Journal Publishers to Police Themselves

The cost of commercial scientific, technical, and medical journals has risen faster than inflation as publishers' profits soar, according to a September report by the British Office of Fair Trading.1 Yet, despite the report's conclusion that the profits have risen at the expense of education and research institutions, the British OFT, a consumer-protection agency that aims to ensure businesses operate fairly, concluded that free-market forces may eventually correct the journal market imbalance

Oct 28, 2002
David Bradley

The cost of commercial scientific, technical, and medical journals has risen faster than inflation as publishers' profits soar, according to a September report by the British Office of Fair Trading.1 Yet, despite the report's conclusion that the profits have risen at the expense of education and research institutions, the British OFT, a consumer-protection agency that aims to ensure businesses operate fairly, concluded that free-market forces may eventually correct the journal market imbalance. "The market, which operates worldwide, has a number of features that suggest that competition may not be working effectively," says John Vickers, OFT director general, in a press statement. "However, market forces harnessing new technology may change this without the need for intervention."

The OFT report says that science, technology, and medical (STM) publishing showed 10% to 15% greater profitability over other commercial journal publishing with price increases above inflation, despite the introduction of electronic-delivery methods that should have reduced costs by this stage. Scientists must pay these high fees for vital research information even though they often supply the journals' content at no cost, the report notes.

VARIED REACTIONS The report also sees a "substantial price disparity" between the commercial journals and those published by learned societies and university presses. For instance, in 1995, the average yearly price of a commercial STM journal was $487 (US) compared with $229 for a society publication. "I'm pleased that the OFT recognizes competition is not working effectively," says Rick Johnson, enterprise director of Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), "This is a significant step toward positive change in the scholarly publishing marketplace."

But not everyone sees the OFT report as an advancement for science publishing. Chuck Hamaker, associate university librarian for technical services at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, says OFT is simply ducking the issue. "I have never seen evidence the market in journals self-corrects," he says. "I think it's a nonsense statement."

The OFT conclusion echoes a similar one made by the UK Competition Commission when it examined the merger of two giants in academic and trade publishing, Reed Elsevier and Harcourt General, in July 2001. The market imbalance, coupled with the advent of the Internet, have led many scientists to consider disseminating, reviewing, and revising their papers independently of a publisher. Moreover, increasingly restricted library budgets and rising subscription costs have made this an increasingly attractive prospect.

Open-access systems, such as the Web-based biomedical E-journal, "E-Biomed," now PubMed Central, for instance, would give "free, fast, and full access" to the biomedical literature from preprint to reprint. Other initiatives have emerged too, including SPARC, a coalition of institutions "energetically promoting institutional repositories and open-access journals as strategies for introducing market forces," according to Johnson.

Stevan Harnad, editor of the open-access journal Psycoloquy, agrees with the OFT conclusion that competion among commercial journals will restore some balance in the market, but adds that the Internet will be a more significant force in journal publishing. "Competition will reduce the price of tolls," says Harnad, director of the Cognitive Science Center at the University of Southampton and a reseach chair in the Centre de Neuroscience de la Cognition at the University of Quebec. "But it's no longer about tolls, it's about complete open access."

TECHNICAL BALANCING ACT Several publishers, including Elsevier and BioMed Central (BMC), have introduced new publishing models into the STM marketplace. Elsevier's ScienceDirect provides online subscription access to its portfolio of science journals. Elsevier subsidiary ChemWeb also has created an interesting model for publication and archiving through its free preprint service. BMC, a subsidiary of Current Science (which is a sister company of The Scientist) has taken a different stance. BMC prefers libraries to pay for "article-processing fees" on behalf of authors, rather than for subscription fees on behalf of readers. It also invites members of a particular discipline to create new open-access, peer-reviewed journals online within the BMC framework.

BMC publisher, Jan Velterop, regards the Internet as ideally suited to business models that charge for the service of publishing rather than procuring revenue from intellectual property. "If the service of publishing is paid for upfront, the ultimate dream of every scientist--universal full-text open access--can become reality," he says.

Whether ventures such as BMC will benefit scientists in the longer term is open to question. "BioMed Central is an interesting idea," Hamaker says. "There's not much evidence on their site yet of any groundswell of support, but who knows, maybe one or two of the initiatives will work."

STM publishing is changing fast, according to John Regazzi, an Elsevier Science board member. "There is a lot of competitive influence now." He emphasizes that the OFT report "simply reflects all the ambiguities." But, he worries that a free-access system could not survive. "Our concern is who will provide the investment for the various efforts because they cannot be done on goodwill alone," Regazzi says.

Eventually, Harnad predicts, so many scientists will self-archive their peer-reviewed journal articles on the Wordwide Web, commercial publishers will be forced by economics to open their own archives to the public: "The optimal and inevitable outcome for research and researchers in view of the new possibilities offered by the online age is open access to all peer-reviewed research."

David Bradley (www.sciencebase.com) is a freelance writer in Cambridge, UK.

1. "The market for scientific technical and medical journals," UK Office of Fair Trading, September 2002.