Learned societies at risk from 'open access'.

Learned societies at risk from ’open access’.

A committee of MPs has recommended that higher education institutions establish ’institutional repositories’ in which to file their scientific publications. All these repositories would be networked together to provide an online service making publications accessible to all, free of charge. But while it may sound honourable, say anxious observers, it won’t just be the publishing industry’s shareholders that lose out.

The UK’s Science and Technology Committee announced an inquiry into scientific publications at the end of 2003. Academic libraries have been struggling to purchase journal subscriptions thanks to a combination of inadequate budgets and rising publication prices. ’Whilst there are a number of measures that can be taken by publishers, libraries and academics to improve the provision of scientific publications, a government strategy is urgently needed’, wrote the committee members in their final report published in July 2004. 

The institutional repository recommendation would serve to ease the problem, says the Committee, but so-called ’open access’ publishing - where authors pay to publish but their publications are then freely available - might provide the ultimate solution. Not everyone agrees.

’The committee seems to be confusing two quite separate issues: whether commercial publishers make excessive profit from scientific publishing with whether or not . research results would be more widely available [under the author-pays model]’, reads a statement from the Institution of Electrical Engineers. Would poorly funded researchers in developing countries publish less, would more papers - regardless of quality - be published in order to boost publishers’ revenues, would commercial organisations, which publish little but read a lot, get a free ride on the backs of cash-strapped academics?

Learned societies with charitable status rely on publishing revenue to support their activities, and have grave misgivings about networked institutional repositories and the author-pays model. It’s an issue raised by the Royal Society. ’Any system of publishing must avoid financially damaging these organisations,’ said Sir John Enderby, vice president of the Royal Society. It is unclear how learned societies could continue to fund activities under the author-pays model implied by a move to free institutional repositories, he says. The Royal Society has joined calls for a comprehensive study into the real costs of author-pays publishing.

’The RSC’s view is that increasing access to information is very good, but that the author-pays solution is not new, has failed before, and is fraught with problems as it is supplier driven,’ says RSC managing director of publishing, Peter Gregory. ’ Phil. Trans. was author-pays when it started in the 1660s, the ACS has just stopped charging authors page charges after a 30-year "experiment", and in the 1940s/1950s Robert Maxwell grew a whole new commercial journal business on the back of authors being dissatisfied with the then prevalent author-pays models.’

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