Memorandum from Professor Michael Ashburner,
University of Cambridge
"Science is public knowledge".
Michael Ashburner is Professor of Biology in
the Department of Genetics, University of Cambridge. He was, for
the period 1994-2001, first Research Coordinator and then Joint-Head
of the European Bioinformatics Institute, the Hinxton Outstation
of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. He is on the editorial
boards of several Open Access scientific journals.
1. Preamble and some background on the "sociology"
of publishing scientific research.
1.1. What defines science ? John Ziman,
Emeritus Professor of Physics in the University of Bristol, has
given us a definition of particular relevance to the present Inquiry:
Science is public knowledge.
1.2. In the UK very considerable scientific
research is done in our Universities and is supported by public
money. The results of this research must be openly published,
if not they do not meet Ziman's criterion of being science. Academic
scientists have a duty to publish. Moreover, it is by their publications
that they, and their institutions, are judged. It is by their
publications that their "scientific reputation" is built,
that they are judged for promotion through the academic ladder
(although here, other factors such as teaching and administration
will also be relevant), that will form the main criteria for the
award of prizes and election to bodies such as the Royal Society.
1.3. It is, therefore, both integral to
the role of scientists, and very much in our best interests, to
publish our work and for our publications to be read.
1.4. By and large scientists publish the
results of their research in scientific journals. These publications
are, generally, of three types, and only the first (but by far
the most important) of these is relevant to this Inquiry: primary
research articles, reviews and commentary. Primary research articles
are where the results of research are announced to the public.
Typically, they include not only the results of research and their
place or relevance in the particular field, but also (if reporting
experimental results) a detailed explanation of the materials
and experiments that have been done: classically this detail should
be sufficient for someone else to replicate the research reported.
1.5. Within any given scientific subfield
any practicing scientist will have an intuitive feel for where
to publish any particular paper. Scientific journals vary enormously
in their scope, from the whole of sciencefor example the
weeklies Nature and Scienceto the most specialized.
Scientific journals also vary in their quality. There are, indeed,
"objective" measures of the quality of scientific journalseg
the numbers of times papers published in them are cited in other
scientific papers (measured by a journal's "Impact Factor").
These are very biased and flawed measures,
they appeal to administrators, but not to scientists. Within their
field scientists have a good "feel" for where to publish
any particular paper, based on their knowledge of the journals
in their field, their judgment of the "importance" of
their paper and of the particular audience they want to read it.
1.6. What makes a "good" scientific
journal ? This is an extraordinarily difficult question to answer.
There are some qualities all good journals have in common: they
are efficient in handling publications (that is to say they process
manuscripts rapidly), they publish on schedule etc. Most importantly,
however, is that they are edited by people who have a good knowledge
of the field and of its practitioners, for what makes a "good"
journal is that it publishes "good" paperspapers
of both sound technical quality but also reporting interesting
and novel work. All "good" journals have two things
in common: they subject the papers submitted to them to rigorous
peer review, and they only publish a fraction of manuscripts submitted
1.7. Some journals, especially the weeklies
Nature and Science, triage manuscripts in their
offices and only send for peer review a fraction of the manuscripts
they receive (for Nature this is done in-house by the editorial
staff (generally PhD level scientists), for Science this
is done by sending each manuscript to two members of its external
Board of Reviewing Editors). Some other journals follow a similar
policy; but I would guess that the majority send all manuscripts
received for peer review, typically to two or three scientists
in the field. Typically, reviewers are anonymous, and they should
have no conflict of interest with the authors.
2. Who publishes the primary scientific literature?
2.1. The first scientific journals were
established in the 17th century by the grand societies of Britain
and France and very many scientific journals continue to be owned
by scientific societies. In some cases a Society will be its own
publisher, in others publication will be contracted to a commercial
publisher. For example the journals of the Genetics Society are
published by the Nature Publishing Group. It is important to note
that even relatively low circulation journals may be very profitable
and these profits (or, the share of profit, if the journal has
a commercial publisher) are an important source of income for
the Society. These journals cannot make a loss, but one can argue
that the motive for their publication is more altruistic than
simply making moneyafter all these societies have the broad
function of promoting their particular field of science (they
support conferences, give travel grants to students etc). Many
journals are published by commercial publishers, and they are
published for the sole purpose of profit to their owners.
In between these poles are "not-for-profit" organizations,
in my own field the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York
is an important scientific journal publisher.
2.2. In the 1950's certain commercial publishers
had the foresight to see that there was easy money to be made
from publishing scientific journals. Perhaps the most famous of
these was Captain Robert Maxwell, who founded the Pergamon Press.
Over the last decade or so there has been a massive consolidation
in the STM publishing field. For example Elsevier has purchased,
in the last few years, both Academic Press (Harcourt) and Pergamon
Press, as well as several smaller publishersat least one
merger being referred to the Competition Commission.
This has resulted in the situation where much of the intellectual
property of science over the last century is now owned by a very
few commercial publishers.
3. Why did the scientific community get angry?
3.1. About five years ago the scientific
community began to realize that both itand the public at
largewas being "ripped off" by the large commercial
publishers of scientific journals. The argument was as follows:
Our research is funded by the public purse (by and large), our
objective is to make the results of this research as widely available
(internationally) as possible, we provide the primary content
of these journals free of charge (indeed we may even have to pay
"page charges"), we maintain the standards of the journals
by reviewing papers (without payment) and, in many cases, by acting
(without payment) as editors or editorial board members; yet we
are obliged to sign over to the publisher our copyright (except
for US Government employees), and weor our institutionsare
then charged a high cost to buy back access to "our work";
these costs are, in many cases, so high that many institutions
simply cannot afford them.
3.2. It also became clear that the Internet
offered both an alternative model for publishing and one that
could have one enormous benefit to science and society. This benefit
would be access to the full content of scientific papers on the
Internet. This is important for two reasons: the first is that
it would widen access to individual papers. The second is that
it would open the full content of scientific papers to computational
searching and indexing This is, simply, vital for scientific research.
The volume of research, internationally, is now such that no single
scientist can "keep up" with his or her field. We rely
on computational search tools to discover what has been published.
In medicine and biology by far the most important of these is
MEDLINE, a product of the US Government's National Library of
Medicine that is freely available to all.
MEDLINE publishes, and indexes, abstracts of the biomedical literature.
Its current content is some 11 million abstracts. (As an aside,
Elsevier own a competing product, (EMBASE),
which is only available by purchase, costs the University of Cambridge
£5,700 p.a. Elsevier have argued in the US that MEDLINE should
not remain free to the community, on the grounds of unfair competition.)
The community realized just how much more powerful indexing of
the scientific literature could be if the full content, and not
just abstracts, of their papers were available for searching.
3.3 These two general considerations, grave
concern about the pricing policies of some major commercial publishers
(and with their massive profits), and the restriction they make
(through their ownership of copyright) to full Internet access
to scientific papers, lead to the demand for an alternative model.
This is Open Access publishing.
4. The Open Access alternative.
4.1. In 2001 a group of ten scientists (including
myself) published a letter in Science calling for an alternative
model for publishing primary scientific papers.
This letter called on the publishers to make their full content
(of primary scientific papers) open to all without charge six
months after publication. A site at the National Institutes of
Health was set up to enable this (PubMed Central).
This site now includes the content of 144 biomedical journals,
and is systematically digitizing back issues of many.
(By way of contrast, Elsevier's Science Direct site has 1,800
4.2. Our letter called for a boycott of
publishers who would not agree to this policy, and asked the community
to sign an open letter saying that they would support this boycott.
Over 30,000 scientists signed this letter. This letter had very
wide publicity and engendered immense hostility from the commercial
It did, however, have an immediate impact, both practically (an
increase in the number of journals available on PubMed Central)
and in raising the consciousness of the community about this issue.
It lead directly to the founding of new Open Access publishing,
both by some innovative and creative commercial publishers (eg
and by the Public Library of Science (PLoS).
5. What is Open Access publishing?
5.1. Open Access publishing should be seen
as one current in a wider river, a river that includes Open Source
code for computation
and far broader societal demand for openness in Government and
public affairs. It has two principles: one is that the copyright
of scientific papers remains with their authors (unless owned
by their employers, eg the US Federal Government); the other is
that access to the full content of scientific papers is available
free of charge to all. Of course, scientific publishing must be
paid for. There are several possible business models. It may be
paid for by advertising, it may be paid for by charging for access
to articles that are not primary research papers (eg reviews,
commentaries, news articles), it may be paid for by up-front charges
to authors, or by any combination of these charges.
5.2. The PLoS model is for publishing to
be paid for by the "authors", in reality their funders.
The current charge for publishing a paper in PLoS Biology is
$1,500. This can be waived, if an author has convincing evidence
of inability to pay (eg for an author from a developing country
or without grant support). (Many journals have, in the recent
past, charged authors "page charges" that often exceeded
$1,500; even today, the Proceedings of the National Academy
of Sciences (Washington, DC) charges its authors $70/page.)
5.3. Your Committee will have Evidence from
the Public Library of Science, and from others who practice Open
Access publishing. Let me just make one comment from the point
of view of a practicing scientist. I have no doubt whatsoever
that the model is working and is being very effective. I must
declare an interest (I am on the editorial boards of three Open
Access journals: PloS Biology, Genome Biology and the Journal
of Biology), but these journals have rapidly established very
6. What impact do publishers' current policies
on pricing and provision of scientific journals, particularly
"big deal schemes", have on libraries and the teaching
and research communities they serve?
6.1. There is great concern in the research
community about the consequence of "big deal" schemes
forced on University Libraries by the publishers. This is for
two reasons. The costs are adversely impacting the provision of
journals, since journals published by non-commercial publishers
(eg the scientific societies) must be dropped to pay for "big
deals". There are also concerns about security of access,
not only to current but also to past content. Already some major
US Universities have cancelled their "big deal schemes",
with the effect of cutting access to these journals, both current
and past, to their communities.
7. What action should Government, academic
institutions and publishers be taking to promote a competitive
market in scientific publications?
7.1. There is no such market now, nor could
there be, in the traditional sense. Primary scientific papers
are only published once and, regardless of where they are published,
the scientific community, and the public at large, need access
to them. Scientific journals, if commercially published, have
a monopoly. I may not like Elsevier's commercial policy. I can
refuse to edit their journals or review their papers, but I cannot
afford (professionally) to ignore their content or not to cite
the papers they publish. The commercial publishers exploit their
monopoly for monetary gain. Open Access journals are non-monopolistic,
since they do not hold the copyright of their papers. Papers published
in PLoS Biology carry this copyright notice:
Copyright: 2004 Ashburner et al. This
is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative
Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution,
and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is
7.2. Competition between journals exists,
and will continue regardless of business model, because the journals
are competing for the "best" scientific papers. At the
top of the league the existing competition between, for example
the weeklies Nature and Science, is very intense.
I see no need for Government intervention.
8. What are the consequences of increasing
numbers of open-access journals, for example for the operation
of the Research Assessment Exercise and other selection processes?
Should the Government support such a trend and, if so, how?
8.1. I see no great impact of Open Access
publishing on the RAE, or similar exercises. I presume that we
will soon have a wide range of different Open Access journals,
just as we now have a range of different commercial journals.
These will vary in standard and, just as now, assessments of research
may (although mistakenly in my view) take such measures as the
Impact Factors of these journals into account. The outputs of
scientific research should be judged on their merits, and the
best way to secure this is by peer review.
8.2. The Government should actively encourage
both the development of Open Access journals and encourage scientists
to publish in them.
8.3. Most academic science in the UK is
Government funded, and it is obviously in the Government's general
interest for the fruits of such research to be as widely available
to the community as possible. This cannot be achieved if there
is a very high price barrier to accessas is the case with,
for example, Elsevier journals. Not only is this a bar to access
by scientists (surmountable, perhaps, if they work at a relatively
well-funded Institute), but it is an insurmountable barrier to
access by science journalists, members of the public or, perhaps,
to Members of Parliament. Papers published in Open Access journals
are there to be enjoyed, without cost, by all.
8.4. Several private and public funders
of science have publicly declared their support for Open Access
journals, and encourage their fundees to publish in them. Such
support was first given by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute
in the USA (a very major funder of biomedical research), followed
by the Wellcome Trust in the UK and some overseas bodies, including
the French Centre National de la Recherche (CNRS) and the German
Max Planck Society.
8.5. The Government should not allow
scientists, publishing primary research papers on work funded
from a public source, to assign an exclusive copyright of such
works to a commercial publisher. (This is the case for scientists
working for US Federal Government agencies, such as the National
Institutes of Health.)
8.6. The Government should encourage the
Research Councils to follow the lead of other funders in encouraging
Open Access publication of primary papers. They should encourage
the Research Councils to state explicitly that research funds
can be used to pay for such publication should it be needed. (The
costs will be relatively minor, 1 to 2% of a typical research
grant over its three-year life; if Open Access publishing becomes
the norm, then there may need to be a re-distribution of resources
8.7. By encouraging Open Access publishing
the Government will be serving other ends. This includes widening
the fruits of scientific research to the community at large. Any
person with Internet access at home, school, work or their local
library, will have as easy access to this work as a Cambridge
Professor. Science is international. Much good science is done
in developing countries. At most Universities and research institutes
in these countries access to the bulk of the scientific literature
is denied, because of cost (although the WHO and others have recently
been making some steps to improve their access). Access to the
Internet is now longer such a serious problem in Universities
and research institutes in developing countries, but access to
journals, either in print or via subscription to Internet editions
is. By encouraging Open Access publishing the Government will
be encouraging scientific and technical development in the less
fortunate nations of the world.
9. How effectively are the Legal Deposit Libraries
making available non-print scientific publications to the research
community, and what steps should they be taking in this respect?
9.1. I am not well qualified to comment
on this, but there are concerns in the scientific community. If
I want to read a paper published in the Philosophical Transactions
of the Royal Society in 1795 I can be confident that I will
find a paper copy on a shelf in a library. Paper is an extraordinarily
durable medium. There is the concern that electronic media will
not be as durable.
9.2. A second concern is that, as back issues
of journals are digitized, paper copies now held by libraries
will be discarded. This could be a disaster, especially if the
only access to the digitized back issues is through a commercial
publisher and relies on a current "big deal scheme".
It is very important that these digitized archives are held in
the public domain by, for example, the Legal Deposit Libraries
(for this reason we must applaud Elsevier's agreement with the
Royal Dutch Library, which will act as the deposit of last resort
for their journals, should they go out of business).
9.3. The UK academic community is well served
by Inter Library Loan Services from Boston Spar.
They traditionally provide copies of papers from print material.
It is important that they have the resources to provide copies
of material published electronically, even when the original source
is no longer available. Pressure from the commercial publishers
has been directed at the British Library against document supply.
9.4. The Government should encourage resistance
to pressure from commercial publishers to curtail document supply
by the Legal Deposit Libraries.
10. What impact will trends in academic journal
publishing have on the risks of scientific fraud and malpractice?
10.1. I am not sure that Open Access publishing
will have a major impact on the risks of scientific fraud or malpractice.
However, if there is any impact it will be positive, for this
reason. Scientific fraud and malpractice will rarely be detected
if a scientific paper remains unread. Open Access widens access.
By widening access Open Access publications widen the probability
of work being closely examined.
188 J.M. Ziman. 1968. Public Knowledge. An essay concerning
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