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

Introduction to Workshop

Objectives and Methodology

Roger Elliott, Chairman, ICSU Press

Welcome everyone, to old friends and to new ones. I am confident that we are going to have an interesting and productive time.

Let me first give a little background. Throughout its existence the International Council for Scientific Unions has been concerned about the availability of scientific information. This is hardly surprising since its constituents are the major Academies of the world and, through the subject Unions, many of the scientific learned societies. The latter, from their inception, have been involved in ensuring that the results of scientific research, and the opinions of scientists, were properly disseminated within the community. Some years ago ICSU created a publishing arm called ICSU Press, which has gradually disengaged from direct publishing activities and concentrated on providing support and advice on publishing issues to members of the ICSU Family. Energised by colleagues, in particular Dennis Shaw and the previous Chairman Kai-Inge Hillerud, it has developed a programme of activities to evaluate the impact of the new technologies on the scientific information chain. A milestone in that discussion was the UNESCO Paris Conference at which many of you were present. As a result the ICSU General Assembly charged ICSU Press, now under my Chairmanship, to pursue a programme of follow-up activities based on the recommendations of the Conference. Incidentally, although we shall continue to use ICSU Press as our imprimatur, it is virtually certain that when ICSU considers its new constitution in a few weeks time our body will become more appropriately named the ICSU Committee on the Dissemination of Scientific Information (CDSI). This emphasises our role in considering how the scientific information chain effects scientists and the way in which they work. While we shall always wish to involve other players such as publishers, learned societies, and librarians as we are doing here, we shall need to look at the issues from a scientists point of view. In the end our aim is to inform the scientific community about the current position relating to the dissemination of scientific information, try to anticipate possible changes, give advice (which may or may not be taken) and possibly recommend certain courses of action.

In this meeting we shall concern ourselves mainly with the Paris Conference Recommendations in Section III-Financial Considerations. These were: 

1. The Conference recommends that funding agencies regard the costs, both of the publication of research results and of access to required information, as an essential component of research funding. 

2. The Conference recognises that the availability of electronic information in searchable form is potentially a great advantage to the world scientific community for the efficient conduct of research and education. Funds should be directed to allow full use to be made of the potential and development of this source of information. 

3. A technical study of the costs and benefits of electronic publication should be carried out by an international committee established by ICSU in co-ordination with ICSU Members and Associates, and involving representatives of the library and scientific technical and medical publishing communities.

It is the third of those recommendations which will concern us here. Much has happened in the last two years and, on consideration, it seemed that it would be better at this stage to have another general discussion, bringing together a number of people who represent an informed spectrum of views, rather than set up a small working committee as was originally envisaged, although that remains a possible course for the future.

Of course, many other groups have similar concerns and many of us have been involved in other meetings which address various aspects of these issues. ICSU Press has been concerned to liaise with such bodies in order to complement each other's activities. One of the major concerns in Paris was the problem of preserving an archive of electronic information. A sister body, the International Committee for Scientific and Technical Information (ICSTI) has expressed a particular interest in that topic and has set up a working group whose report we await with interest.

On the so-called normative issues relating to an appropriate code of conduct in the electronic environment, ICSU Press will, in association with AAAS and UNESCO, be holding a workshop in Paris in the autumn. Other issues, like the evolving legislative framework for electronic publishing, in particular for databases, we have in collaboration with CODATA and others made representations at Government level and to the WIPO Conference. It is anticipated that the impact of the new technologies on scientific information will be aired at the forthcoming UNESCO/ICSU World Science Congress to be held at Budapest in 1999 and ICSU Press will be forwarding the recommendations of this and other workshops to that forum.

For now we have this workshop where we must try to evaluate the challenges and opportunities offered by electronic publishing to the scientific community by examining the economics, the real costs and the benefits. I suggest that we do this concentrating primarily on the type of material carried by the normal journal article and the way in which this is likely to develop. There are other issues about the distribution of scientific information, databases, teaching materials, and electronic collaboration in research to name a few. Given the makeup of our group we need to concentrate on the scientific journal and the scientific article as the main medium for passing research results amongst the community. We should aim to give a summary of where we are now, a possible steer to the community as to where we are likely to go next, and perhaps some recommendations as to where we should aim to be.

What has happened in the last two years? Many things, but I will pick up two or three points.

The first is that, as we are all aware, almost all major print journals now have an electronic version. That was not true two years ago, but is now almost universally so. And, it is almost universal that they come bundled together, so certainly it is not cheaper than it used to be. You actually get extra value by having electronic versions but you have to pay for it. Some anecdotal evidence that has come my way suggests that the community has shown less than an enthusiastic response to taking both the electronic and the printed versions. Now is that due to the cost or is it due to the fact that the user is not yet educated to understand that the electronic version has as much, if not more, value than the print version? In fact, I am told that the response for the electronic version has been so bad in some cases that some publishers now only offer you the two together, then you have to pay for the electronic version when you take the print version, whether you want it or not, as a way of recovering their costs. So, are publishers driving the scientific community to use electronic material. The reaction of the librarians is key to this question and we will be very interested to know how they see the shift towards the use of electronic journals.

We are also all aware that several purely electronic journals have appeared within the last few years. A number of people here are involved with that. I think we would like to know what their experience is, what the difficulties are, what the acceptance is, and so on. And there are other issues about the value added services which the electronic media allows such as hypertext links. And what of the role of say the consolidating agents, and librarians in making sure that that extra add-on for electronic detail is realised.

What are the real costs? It was a question which was discussed extensively in a Working Group in Paris, chaired by Anthony Watkinson, and which I think had grave difficulty in reaching any conclusions at all. There were various reasons for that, partly because of the need to define the product. There are many different ways in which you can add value to something like a journal in electronic form and not all may be cost effective. It has been suggested that you might get 90% of the value for 25% of the cost, so what is really wanted? Also, I think it is true that our publisher friends have not unreasonably been playing their cards close to their chests, so it was not clear that people were revealing what their real costs were. We may have similar problems here but I think we have enough people who are willing to reveal their results, which together with several published analyses should provide a firmer basis for this discussion.

Some of the real benefits are obvious; the extra access, the better indexing, the ease of moving from one to another. But how available are these, how much are we prepared to pay for them? This brings us to the whole question of funding and of inadequate library budgets. You may know that the library community has been considering in a more general way what its reaction should be to the acquisition of electronic information. They have been forming consortia - Bob Campbell has suggested that we might be approaching not a position of monopoly on the part of the publisher but of monopsony on the part of the librarians. That is to say, a situation where there is only one buyer. It is not quite like that but within the last few days an international coalition of library consortia has issued a statement on current perspectives and preferred practices for the selection and purchase of electronic information in which they set out various criteria from a librarian's point-of-view, as to how the electronic information, not only scientific but mainly scientific, might be purchased.

There are many questions, but I think a fundamental question for the workshop is this:- Is there a model for electronic publishing of scientific information of the kind now published in journal articles that satisfies the key criteria which gives scientists work visibility in a manner that can be accessed easily by the community that needs it, and provides proper quality control. Because of the financial crisis which affects the distribution of such materials it must cost less, but then will it still provide adequate incentive and return for those players who are needed to add value and make it available, the publishers and the librarians. Is there a model for electronic publishing which meets all these requirements?.

And, of course, it is not only financial criteria that matter. There are important social, as well as economic factors on the way in which the scientific community reacts, and that have defined the paradigm of scientific publishing which we have at the moment. There is the pressure to publish or perish and to do it in a recognised form which satisfies the criteria for career enhancement. So what are the characteristics of electronic publication which will carry the recognition which a current printed article can bring? There is also the pressure to catch the attention of key colleagues - that is not necessarily the same as having it published in the recognised form. Many scientists would say that they do this now with the pre-print but they reach their University authorities and administrators with the journal article. Will electronic publication fulfil both roles?

Because of the pressure on funding, particularly in the libraries, we need to find a more cost effective method of disseminating scientific information. But we should also concern ourselves with the illogicalities of the present funding patterns. In the UK and generally within Europe there is less appreciation than in the US about the need to pay the real costs of research by including appropriate overheads in the grant. Furthermore, agencies often need to be persuaded that the dissemination of the research results is an essential part of the project. Attempts to fund this through page charges have largely failed because the grant holder was not penalised if he diverted those funds to, for example, conference expenses. On the other hand, his library then had to pay more to acquire the information but this cost fell on an entirely different source. A more logical way of paying for the scientific information chain is badly needed.

Finally, I would say there are pressures on the legal framework. I do not wish to discuss here the implications of this EU Database Directive and the new legislation relating to databases, pending in the US and Japan, but they are significant. In addition the EU is proposing a harmonisation of copyright laws which will have a major effect on what is called "fair dealing" or "fair use". (The use of material for private study and research without having to pay a copyright fee.) This is under considerable pressure because the suppliers of the scientific information and the publishers in the short term feel that the electronic environment makes control of that material very much harder and, therefore, it is going to be much harder to get fair return on the investment you have made in the material. On the other hand, it seems to me that modern electronic methods with added encryption will actually make the position much tighter. There are battles going on about where this balance between the requirement to provide the creator and facilitator with an adequate return and the public interest in easy access to the material, will be drawn.

I think it is important to remind ourselves, that in the end the scientific author does have a degree of final control, since he produces the information in the first place and holds all the rights. We need to make sure that authors use this wisely, driven by these economic and social factors, to make sure that we have a paradigm in the end which allows scientific information to get from the people who create it to the people who use it, while encouraging the other players who are necessary to make that chain possible. Authors should be aware that while they have the freedom for now there are increasing signs, certainly in this country, of its erosion. Some institutions are trying to get control of what the scientist produces and to instruct him on how that information should be distributed.

I think there are many uncertainties in these issues, uncertainties about behaviour, uncertainties about structures, uncertainties about funding. What I hope we will concentrate on is where we are now, what is changing, what is the experience of electronic journals over the last couple of years and whether from that we can look a little bit into the future and think of a model which would satisfy all the needs.

The Programme Committee has tried to distil some of these ideas into a series of questions and the Chairmen of the Working Groups tomorrow will lead the discussions by addressing some of these questions but, of course, they are not exclusive and, other people may have different views on what they should be talking about and will try and persuade their Working Group to that effect.

I look forward to an interesting workshop.

Last updated : 14 September 1998
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