HOW'S THIS for a winning publishing formula? A university funds scientific research the research is turned into a paper by an author, who pays a colour illustration and reprint charge - say, pounds 1,000 - and surrenders the copyright for the privilege of publishing his findings in a specialised journal. Peers review the work for free, then the publisher prints the article - and sells it back for a hefty fee to the institution where the work was carried out in the first place.
Welcome to scientific publishing. As the production and potential value of scientific knowledge mushrooms, so too has the small-circulation, high-price formula pioneered by Robert Maxwell's Pergamon Press to disseminate it. Science is the fastest-growing media sub-sector of the past 15 years, says Morgan Stanley.
It is also highly profitable. At Reed Elsevier, the largest scientific publisher (and now, coincidentally, owner of Pergamon), margins on its journals business historically hover at about 40 per cent.
It may not stay that way for much longer. In the past year a new kind of publisher has begun to take the game to Reed Elsevier - and rivals Wolters Kluwer, Wiley, Springer, Blackwells, and Taylor and Francis - by operating quite differently. Instead of charging a subscription, so-called open-access publishers such as BioMed Central in the UK and the US Public Library of Science allow free access to their journals, usually on the web, recouping their editing and distribution costs with a one-off fee to authors - about $1,500 for a top US journal, far less than that in the UK.
As with Napster and music, the scientific publishing shake-up is due to a combination of unsustainable monopoly and online technology that undermines the cost basis of traditional publishing.
Many specialised journals are must-reads for scientists in their area in effect they are a monopoly. This means that, however arcane the subject, publishers can charge more or less what they like. Over 10 years, journal price increases have far outstripped inflation. Annual subscriptions to Brain Research or Nuclear Physics B - both owned by Elsevier - cost $16,000 and $12,000 respectively.
The ability of large publishers to push up prices has been reinforced by a growing concentration of journal ownership and the tactic of bundling subscriptions into 'big deals', under which major subscribers must pay for electronic access to a fixed portfolio of journals, whatever their needs. To access digital versions of the 200 journals it already keeps in hard copy, one UK institute says it had to take a bundle of 1,300 electronic ones, at a large extra cost.
Now the pips are starting to squeak. With relatively fixed budgets, even the world's best libraries can no longer afford to hold all the research journals. Something has to give - and often it is the journals of less powerful publishers or learned societies, which use their publishing proceeds to fund other activities. Academics believe that the knock-on effects of scientific publishing inflation have also been felt by other subject areas, such as the humanities, and even library book acquisition programmes.
Over the past two years, protests at the unfairness of the current system have mounted. Having paid once to produce new scientific knowledge, funding agencies and scientists argue, why should taxpayers and charitable bodies have to pay again to use it?
Last June may have marked the turning point, when open access joined the mainstream. A group of high-powered international funding agencies, publishers, scientific institutions and libraries published the 'Bethesda Statement', championing open-access pub- lishing and outlining steps towards it.
In the same month a deal was struck under which all UK universities joined the NHS in becoming institutional members of BioMed Central, allowing their researchers to publish articles free in return for a central subscription. In the US, meanwhile, a Bill was introduced to Congress which would exclude from copyright protection any work resulting from government-funded research.
Since then the pace has hotted up. Other prominent funding institutions, such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Wellcome Trust and the Max Planck Society, have come down in favour of the principle. Scientists in California have called on members to boycott Elsevier journals unless they reduce what they see as outrageous access fees, and a number of 'big deals' have reportedly been cancelled. 'Open-access publishing takes off,' declared an exultant editorial in the British Medical Journal last month. 'The dream is now achievable.'
As is to be expected, the existing publishers will not go down without a fight. To counter accusations of profiteering, some are making access to important journals free to researchers in developing countries after six months. Announcing Reed Elsevier results this month, chief executive Crispin Davis noted that 96 per cent of Reed scientific subscriptions had been renewed this year. Open access, he said, accounted only for 1 per cent of the overall market and had yet to prove its viability.
Before the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, which began hearings on the subject earlier this month, Davies repeated his robust defence of a traditional model that he insisted had until now served science well.
Elsevier and other publishers argue that open access will mean an end to peer review and ultimately lower standards of published work - a charge hotly denied by the new entrants.
When it reports, the committee is likely to find that open access has important long-term implications for all branches of the scientific community, including researchers, funding agencies, public authorities and libraries, as well as publishers. As they digest them, expect a messy transitional period ahead. New variants and hybrids will emerge, and some will drop out.
But even in the short term, there will undoubtedly be a richer, more competitive publishing ecology. And you don't need a scientific journal to tell you that richer competition equals greater benefits for science - and poorer profits for the likes of Reed Elsevier.
The Observer, 14 March 2004