Brussels, 09 Nov 2004
The UK Parliament's Select Committee on Science and Technology has castigated the government for what it describes as an 'unhealthy collusion' with the publishing industry in the debate over free access to scientific research results.
In July, the committee of MPs published a report recommending a number of steps that the government could take to improve access to scientific research results. The government's response, says the committee, endorses much of the report in principle, but in practice undertakes to implement none of its main recommendations.
Many argue that under the current model, libraries and other institutions with limited budgets are struggling to pay high subscription fees while scientific publishers' profit margins remain exceptionally high compared with the general publishing industry. Resentment is particularly strong where the results in question have been produced through publicly funded research efforts. In June, the European Commission launched a study of the scientific publications market in Europe with the aim of 'determining the conditions required for optimum operation of the sector'.
In its original report, the committee of MPs recommended that the government should support the creation of a national system of institutional repositories, in which higher education institutes could store their published output and thus facilitate access to it. It also asked the government to investigate the impact of introducing an 'author-pays' model of scientific publication, whereby researchers or their funders pay to publish their results in a journal, which is then made freely accessible to all.
The government's response is a distillation of opinions from various departments, including the Department for Trade and Industry (DTI), the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) and the Research Councils UK (RCUK). On the question of institutional repositories, although the government 'recognises the potential benefits of institutional repositories and sees them as a significant development worthy of encouragement', it says that 'each institution has to make its own decision about institutional repositories depending on individual circumstances.'
Yet MPs argue that: 'By abdicating responsibility for implementing institutional repositories at a national level, the government severely limits the benefits that such repositories can yield for access to scientific publications.'
With regard to investigating the 'author-pays' publication model, the government responds: 'In a market in which different organisations are competing to provide services to the academic community, the government does not think it should intervene to support one model or another. The government is also not convinced that the 'author-pays' model is inherently superior to the current model.'
But the committee alleges that the government's response is proof that 'rather than engaging in the complex issues posed by the committee's report, the government has clearly decided against the author-pays model ahead of the further investigation that it was urged to pursue. This approach prejudges the issue.'
The Select Committee concludes that: 'We have to consider whether the government response that we received accurately reflects the diversity of views and interests represented by these departments and bodies.' Indeed, MPs allege that the JISC had been put under pressure to amend its original response - which the committee has seen - because it differed substantially in both tone and content from that of the government. 'It is regrettable that an expert body should feel constrained in carrying out its advisory role, assigned to it by government,' the committee notes.
The chair of the Select Committee, Labour MP Dr Ian Gibson, said: 'The government is just supporting the industry. There is a collusion going on somewhere which is unhealthy. The DTI is apparently more interested in kowtowing to the powerful publishing lobby than it is in looking after the best interests of British science. This isn't evidence-based policy, it's policy-based evidence.'
For further information, please consult the following web address: