MPs call for biennial review of profits from science journals

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Reed Elsevier and other publishers will be told by MPs today to be more transparent in the pricing of scientific journals, as part of a wider call to allow freer access to research.

After an eight-month inquiry into the market for scientific research, the Science and Technology Committee publishes its report today. The committee has found that libraries are struggling to afford subscriptions to all the scientific journals its users need, and the committee will call on the Office of Fair Trading to review journal pricing biennially.

The committee heard that average journal prices have risen 58 per cent between 1998 and 2003, while library budgets have been cut back. "While libraries are struggling to purchase journals, publishers' profit margins remain exceptionally high compared with the rest of the publishing industry - as much as 34 per cent at operating level in the case of Reed Elsevier, the market leader," the report says. "High publisher profit margins need to be set in the context of faltering library budgets and an impending crisis in scientific journals provision."

As part of an overhaul of the system for publishing scientific material, the committee will suggest that all universities and public-funded research bodies publish all their research material online, free of charge.

But the committee has also given rise to the potential for an about-turn in the business model for publishing scientific research. Publishing groups, most of whom operate on a subscription model whereby authors can publish freely and users of the material bear the cost, have been lobbying hard against an alternative. This is an "author-pays" model where the author pays to publish work and access to the research is free.

The committee has found that the author-pays model "could be viable" and will ask for an independent study to look further at the possibility of converting scientific publishing to this model. "Although early indications are positive, it is too early to assess the impact that author-pays publishing has had on access to scientific publications," the report says. But it says the author-pays model could be vital for allowing researchers in the developing world, many of whom cannot afford the increasing subscription levels, to access research from the UK and the US. The committee wants the Government to explore giving "financial assistance" to publishers to make the switch to author-pays.

Reed has already said it will allow wider scope for authors to "self-archive" by publishing their work on either their own or their university's website. And today it will make a statement to welcome the proposals. But its recent pronouncement on the issue raised eyebrows at the committee, which said it was "in little doubt that Elsevier timed the announcement of its new policy on self-archiving to pre-empt the publication of this report". It is understood that an inquiry has begun into whether the report was leaked to Reed, which has denied having any advance knowledge of the committee's findings.

Reed was, at least, credited by the committee for keeping the rise in its prices to more moderate levels. In what will be another major upset to the publishing industry, the committee will call on authors to retain copyright of their material, which is then licensed out to publishing companies when the research is printed.

The committee also scrutinised large, bulk-buy deals offered by publishing companies to libraries. This is known as bundling, and involves selling subscriptions of the entire range of titles from one publisher at a lower price than individual subscriptions. The committee will tell the publishing industry that bundling "does not present libraries with value for money".