael Elves, formerly the Director of the Office of Scientific and Educational Affairs at Glaxo Wellcome plc.

1   The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, Ev 411 Back

2   Nature Publishing Group, Price List 2004, Back

3   Q 80 Back

4   Office of Fair Trading, The market for scientific, technical and medical journals (OFT 396), September 2002, p 21 Back

5   The Wellcome Trust, Economic analysis of scientific research publishing, January 2003. A second report was published in 2004: The Wellcome Trust, Costs and Models in scientific research publishing, April 2004. Back

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