Elsevier submits evidence on scientific publishing to committee of UK MPs

Elsevier has submitted written evidence to the United Kingdom House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, which is currently conducting an inquiry into science publishing.

12 Feb 2004 - Elsevier has submitted written evidence to the United Kingdom House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, which is currently conducting an inquiry into science publishing.

In summary, the submission notes:

Scientific publishing has evolved continually over hundreds of years to meet the changing needs of scientists, researchers and medical professionals. Most recently, the advent of new information technologies, and publishers’ responses to these advances have further transformed scientific publishing: around the globe, scientists and researchers now have improved and easier access to scientific information that is world class in quality, while powerful new functionalities enable them to search and link easily and efficiently across a vast range of highly relevant information.

We believe that the current system of scientific, technical and medical publishing serves science and medical communities well. STM publishing is truly a global market: scientific and research communities are dispersed around the world, yet fully integrated by the highly organised and efficient system of STM publishing. This system of some 2,000 STM publishers annually produces 1.2 million peer-reviewed articles, which are published only after world-leading experts in their fields have vetted their quality. These articles are then used by millions of researchers to further the progress of science and medicine. Publishers continue to serve global researchers and practitioners by organising, establishing, managing, producing and disseminating journals, defining new disciplines, establishing and actively managing editorial boards, and investing in new technologies that make new and archived research more accessible.

The substantial investments that STM publishers have made in electronic technologies are continuing to deliver dramatic productivity improvements for scientific and medical communities around the world as more users gain quicker and easier access to more content at lower per-article-costs for the institutions that serve them. For example, after investing approximately ?200 million to date in its ScienceDirect electronic distribution platform and in other programmes (e.g. digitisation of archived journals) Elsevier has seen the following productivity-related results in the UK:

  • Access: all UK Higher Education Institutions engaging in science and medical research and all researchers within them have access to nearly all Elsevier journals that pertain to their research programmes: 97% of UK researchers have direct access, on average, to around 90% of Elsevier journals under licence of their host institution. UK citizens have access to all Elsevier journals and articles either directly through their local libraries, or via inter-library loan agreements.
  • Usage: from 2001 to 2003, the number of UK researchers downloading Elsevier’s electronic articles at least once per month more than doubled from 145,000 to 360,000, while the number of Elsevier articles they downloaded tripled from 4.4 million to 13.3 million. More than 820,000 UK researchers use ScienceDirect regularly.
  • Functionality: These dramatic increases in breadth and frequency of use reflect the real growth in benefits to users, who can now access a highly expanded range of articles on campus or remotely, at any time, and with much greater efficiency. For example, ScienceDirect allows users to perform complex searches and to retrieve full text articles, to link to other articles cited, to export content to local databases and citation management software, and to receive alerts when new journal issues are released.
  • Per article costs for customers: In the case of Elsevier, the average cost for a retrieved article for UK users of ScienceDirect has fallen from ?4.57 to ?1.69 since 2001, a reduction of 63%. We estimate the cost to customers per article downloaded will be less than ?1 within two years.

Open Access’ author-pays model risks penalising the UK because British researchers produce a disproportionately high number of articles every year. By charging authors for each article that has been accepted for publication, Open Access transfers the costs of publishing from institutions like commercial corporations, and libraries that serve readers, to researchers and their sponsors (e.g. universities, governmental funding agencies and foundations). While Britain’s spending on journal subscriptions currently amounts to 3.3% of the world’s total, UK researchers contribute a much higher 5% of all articles published globally. As a result, we estimate that the UK Government, foundations, universities and researchers could together pay 30-50% more for STM journals in an Open Access system than they do today, assuming the same levels of service and quality are maintained.

In addition to these cost-transfer effects, there are other key unresolved issues concerning Open Access:

  • By introducing an author-pays model, Open Access risks undermining public trust in the integrity and quality of scientific publications that has been established over hundreds of years. The subscription model, in which the users pay (and institutions like libraries that serve them), ensures high quality, independent peer review and prevents commercial interests from influencing decisions to publish. This critical control measure would be removed in a system where the author—or indeed his/her sponsoring institution—pays. Because the number of articles published will drive revenues, Open Access publishers will continually be under pressure to increase output, potentially at the expense of quality.
  • The Open Access business model in its current form has not proven its financial viability: even the highest article fees charged by Open Access publishers today ($1,500) cover only about 40% - 60% of the estimated total costs to publish an article of the quality that researchers are used to. Remaining costs, estimated to range from ?1 billion - ?2 billion for the industry globally, would have to be covered by foundation, university and government subsidies. While it is conceivable that mean costs per article may fall as electronic-only publishers gain scale (currently less than 1% of articles are Open Access), Open Access publishers are unlikely to cover production costs with revenues of just $1,500 per article, assuming they provide similar levels of quality, peer review, functionality and accessibility as researchers receive today. They would almost certainly be unable to invest in technological innovation to any significant extent or in nurturing emerging areas of science.
  • For universal access to be a reality, publishers must continue to make articles available in multiple media formats. Print is used by many scientists around the world and by global citizens who are the beneficiaries of scientific and medical research. To rely on the internet alone for distribution, as most Open Access journals do, risks reducing levels of access among these beneficiaries: only 11% of the world’s population uses the Internet and only 64% of UK citizens have ever been online.

The recent period of rapid, intense innovation in STM publishing—the context in which Open Access has emerged—is far from over. As this period continues, we expect the measurable benefits in productivity for users (i.e. access, usage, functionality and lower unit costs for customers) to continue. Elsevier, like all publishers, will continue to innovate, to observe the impact of innovations like Open Access and to assess how effectively such initiatives serve the needs of scientific and research communities. As developments prove able to bring demonstrable, substantial and sustainable improvements for those communities, Elsevier will adapt and invest accordingly. In the meantime, we believe that the UK Government should continue to allow the market dynamics of this global industry both to drive innovation and to determine which publishing models can best serve the needs of the worldwide scientific and medical research communities.

 A copy of Elsevier’s submission to the Committee is available on the Elsevier web site, here.

About Elsevier
Elsevier is a world-leading provider of information solutions that enhance the performance of science, health, and technology professionals, empowering them to make better decisions, deliver better care, and sometimes make groundbreaking discoveries that advance the boundaries of knowledge and human progress. Elsevier provides web-based, digital solutions — among them ScienceDirect, Scopus, Research Intelligence and ClinicalKey— and publishes over 2,500 journals, including The Lancet and Cell, and more than 35,000 book titles, including a number of iconic reference works. Elsevier is part of RELX Group, a world-leading provider of information and analytics for professional and business customers across industries. www.elsevier.com