Select Committee on Science and Technology Tenth Report

2 Background


6. Recent developments in scientific publishing have given rise to a vast quantity of new terminologies. For clarity, an outline of the terminology used in this Report is given below:

The focus of this Report is primarily on the provision of STM journals to the academic community as this accounts for the spending of significant amounts of public money through libraries and the higher education system. It should be noted, however, that many users of such journals also work within industry, Government and other organisations.

Scientific, technical and medical publishing: an overview

Why publish?

7. In the scientific, technical and medical fields, publication is an integral part of the research process. Researchers publish their findings in order to ensure widespread dissemination of their work, primarily within a community of their peers, where it will be discussed, assessed and built upon. Publication has the potential to enhance the reputation of the author, support applications for research funding and aid promotion prospects: the Publishers Association explained that "publication and effective dissemination to the peer community are absolutely vital to researchers in terms of tenure and the capacity to attract research grants and university funding".[9] In the UK, university departments are assessed by their research output in the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) for the purposes of allocating universities' block grants. As one of the main indicators of the level and quality of research output, the publication of journal articles is of great importance to researchers and their institutions. The impact of the RAE on the market for scientific publications will be discussed in paragraphs 208—210 of this Report. The above factors all provide authors with a strong incentive to ensure that the publishing process is functioning well.

8. Whilst most researchers would agree with the group of academics who stated that "inaccessible research may as well not have been conducted at all", there is some dispute about whether wide or targeted dissemination of research findings is most important.[10] The Securing a Hybrid Environment for Research Preservation and Access (SHERPA) Project told us that "researchers give their articles to journals in order to achieve 'impact' not income. They want to be influential in their field so that their work will be cited by colleagues. It is therefore in authors' interests that their work should be disseminated as widely as possible".[11] The Royal Society of Chemistry, however, argued that "most authors care where their work is seen and who it is seen by far more than they care about how many people have seen it. Quality wins hands down over quantity where authors are concerned about readership".[12] This dispute goes to the core of the question of who should pay for scientific publications: those who argue in favour of the widest possible dissemination tend to be more receptive to the author-pays model of publishing; those who prefer targeting publications at a small, selected audience tend to be more content to maintain the status quo.

9. There are, of course, reasons for the publication of research findings other than the career and reputational motivations of authors. Science is an ever-evolving discipline. Without access to the latest research findings, researchers would find themselves lagging behind or repeating work that had already been carried out elsewhere. Axiope Limited, a small software company that advocates the sharing of primary research data as well as research findings, explained how researchers build upon research being carried out by their peers: "those who collect the initial data see it being used in ways they had never dreamed of. The other users are able to do research that would have been impossible without publication of the data".[13] Many witnesses also outlined the benefits of publishing research findings, particularly from medical research, for the general public. Dr Virginia Barbour told us that: "the free flow of scientific information is essential; not only to other researchers and physicians, but also to an increasingly medically sophisticated public".[14] Publishing thus serves two "public good" purposes: it makes the research process more efficient and it helps to inform the public of developments in the scientific, technical and medical fields.

The publishing process

10. Figure 1, opposite, outlines the main stages in the publishing process under a subscriber-pays model.

Peculiarities of the market

11. The market for scientific publications is unusual in several respects:

Figure 1
The Publishing Process

Researcher submits an article to a journal. The choice of journal may be determined by:

  • The journal's audience: is it the appropriate audience for the article?
  • The journal's prestige: it is well known? Is it often cited?

The author is unpaid, but may pay "page charges" (see terminology)

The journal selects two or more appropriate experts to peer review the article, without payment

The peer reviewers assess:

  • The quality of the research and the way it is reported
  • The relevance of the article to the journal's readership
  • Its novelty and interest
  • Its content, structure and language

Feedback from the reviewers determines whether or not the article is accepted. Acceptance rates vary from journal to journal

The rejected article is returned to the author or

The accepted article is passed to the editors employed by the publishers, either in-house or freelance

The editors ensure that:

  • The language of the article is clear and unambiguous (particularly if it has been produced by a non-native speaker)
  • The standard style of nomenclature is adhered to
  • Illustrative material is of a sufficiently high standard

Editors also establish live links in the electronic version to the references cited and to other material such as data sets

12. Where a journal exists in both paper and digital formats, the article is sent to the printer to produce a paper copy, and will be formatted for the online version of the journal

The career and reputational motivations that drive researchers to publish ensure that they seek to publish in the most prestigious journal in their field, irrespective of that journal's price. Hence Professor Sir Keith O'Nions' observation that "I think it will be a very long time before a journal like Nature loses its immense prestige as a place to publish anywhere, for anybody in the world, even though it is a profit-making organisation".[16]

As Professor Spier from the University of Surrey told us: "scientific publications are not a commodity. They do not wax and wane in value as do the markets in silver or oil. Each publication constitutes an element in a self-supporting and growing entity that is the body of knowledge".[17] The peculiarities listed above mean that the market for scientific publications is not subject to the same market forces that influence markets for other goods, such as clothes or cars. The purchasers, libraries, are caught between the demands of readers on the one hand and of publishers on the other. The inelasticity of demand from their readers for access to journals leaves them with very little purchasing power when dealing with the publishers.

A mixed market

13. The total UK publishing industry has a turnover of at least £18.4 billion, making it the second largest publishing industry in Europe. It has more than 8,000 companies employing approximately 164,000 people.[18] Statistics on the UK STM publishing sector are less meaningful because STM publishing is international in scope. Researchers read articles published abroad that have some bearing on their work. The vast majority of STM journals are published in the English language: journals published in the US have the largest share of the market. The International Association of Scientific, Technical & Medical Publishers estimated that there are currently over 2,000 STM publishers worldwide, between them publishing over 1.2 million articles per year via approximately 16,000 journals.[19] UK based STM publishers include Reed Elsevier, Nature Publishing Group, Oxford University Press, Blackwell and T & F Informa.

14. Globally, in the STM field, the biggest commercial publishers by market share are Reed Elsevier, Thomson ISI, Springer, John Wiley and T & F Informa. Statistics on market shares are often given separately for the scientific and technical, and the medical markets because some of the larger publishers are more active in one of these fields than the other. For the purposes of this Report, however, unless otherwise specified, all statements and statistics quoted apply across the entirety of the STM sector. Figure 2, opposite, breaks down the STM information market by percentage of market share. The American Chemical Society, with a 3.6% share of the market, is the only society publisher that is able to feature in terms of market share alongside the major commercial players.

15. The Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP) estimated that there are currently 9,250 peer-reviewed journals published globally by learned societies, professional associations and university presses.[20] They range from the very small, with an output of only one journal of narrow interest, to the very large, such as the American Chemical Society in the US or the Institute of Physics Publishing (IoPP) in the UK. Many society publishers simply aim to cover the costs of their publishing activities, which serve to disseminate the work of society members. Those that make a surplus are bound by their charitable status to re-invest the money in the society's activities. A number of submissions pointed out that, were the publishing operations of learned societies to cease, many would struggle to survive. The British Pharmacological Society, for example, told us that "in 2002—03 we spent over £850,000 on promoting and advancing pharmacology. Nearly £800,000 of this came from our publishing activities. Without this income we should either have to raise funds in a different way or cease to provide most of our current activities".[21] The impact of changes to the market on learned societies are considered in detail in paragraphs 178—182 of this Report.

16. An increasing number of learned societies use the large commercial publishing houses to publish their journals, often because the costs of keeping such a small-scale operation in house would be greater than the income received. Blackwell Publishing, for example, publishes a number of journals on behalf of societies, including the Society for Applied Microbiology, which described itself as having "a good, long standing relationship" with Blackwell.[22] John Wiley stated that "about a third of our journals are published on behalf of or in affiliation with learned societies - we proactively work with our society partners to develop their titles in the light of scientific progress, as new disciplines emerge and research foci shift".[23] In most cases, pricing policy is determined by the society, rather than the publisher. The Mammal Society noted that the trend towards outsourcing society publishing activities helped societies to gain a foothold in the market where, otherwise, they would be "incapable of protecting their market against aggressive marketing by the large publishers".[24] Nonetheless, several learned societies have resisted the transfer of their publishing activities to commercial outfits. The British Entomological and Natural History Society, for example, felt that outsourcing tended to increase the power of commercial publishers to raise prices.[25]

New developments

17. In very recent years, Government investment in scientific research has increased dramatically. Increased research volume has generated increased outputs, often in the form of scientific articles. The Publishers Association told us that 84% of the 65,000 articles originating in the UK in 2002 derived from publicly-funded research.[26] In the UK, the Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL) have reported that "the mean number of journal titles received by its member libraries in 1993—94 was 3,976; the nearest equivalent figure for 2001—02 is 6,489".[27] Over the same period, library budgets have suffered within academic institutions. Most submissions agreed with the Association for Information Management (Aslib) that library budgets "have not been keeping pace with the rapid changes which have been taking place in journal publishing, the increased costs, and the significant growth in output of research material".[28] Library funding is dealt with in Chapter 5 of this Report. The growing disparity between the growth in research output and the money available to purchase journals has meant that libraries have had to cut subscriptions in order to keep within their budgets. This, in turn, forces publishers to lift prices of certain journals to cover overheads, creating a vicious circle and difficulties in accessing such journals.


18. The market for scientific publications has undergone a technological transformation in recent years. The change is most immediately apparent in the number of journals that are now available in digital form. Although most digital journals are published alongside a print version, it is becoming increasingly likely that some journals will be published in digital form only. Many already have digital-only sections. Mr David A. Rew, a Consultant Surgeon at Southampton University Hospitals, notes that "there are some areas of science, for example high energy physics and astrophysics, where this may well be the case, and all publishers and editors keep the matter under review. For the present, both models are complementary".[29]

19. The digitisation of journals brings many advantages, notably it:

  • assists the processes of collation, preparation and distribution of content;
  • reduces the cost of distributing published material (although this is not the case whilst digital models operate alongside print counterparts);
  • presents material in a wide range of formats, enabling readers to use it more effectively;
  • provides new ways of accessing historical data - archives can be found at the click of a mouse instead of on a library shelf;
  • enables the presentation of new types of material - for example, links to data sets and citation tracking systems - that will reduce duplication of effort and speed up the process of research;
  • enables publishers to compile more accurate statistics on usage patterns and user bases, helping them to tailor their products to the market;
  • enables more effective searching, for example through Elsevier's ScienceDirect platform (ScienceDirect offers full text access to 1,800 Elsevier journals plus navigation to over 6,000 titles from other publishers. Scopus and Scirus provide abstracts and indexing for 14,000 journals); and
  • increases access for users in the developing world, by making articles available online.

20. Some of the benefits of digitisation have yet to be realised. Although full-scale digitisation should offer efficiency gains in the long term, whilst publishers are still producing both printed and digital journals and are investing in the development of new technologies, their costs are higher than they were before. Digitisation also brings new problems to the surface. Chapter 8 looks in detail at the issue of digital storage and the need to develop and maintain a secure archival environment for digital publications. Some witnesses also expressed concern about the over-reliance of a younger generation of scientists on material that is available online. The UK's National Electronic Library for Health, for example, was concerned that "with more and more information becoming readily available via the Web availability may take precedence over quality when deciding which information to use".[30] Despite these reservations, the vast majority of submissions to the inquiry expressed great enthusiasm for the potential of new technologies to significantly improve the provision of scientific information.

The role of the Government

21. The UK Government's interest in STM publishing derives from a variety of its functions. The Government funds a significant proportion of the research carried out in the UK. Through the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) pays a block grant to UK universities, which contributes to the full economic costs of research and teaching and from which a substantial proportion of university library funding derives. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) funds the British Library, which is one of the six legal deposit libraries in the UK and Ireland charged with maintaining an archive of all the material published in the UK and Ireland. It also funds national museums which conduct their own research and house their own libraries. The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) supports the UK publishing industry as one of its business support activities.

22. It is not clear to us that the roles of the Office of Science and Technology (OST) and DTI are synchronised on the issue of scientific publications. Through the Research Councils, OST has a duty of care to the UK research community. As articulated by Research Councils UK (RCUK) this duty includes the conviction that "the peer reviewed and published output of their funded research must be made available as widely and rapidly as possible to academic and other communities".[31] Through its Digital Content and Publishing Unit, DTI has business relations responsibility for the publishing sector: its "key function is to promote the competitiveness of the sector through dialogue with key companies and intermediaries to ensure that government policies provide an environment for these industries to succeed".[32] It cannot simply be assumed that research will thrive, that publishing will succeed and that the UK taxpayer will get best value for money in the same environment. As the Royal Society of Chemistry pointed out, some of the changes being proposed to further the aims of the research community could have ramifications for the publishing sector: "UK plc has much to lose from destabilising its very successful journal publishing industry in terms of employment, exports and revenues to the Exchequer".[33] We attempted to pursue the issue of this potential conflict of interests with the Director General of the Research Councils (DGRC), Professor Sir Keith O'Nions, when he gave oral evidence to us on behalf of both OST and DTI on 5 May. Sir Keith told us that "in terms of perception of a conflict of interest, I do not think I have one". [34] As the session unfolded we began to suspect that the DGRC was unconcerned about a conflict of interest because he could not really speak on behalf of the publishing interests represented by DTI. It is discouraging that the Government does not yet appear to have given much consideration to balancing the needs of the research community, the taxpayer and the commercial sectors for which it has responsibility.

23. During the course of our inquiry it became clear to us that the issue of scientific publications is extremely low on the Government's agenda. Professor Sir Keith O'Nions told us that "the feeling in DTI and OST at the moment is probably that a middle-ground level playing field is the right position for us to be". [35] We suspect that the "middle-ground level playing field" approach is a consequence of the scant attention given by Government thus far to the task of formulating a strategy or a policy on scientific publications. Rama Thirunamachandran from HEFCE told us that "I think we do need a strategic approach nationally to harness all our research information resources to best use".[36] We can only agree with him, although we were somewhat concerned that a strategy had not already been put in place. The DGRC observed that "the interest that your Committee has taken in this subject has given some stimulus and momentum to broader debates in Government".[37] We welcome this debate within Government but find it worrying that it has taken a select committee inquiry to stimulate a joined-up approach to this important issue.

24. This Report draws a clear distinction between the activities of Government and those of private industry. Although the inquiry has required us to examine the publishing industry in some depth it is not our intention to make recommendations to private sector companies. We can, however, make recommendations to Government and its associated bodies. Several memoranda expressed the view that Government had no role to play in the field of STM publishing at all. The Royal Society of Chemistry, for example, noted that "it is the competitive and well-functioning market, and not governments, that must choose which business models and which publishers are best equipped to stay apace of the ever-increasing demand for information exchange".[38] Our investigations, however, have led us to believe that there are several areas in which Government could take action to improve the operation of the market for STM publications to the benefit of the research and student community as well as the public more generally. We are convinced that the amount of public money invested in scientific research and its outputs is sufficient to merit Government involvement in the publishing process. Indeed, we would be very surprised if Government did not itself feel the need to account for its investment in the publishing process. We were disappointed by how little thought has been given to the issues within Government thus far and hope that this Report will prove to be a catalyst for change.

The international context

25. Throughout the course of this inquiry, the Committee has been mindful that the issues it has been exploring are international in scope. The UK STM publishing industry, although a significant sector within the UK, represents only a fraction of the global market. As the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP) told us "the majority of UK authors are published in non-UK journals, and the majority of UK journal sales are to non-UK customers".[39] The British Pharmacological Society warned us that "any actions by the British Government will affect only the British market, and may have unintended consequences for the health of British science and UK-based journals".[40] These "unintended consequences", which will be explored in paragraphs 188—189, are indeed vitally important considerations for the UK Government when it decides how to act. Nonetheless, we cannot agree with those submissions that cite the international dimension as a reason for Government inaction. Just as STM publishing is global, so is the debate surrounding it. We received evidence from many non-UK based organisations and conferences, among them the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), the Council of Australian University Librarians, the Canadian Association of Research Libraries and the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers. The extent of the international interest in our inquiry has convinced us not only that the issues we have been considering are of international interest and importance but also that there is pressure for change in other countries as well as the UK. The backdrop of international interest and momentum for change sets the scene for the UK Government to take a lead in establishing an efficient and sustainable environment for the publication of research findings.

26. The UK has been party to a number of international agreements relating to STM publishing. A meeting of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Committee for Scientific and Technological Policy that took place on 29—30 January 2004 agreed that "co-ordinated efforts at national and international levels are needed to broaden access to data from publicly funded research and contribute to the advancement of scientific research and innovation".[41] To this end 34 countries, including the UK, signed up to the declaration on access to research data from public funding summarised in figure 3 opposite.

27. In December 2003, a convention of the World Summit of the Information Society, a summit of the UN, adopted several recommendations relating to the publishing industry, and produced a Declaration of Principles and a Plan of Action. In these documents, the signatories, including the UK, declare themselves to be strongly in favour of "Open Access". Evidence submitted to this inquiry by WSIS notes that there is no obligation for countries to enforce the recommendations of the summit. However, it also states that "it would be quite difficult for any government who undersigned the WSIS texts to take decisions that go against the Declaration of Principles and the Plan of Action".[42] The Government officials we met appeared to be unaware of the existence of the summit.[43] It is unlikely, therefore, that the Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action have had any impact on UK policy to date.

28. We will give a copy of this Report to the UK delegates to the Culture, Science and Education Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. We hope that the Committee will pursue the issues raised here, both within the Council of Europe and on a wider international stage.

Figure 3

On 30 January 2004, 34 governments declared their commitment to:
  • Openness: balancing the interests of open access to data to increase the quality and efficiency of research and innovation with the need for restriction of access in some instances to protect social, scientific and economic interests.
  • Transparency: making information on data-producing organisations, documentation on the data they produce and specifications of conditions attached to the use of these data, available and accessible internationally.
  • Legal conformity: paying due attention, in the design of access regimes for digital research data, to national legal requirements concerning national security, privacy and trade secrets.
  • Formal responsibility: promoting explicit, formal institutional rules on the responsibilities of the various parties involved in data-related activities pertaining to authorship, producer credits, ownership, usage restrictions, financial arrangements, ethical rules, licensing terms, and liability.
  • Professionalism: building institutional rules for the management of digital research data based on the relevant professional standards and values embodied in the codes of conduct of the scientific communities involved.
  • Protection of intellectual property: describing ways to obtain open access under the different legal regimes of copyright or other intellectual property law applicable to databases as well as trade secrets.
  • Interoperability: paying due attention to the relevant international standard requirements for use in multiple ways, in co-operation with other international organisations.
  • Quality and security: describing good practices for methods, techniques and instruments employed in the collection, dissemination and accessible archiving of data to enable quality control by peer review and other means of safeguarding authenticity, originality, integrity, security and establishing liability.
  • Efficiency: promoting further cost effectiveness within the global science system by describing good practices in data management and specialised support services.
  • Accountability: evaluating the performance of data access regimes to maximise the support for open access among the scientific community and society at large.

They also pledged to:

  • Seek transparency in regulations and policies related to information, computer and communications services affecting international flows of data for research, and reducing unnecessary barriers to the international exchange of these data;
  • Take the necessary steps to strengthen existing instruments and - where appropriate - create within the framework of international and national law, new mechanisms and practices supporting international collaboration in access to digital research data;
  • Support OECD initiatives to promote the development and harmonisation of approaches by governments adhering to this Declaration aimed at maximising the accessibility of digital research data; and
  • Consider the possible implications for other countries, including developing countries and economies in transition, when dealing with issues of access to digital research data.

29. Scientific publishing has been discussed at a European level for a number of years. In October 2003 the European Commission adopted the Berlin Declaration, which called for increased access to knowledge. More recently, on 15 June 2004, the European Commission launched a study of the economic and technical evolution of the STM publishing markets in Europe. Its aim is to "determine the conditions required for optimum operation of the sector and to assess the extent to which the Commission can help to meet those conditions".[44] We look forward to the findings of this study.

6   A colour figure can be taken to mean, in this context, a colour illustration, photograph, chart, graph, table etc. Back

7   The Wellcome Trust, Economic analysis of scientific research publishing, p 17 Back

8   See, for example, OFT, p 5 Back

9   Ev 96 Back

10   Ev 440 Back

11   Ev 215 Back

12   Ev 209 Back

13   Ev 313 Back

14   Ev 70 Back

15   Ev 246 Back

16   Q 357 Back

17   Ev 231 Back

18 Back

19   Ev 318 Back

20   Ev 88 Back

21   Ev 221 Back

22   Ev 189 Back

23   Ev 129 Back

24   Ev 157 Back

25   Ev 160 Back

26   Ev 97 Back

27   Ev 305 Back

28   Ev 328 Back

29   Ev 76 Back

30   Ev 352 Back

31   Ev 293 Back

32 Back

33   Ev 210 Back

34   Q 328 Back

35   Q 328 Back

36   Q 10 Back

37   Q 351 Back

38   Ev 209 ( Back

39   Ev 449 Back

40   Ev 229 Back

41 Back

42   Ev 282 Back

43   Q 369 Back

44   "An effective scientific publishing system for European research" (IP/04/747), Brussels, 15 June 2004 Back

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