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Magazines > Information Today > April 2004
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Information Today

Vol. 21 No. 4 — April 2004

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.

Day One

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 passageway—and 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 percent."

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 can."

"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 added—in what was surely black humor—rather 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 said.

Open Access

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.

Day Two

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 Central—which charges $525 per article—would be self-sustaining in 1 1/2 years. Varmus expected the Public Library of Science—which charges $1,500 per article—to 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.

Interesting Experiment

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 Web—with or without publisher approval.

What's being archived, however, is a mixed bag, explains Harnad. It includes "a good deal of the target content—peer-reviewed journal articles—but 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 subscriptions.

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 properly.

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 richard.poynder@journalist.co.uk.
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