Poynder on Point
The Inevitable and the Optimal
By Richard Poynder
"On the first of March, crows begin to search," goes the proverb. And on March
1, the U.K. Parliament's Science and Technology Select Committee held the first
oral hearings in its inquiry into scientific publishing.
Announced in December, the stated aim of the inquiry is to establish "what
measures are being taken in government, the publishing industry, and academic
institutions to ensure that researchers, teachers, and students have access
to the publications they need in order to carry out their work effectively
[and to] examine the impact that the current trend towards e-publishing may
have on the integrity of journals and the scientific process."
While such aims may sound innocuous, the inquiry comes in response to continuing
concern that STM publishers are making unacceptable profits to the detriment
of scholarly communication.
Certainly, many of the 80-plus people attending on the first day had come
to see publishers called to account for their part in the ongoing journal price-inflation
crisis. They wanted to see the school bullies given a bloody nose. As one attendee
said gleefully to a colleague, "This is going to be great spectator sport."
To add to the spectacle, the boisterous crowd waiting outside the committee
room repeatedly blocked the narrow corridor of the House of Commons, impeding
the passage of a number of politicians, including British Foreign Secretary
Jack Straw. Four policemen urged the visitors to keep to the side of the passagewayand
to make less noise.
Once the meeting was underway, British politicians spent 2 hours questioning "witnesses" from
four commercial publishers: Robert Campbell, president of Blackwell Publishing;
Richard Charkin from Nature Publishing Group; John Jarvis, managing director
of Wiley Europe; and Reed Elsevier CEO Crispin Davis.
The committee wanted to know why over the last 5 years, journal prices had
risen by 58 percent, while the retail price index had risen by just 11 percent.
Campbell responded that that number only reflected the "masthead" subscription
price, and many libraries now get their journals through negotiated deals.
Moreover, he added, the number of journals to which U.K. universities have
access has risen from 4,000 to 6,500 over the last 10 years. All in all, he
said, "they are paying less per journal than they were 10 years ago, and they
are getting far more journals."
Pressed on the issue, Campbell clarified that it was not that more journals
were being published, but that more papers were, and a lot of journals are
growing in size each year. Consequently, he suggested, it's more relevant to
look not at journal subscriptions, but cost per article, which had risen by
just 2.8 percent last year "more or less in line with inflation."
The committee still wanted to know how journal publishers are able to earn
profits that companies in consumer industries would "give their eyeteeth for." House
member Brian Iddon asked, "What is the cost to you of publishing an article,
and what is the price you charge for that article?"
Campbell estimated that it cost Blackwell around $2,240 to publish an article,
from which it made a 15-percent profit. Charkin said the numbers for Nature
Publishing Group were similar for academic journals, but that for a high-profile
journal like Nature, the costs are $17,927 to $53,782 per article.
Elsevier, said Davis, estimated costs at around $3,000 to $10,000 per article.
As for profits, he added, the widely reported 34-percent profit margin enjoyed
by the company was a pre-tax figure. "Our net reported profit margin is 17
The Bad Guy
It was clear that Davis was viewed as the bad guy. "I have it from a whistle-blower
that you think this inquiry will do very little to change policies in the publishing
field and that really we are an embittered bunch of old, tired academics," committee
chair Ian Gibson said. "Is that whistle-blower in your view correct?"
Davis replied that the allegation was "complete rubbish." He said, "Right
from the word go, we have tried to be as cooperative and open as we possibly
"So you welcome this inquiry?" persisted Gibson. Davis replied, "If it is
an objective, insightful inquiry, absolutely."
Davis was not going to be cowed by such goading. He proceeded to explain
that over the last 5 years, Elsevier's prices had increased by just 6.2 percent
to 7.5 percent. Indeed, he addedin what was surely black humorrather
than making excessive profits, Elsevier has proved a "moderating influence
on pricing in this industry over the last 5 years."
He also discussed the costs that publishers are incurring from developing
digital technology. Elsevier, he said, had invested [$360] million in its electronic
platform, ScienceDirect. "And we are continuing to invest well over [$180]
million developing new technologies."
This, said Davis, was driving online per-article costs down, with article-download
costs falling by 50 to 80 percent each year. "Five years ago, the cost per
article download was [$14.34]. In 2003, the cost per article download averaged
[$3.03]. We think it will go down below [$1.81]."
The committee remained skeptical. Trying another approach, House member Paul
Farrelly asked Davis to explain the market features that allowed publishers
to earn such high returns.
"The biggest single factor is usage," said Davis. "We have usage going up
by an average of 75 percent each year. So I would say that is the single biggest
factor. The second factor is ScienceDirect. We are developing new technologies,
new features, and functionality, and I think those are genuinely appreciated
by our end users."
Davis also wanted to set the record straight on bundling, over which he said
there was considerable confusion. All subscribing institutions, he insisted,
are free to choose whatever bundle they want, both in terms of individual journals
and subject collections. And these could be taken in print or electronically.
"They can have contracts for 1 year, 3 years, 5 years. We put the whole range
of options in front of them, which we then negotiate. There is no forcing," he
Uppermost in the politicians' minds, however, was the knowledge that there's
now an alternative to traditional publishing: open access. They were clearly
attracted to a model that promised to replace ever more expensive journal subscriptions
with one that freely distributed research papers over the Internet.
While claiming to be neutral, publishers were evidently bent on discrediting
open access. Davis argued that since open access requires an Internet connection,
it would decrease, not increase access, particularly in the developing world.
Today, he said, the industry enables 90 percent of all scientists to access
the research literature. Open access would reduce this to 75 to 80 percent
in the U.K. and globally exclude "over 50 percent of scientists."
The publishers' greatest criticism was leveled at the open access requirement
that researchers must pay to have their papers published. If publishers are
paid to publish articles, said Davis, they will face "an inherent conflict," leading
to a fall in the standard of published research.
But the most surprising comment came when publishers were asked how they
intended to enfranchise those currently unable to access scientific research
either because they are not personal subscribers, not members of a subscribing
institution, or have exceeded concurrent user limits. Jarvis startled the audience
by replying that it was dangerous to make medical information widely available
to the public.
"This rather enticing statement that everybody should be able to see everything
could lead to chaos," he said dramatically. "There is a lot of information
in the world which most of us need help with [and] you could get yourself in
a terrible mess if you go and read this kind of information."
Apparently agreeing, Charkin nodded vigorously and said, "The unprocessed
data of scientific research papers is very tough for a layperson."
It seemed both publishers felt that denying people access to information
for their own good was a tenable proposition. Unfortunately, their remarks
served to starkly contrast the autocratic tendencies of publishers with the
democratic aspirations of the open access movement, casting the latter in a
more desirable light.
This contrast was undoubtedly still vivid in the committee's mind when it
gathered again the following Monday to hear from representatives of nonprofit
and open access publishers.
Representing nonprofit publishers were Julia King from the U.K.'s Institute
of Physics, Sally Morris from the Association of Learned and Professional Society
Publishers, and Martin Richardson from Oxford University Press. Open access
publishers included Harold Varmus, co-founder of the Public Library of Science,
and BioMed Central's Vitek Tracz.
Both Tracz and Varmus were quick to refute the claims made by commercial
publishers on the first day that the size of their profits reflected the value
they brought to the publishing process. "The role of publishers in the process
of publishing scientific papers is wildly, incredibly exaggerated and overblown," said
Tracz. "We publishers are facilitators. It is the scientists who do the research,
who publish, who referee, who decide."
Varmus also challenged Davis' claim that open access would reduce access.
While accepting that there's a "software and hardware" problem in developing
countries, he said, "While not every worker may have a desktop computer, every
institution has a desktop computer, and you can download the appropriate articles."
When asked what governments should do about open access, Varmus urged them
to make public funding conditional on the resulting research that's being published
as open access research. "It is important not just to encourage but even to
require that publicly funded scientists recognize an obligation to ensure that
everyone has immediate and open access to published information."
It became evident, however, that open access publishing still has to prove
itself financially. Tracz estimated that BioMed Centralwhich charges
$525 per articlewould be self-sustaining in 1 1/2 years. Varmus expected
the Public Library of Sciencewhich charges $1,500 per articleto
become self-supporting in 2 1/2 years.
What was also apparent is that nonprofit publishers are conflicted over open
access. They fear that any action by government to curb commercial publishers'
excessive profits could inflict collateral damage on them.
Julia King, for instance, appeared to cast doubt on the viability of open
access. Asked to comment on the Institute of Physics' experience with its open
access journal New Journal of Physics, she referred to it as "a very
interesting experiment," but added, "Unless there are some radical changes,
we do not see it being a sustainable business model."
Nor was it any coincidence that on the day of the hearing, The Royal Society,
the U.K.'s national academy of science, distributed a press release arguing
that if scientists were required to pay for each paper they published, there
would be a need for an extra $3.5 million of funding each year.
"Changing from a system of library subscriptions to one where scientists have
to pay a fee for each scientific paper published would significantly impact
on the way in which science is funded in the U.K.," said John Enderby, The
Royal Society vice president.
Asked to comment on such claims, Varmus pointed out that all that's needed
is for funds to be reallocated internally. "There will be some cost shifting,
but it all comes ultimately from the same pot of money."
In other words, money currently paid by librarians for journal subscriptions
need only be reallocated to researchers to pay for publishing their papers.
Nevertheless, Varmus accepted that open access is a potential threat to societies.
He said, "My own concern about the transition is most heavily focused on the
fate of societies." He added, however, that since their members want open access,
societies have to embrace it. This may mean having to adjust their business
plans, possibly by charging more for meetings. "Maybe," he warned, "there are
too many societies."
Therein, perhaps, lies the crux of the matter. Greedy publishers aside, in
the Internet age, open access has simply become, in the words of open access
advocate Stevan Harnad, "the inevitable and the optimal."
Managing the Transition
Time will tell whether the committee recommends the U.K. government to push
open access. Since most research is publicly funded, such a move would certainly
accelerate the transition from traditional access to open access.
But if governments truly want to help, they need to also ensure that scholarly
communication does not break down in the process of transition. Harnad says, "There
are two roads to OA: publishing in OA journals and publishing in conventional
journals but self-archiving the articles too." To date, he adds, the Select
Committee has ignored the latter.
Self-archiving, however, is the fastest growing form of open access as scientists,
determined to liberate their research from publishers' financial firewalls,
archive more and more of their papers on the Webwith or without publisher
What's being archived, however, is a mixed bag, explains Harnad. It includes "a
good deal of the target contentpeer-reviewed journal articlesbut
also preprints, unpublished papers, non-papers, and metadata without the full-text
papers." In addition, he adds, "there are a hell of a lot more OA papers (on
authors' Web sites and willy-nilly) than there are in the known OA archives."
At the same time, after years of seeing its complaints fall on deaf ears,
the library community is voting with its feet by aggressively cutting journal
The danger is that these growing acts of civil protest could, in the short
term, exacerbate the crisis. For if research institutions and universities
cancel more and more journal subscriptions and open access publishing cannot
immediately fill the gap, those in need of research may find themselves having
to sift through a hodgepodge of (frequently unrefereed) self-archived material
that's distributed across a wide range of repositories and Web sites.
The concern must be, then, that the U.K. government could accelerate the
adoption of open access but fail to ensure that the transition is being managed
The committee is due to hold further oral hearings in April and May, so it
may yet address the self-archiving issue. After that, it will publish a report
in June, and the U.K. government has 2 months to respond. If appropriate, there
may then be a debate in the House of Commons.
Richard Poynder is a U.K.-based freelance journalist who
specializes in intellectual property and the information industry. His e-mail
address is firstname.lastname@example.org.