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The Future of Published Science
Tuesday 21 December 2004 8.00-8.40pm, rpt. Sunday 5.00pm

Scientific publishing is undergoing a revolution. Scientists and policy makers, fed up with valuable research being locked away in expensive subscription only journals, are mounting a challenge to the publishers.

They are launching their own competing journals and giving away the results for free. But not everyone is happy.

In Publish or be Damned, Richard Black examines this dramatic change from both sides of the debate and assesses its likely consequences for science.

Title Page, Phil. Trans., Vol 1, no 1
Title page of the first edition of
the Philosophical Transactions, 6th March, 1665.
Courtesy Royal Society.
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Ever since the Royal Society published the first issue of Philosophical Transactions in 1665 scientific publishing has concentrated on the printed word. As the knowledge base in science has grown so too has the number of journals.

Over time an impressive industry dedicated to the dissemination of scientific research has grown up.

Now there are over 2,000 publishers, publishing an estimated 1.2 million articles in around 20,000 different journal titles every year; and this is where the problems begin.

For scientists to keep abreast of their field they need access to the papers.

They also need to be published to advance their careers.

Limited Access

But two factors conspire against them: massive increases in journal prices (one study published this year found average price increases of anywhere from 27 to 94% between 2000-2004); and huge cuts in library budgets.

The only solution so far has been to cut down on the number of journals a university can subscribe to, which means picking and choosing and trying to balance the competing interests of many university departments.

In addition, much of the research published in these journals - some of which can cost thousands or pounds a year - is funded by public money.

But more often than not, it's not available to the people who have funded it. Instead, valuable research is locked away in expensive, subscription-only databases run by publishing houses. For example a study this year showed that only 40% of NHS funded research is immediately available online to NHS staff.

Now scientists and policy makers are leading a revolt, in part enabled by the Internet.


Some are launching free to view open-access journals, whilst others are setting up online repositories (in direct contradiction to many publishers' copyright laws) to archive all of their work no matter where it is published.

The government has even got involved.

In July of this year, the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee made recommendations for all UK higher educational institutions to establish online repositories, to make research free for all - including the public.

The government's response seems inconclusive - not wanting to promote either model - but many feel that even without their backing the change is inevitable.

The Wellcome Trust - Europe's largest research charity - has said that in the future all the research it funds will have to be placed in a central, public archive within six months of publication.

The Research Councils of the UK and the National Institutes of Health in the USA are considering a similar move.

Plummeting Standards?

But not everyone is happy about the publishing revolution. Publishers complain that that the crucial process of peer review and editing costs money, and the new "free for all" will lead to plummeting standards.

They also deny that access is restricted and point to independent research that shows their journals are considered to be good value for money.

Learned Societies - like the Royal Society - also argue that without the money they derive form publishing, they would not be able to carry out their other activities like funding research, international links and disseminating science to the public.

So who is right?

In Publish or be Damned, Richard Black examines the case on each side of the debate. Both sides have powerful arguments and assert they are taking a stand for the greater good of science and society. But how will the proposed changes affect the publishing industry and will they change science forever?
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