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U.K. Academics and Librarians Disagree Over Open Access Publishing
Posted On May 3, 2004
On April 21, the U.K. Parliament's Science and Technology Select Committee held the third evidence session in its enquiry into the pricing and availability of scientific publications. Having heard testimony from publishers (See, British politicians now wanted to hear the views of librarians and academics. As it turned out, the librarians and academics disagreed with one another.

First up were representatives of the library community, including the chief executive of The British Library, Lynne Brindley; the librarian of Cambridge University, Peter Fox; Di Martin, dean of learning and information services at the University of Hertfordshire; and Frederick Friend, consultant with the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC).

Committee chair Dr. Ian Gibson began: "Libraries have told us that there is a crisis in the provision of scientific publications: publishers vigorously deny this. Who is right?"

The librarians were clear there was a crisis. Describing the environment as monopolistic, they expressed concerns over excessive pricing, inflexibility over the "bundling" of electronic journals, inequitable copyright agreements, and restrictions on long-term access to digital material.

On pricing, Martin reported that while the RPI (Retail Price Index) had increased by just 11 percent over 5 years, there had been a 58 percent increase in STM journal subscriptions. Fox explained that for Cambridge University this meant that where 10 years ago scientific journals consumed around 25 percent of the materials budget, "currently that is 33 percent and rising." This, he added, was depriving the University of £500,000 a year for "purchasing books and journals outside the scientific area."

The librarians also refuted claims made by publishers that there was flexibility in bundling. Any flexibility there was, said Martin, is disappearing. "The deal that has been put forward now for higher education … [would] … give us much fewer options and we would have to take a set package."

When Gibson asked who the best and worst publishers were, Friend replied that ALPSP members (The Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers) are easier to deal with. Two of the more difficult, he added, were Elsevier and the American Chemical Society (ACS).

Last year, he explained, JISC spent 6 months in national negotiations with Elsevier. "You agree a national price of, say, 5 percent on what you paid last year; but then, when the detail gets down to local level, you find that the reality is very different." The process, he said, was "extremely time-consuming, and is still not resolved for many universities."

ACS, he continued, imposes unreasonable restrictions on long-term access to its digital material. "In the electronic environment we are not allowed to purchase the content outright; it is licensed to us. Many publishers impose conditions upon long-term access—not all, and in general the ALPSP publishers are better on this, but the American Chemical Society is very difficult."

Much of the discussion revolved around OA (Open Access) publishing. OA, said Friend, is an appropriate response to the current monopolistic environment. "What I would urge this committee to consider is the recommendation to government that any articles based on publicly-funded research should be freely accessible over the Internet."

Since universities are a major provider of profit for these companies, asked committee member Dr. Brian Iddon, why did librarians not just use their clout to make publishers more flexible?

"We do have some clout," replied Friend. "[B]ut ultimately we are in the hands of our academic community, and if the academic community do not back the library up in saying ‘no', then the library alone could not take action."

The problem, he later explained, is that those who pay for the journals (librarians) are not the people who make the buying decisions (academics). Since OA requires that researchers pay to be published, he added, it has the benefit of restoring "the decision on payment to the authors."

When academics were called it was apparent they viewed things differently. David Williams, professor of tissue engineering at the University of Liverpool, was critical of OA, and disputed there was a crisis. "I do not see that there is any significant problem in S&T publishing at the present time. My staff, my post-docs, my students have immense access to a wide variety of publications with tremendous facility. Comparing that to 5 years ago, the time saved in technology is very, very significant."

John Fry, professor of microbial ecology at the University of Cardiff, said that OA introduced "a whole host of minor practical problems." As publications manager for The Federation of European Microbiological Societies, he was also worried that learned societies could not continue publishing without the support of traditional publishers. "All our journals at the moment are owned and published by Elsevier."

While supportive of self-archiving, Nigel Hitchin, professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford, was also doubtful about OA publishing. "Up-front payments are a big issue," he said, adding that asking mathematicians—who are not big grant-earners—to pay to publish could act as a deterrent to submitting papers.

The only academic to support OA was professor James Crabbe, head of animal and microbial sciences at the University of Reading.

When the Committee asked about copyright, Williams replied: "In the vast majority of papers which I publish I have to sign over copyright to the publisher. It has never been a concern to me. As editor-in-chief [of an Elsevier journal] I have never had a concern raised by any author at any time about the copyright issue."

Jane Carr, chief executive of the Authors' Licensing & Collecting Society (ALCS)—who gave testimony alongside academics—disagreed. Based on an ALCS survey, she said, it was clear academics were concerned. One author had told ALCS: "The only journal I challenged over assigning copyright agreed to assign it to me as long as I understood they would not publish me again. Academic publishing is, from an author's perspective, a complete rip-off." Carr added she was concerned such copyright issues "could be carried through into an open access model."

In short, academics were skeptical about OA publishing. Outside the committee room, critics complained that, in their choice of whom to call, politicians had shown a bias towards publishers. "Of the four academics, three were editors of Elsevier journals," angrily commented one OA advocate, on condition of anonymity.

"I don't think it was a representative panel of academics," agrees Jan Velterop, from OA publisher BioMed Central. "But that doesn't matter. It is my impression that the Committee just question what they perceive as unclear or flawed arguments."

The Select Committee's final oral session—on May 5—will take evidence from U.K. research councils. A report will then be issued in June, after which the U.K. government has 2 months to respond.

The Committee has posted the uncorrected transcript of oral evidence at:

Richard Poynder is a U.K.-based freelance journalist who specializes in intellectual property and the information industry.

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