Anger as ministers block science publishing shake-up

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A powerful committee of MPs will accuse the Government today of suppressing the views of its own advisers and "kowtowing" to the interests of the publishing industry by blocking a new system that would make the results of scientific research freely available.

A powerful committee of MPs will accuse the Government today of suppressing the views of its own advisers and "kowtowing" to the interests of the publishing industry by blocking a new system that would make the results of scientific research freely available.

In a highly unusual move, MPs on the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee allege that the Government interfered with the work of its own experts, who sit on an independent body called the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) and were initially positive about the new "open access" publishing model.

The Government's decision, also revealed today, not to intervene in the science publishing market will be a major boost to science publishers such as Reed Elsevier which sell subscriptions to their journals. The City had feared "open access" publishing would undermine the publishers' highly lucrative business model, which sees them charge for subscriptions to science journals. Reed's journals include The Lancet, a leading medical research periodical.

The MPs released their original report on the scientific publishing industry in July. That argued that the Government must "urgently" investigate the open access or "author-pays" system, in which the researcher meets the cost of publication. The publication is then made freely available to the scientific community and members of the public.

The Department of Trade and Industry, where Lord Sainsbury is science minister, co-ordinated the Government's reaction to the parliamentary committee's report. The MPs received the DTI paper at the end of last month but it is only being made public today, along with the committee's reaction to it. The MPs were stunned by the "obstructive response" of the Government to their report.

Ian Gibson, chairman of the committee, said he was "pretty angry" and vowed that "all hell will be let loose" when Parliament gets a chance to debate the matter. "This is a really serious political battle. It is between what's best for the [publishing] industry and what's best for the public," he said.

Dr Gibson, the Labour MP for Norwich North, said: "The independent body [the JISC] said it looked very good but they've obviously been sat on by the DTI." He insisted that the JISC's original evidence to the committee, which was given in confidence, was supportive of the "author pays" system but this was later "watered down following negotiations with the DTI". He said it was the JISC's original views that had been influential with the MPs' committee which went on, in July, to conclude in their report that "we strongly support further experimentation with the author-pays publishing model".

It emerged yesterday that the DTI reaction to the MPs' report was to adopt an apparently neutral position which did not provide any backing for the new system.

The DTI told the science committee: "In a market in which different organisations are competing to provide services to the academic community, the Government does not think it should intervene to support one model or another. The Government is also not convinced that the 'author-pays' model is inherently superior to the current model.

"Consequently, the Government's approach is to facilitate a level playing field so the market can develop without any institutional barriers being put in the way of any particular publishing model."

Dr Gibson said the Government had been swayed by the publishing industry's lobbyists who argued that Britain's leading position in the sector, and the tax revenues collected from publishing houses, would be threatened by the new system. He described the prices charged for journal subscriptions as "astronomical".

Dr Gibson said: "The Government is just supporting the industry. There is a collusion going on somewhere which is unhealthy. The publishers are very successful. They make money at the expense of public organisations such as libraries."

Dr Gibson added: "The DTI is apparently more interested in kowtowing to the powerful publishing lobby than it is in looking after the best interests of British science. This isn't evidence-based policy, it's policy-based evidence."

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