MPs call for all research free online

July 23, 2004

Universities should ensure that all their published research papers are available free of charge to everyone online, MPs said this week.

Following one of its most unexpectedly controversial inquiries to date, the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee released a highly critical report about the state of scientific publishing on Tuesday.

The MPs concludes that the status quo - where institutions take out increasingly costly subscriptions to journals to access scientific research paid for by the public purse - is not working.

Instead, the report calls for all higher education institutions to establish digital repositories so that research carried out within their own walls can be accessed freely by all interested parties. It urges research councils and other public research funders to make this sort of online access a condition of all research grants.

Ian Gibson, chair of the committee, said: "We're not trying to smash the industry. We are trying to build a new dawn for publishing."

He added: "As someone who had to cut journal subscriptions every year (when I headed) an academic department, I know it has been an ongoing problem for a long time."

The report suggests that establishing institutional repositories would be an important first step towards an open-access future, with more publishers operating a model where authors pay to publish results so that journals can be free to everyone.

The committee urges the Government to wake up to the debate on publishing's direction, commenting that it is "baffled" and "dismayed" that Keith O'Nions, the new director-general of the research councils, has not taken a stronger line on the big profits that publishers were making.

It also criticises the Higher Education Funding Council for England for not taking a greater interest in the struggling budgets of university libraries.

Vitek Tracz, founder of BioMed Central, the first major open-access publisher, said publishers had a moral obligation to help the community.

"We are confident this (open-access) model is sustainable long term. We are commercial publishers not a charity," he said.

The Joint Information Systems Committee has renewed its membership deal with BioMed Central. Author fees for articles published in their journals will be waived for researchers in all UK universities for another year.

But other publishers were more sceptical. Eric Merkel-Sobotta, director of corporate relations for Reed Elsevier, said: "The committee has gone from thinking open access is the best thing since sliced bread to putting many caveats in this report, including warnings about the future of learned societies and quality control. They haven't answered any of the really hard questions."

SUBSCRIPTION-BASED PROFITS

  • Reed Elsevier makes an operating profit of 34 per cent, with profits after tax totalling nearer to 17 per cent
  • Wiley had an operating profit of 29 per cent in the first half of 2003
  • The average operating profit across the whole educational and professional publishing sector is 22 per cent
  • Learned and professional societies make an average surplus of 17 per cent
  • "It is not for us to pronounce on the acceptability of the profit margins secured by private companies. Nonetheless, high publisher profit margins need to be set against the context of faltering library budgets and an impending crisis in STM journals provision" - Science and Technology Select Committee

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