Proceedings of ICSU Press Workshop


Economics, real costs and benefits of electronic publishing in science - a technical study.

Keble College, University of Oxford UK
31 March to 2 April 1998


Roger Elliott, Chairman, ICSU Press

The summaries provided by the Chairman of the working groups show that there was a high level of agreement on the central issues which we gathered here to discuss. They each made a number of detailed points which point to further actions and considerations.

In these brief remarks I shall try to provide a summary of those summaries but I shall not be able to cover everything and the Conference should be reassured that everything will be taken into account when a final report is prepared and ICSU Press decides on follow-up actions. Because of our constitution these can be addressed to individual scientists and to the scientific unions (and their constituent learned societies), as well as to national academies. The latter have access to Governments but there will be a unique opportunity for bringing issues of this kind to Government attention through the World Science Conference being organised by UNESCO and ICSU for 1999.

First and foremost we felt it necessary to emphasise what is to us a self evident truth, that the scientific information chain is designed entirely to assist the advancement of the scientific endeavour through the free flow of information. We all believe that the new technologies, and particularly electronic publishing, provide an opportunity to improve the information loop and to further our basic endeavour. We were also well aware that there was no obvious panacea which would provide dramatically improved services at significantly less cost and that the great diversity of scientific disciplines had different needs and somewhat different ways of operation. This led us to understand that there would always be a requirement for a diversity of providers and facilitators.

It is also clear to us all that the so called information revolution is one of continuous change which will go on evolving to the foreseeable future. We do not stand at any obvious threshold in this process.

There was a clear consensus that while the costs of electronic publishing are differently distributed to those relating to the print on paper medium they are not significantly less overall for a product which has the level of quality which is now the norm. While less is spent on production and distribution of the product more is required for technology, skilled labour, and for the activities of the end user. Of course the total cost depends to some degree on the value added and while this could be reduced it is likely that the extra facilities which are possible in the electronic environment will be those in most demand. It is also clear that parallel publishing in both electronic and print media is bound to be more expensive than the costs of either alone and it is a matter for discussion whether the advantages of both, some of which are complimentary, justify this extra cost.

Print on paper is likely to persist partly for sociological reasons and the community's attachment to a real tangible product. However it was generally felt that electronic publishing would gradually become the dominant medium because of convenience of access, enhanced visibility, and good search facilities and this will be accelerated as new users, brought up with the new technologies, become the dominant customers. It seemed likely that journals covering small specialised subjects with a limited clientele would move first into purely electronic form while the major archival journals would retain print on paper for the foreseeable future.

The diversity of product and the diversity of users suggested that no specific pricing model had an overall advantage. Submission and page charges, pay by view, and the site licence all seem to have a place and further experimentation was needed before the market settled down. It was generally felt that market forces, rather than any attempt at prescription from whatever source, would determine the outcome. But it should be borne in mind that the scientific user is the eventual market and it is this constituency which can eventually drive the system. To this end it was felt that greater education of scientists about the true nature of the scientific information chain and the way in which it was funded would be valuable so that they could understand their position.

Several attributes essential to the electronic publishing process were also emphasised. It must be properly peer reviewed, authenticated, indexed, referenced, and eventually archived. Considerable emphasis was placed on the latter requirement but there was no universal solution. It was certain that publishers themselves could not be relied on in the long term and a national archive looked the best solution for most countries, although the United States represented an important exception. There was concern about the ethics of electronic publishing behaviour and it was felt that issues of privacy and data protection needed to be addressed. It also seemed that lack of respect for intellectual property rights, which was already prevalent in some countries in the print medium, might be enhanced in the electronic medium unless its importance in underwriting the whole process was adequately recognised.

There was also concern that adequate attention should be given to the infrastructure essential for electronic communication which was much more sophisticated than the processes of distribution of print on paper. This was a particular problem in developing countries but adequate band width and appropriate priority in its use were necessary everywhere. There were, for example, particular difficulties in Europe because of the many telecom companies which were involved in the European network.

These lead to a number of considerations where follow up actions will be considered by ICSU Press. On the general front it will consider:

In addition we could ask ICSU to communicate to National Academies concerns related to matters which are at least partially controlled by their Governments. These include the following statements:

These matters will be pursued by ICSU Press in association with other appropriate bodies, particularly ICSTI and IFLA on the archiving issue. It will also be working with UNESCO and through INASP to raise awareness of the particular needs and opportunities of developing countries in the new environment.

Last updated : 06 July 1998
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