Britain's main professional scientific body, the Royal Society, has added its voice to those warning that the business models currently being used by publishers of open-access journals may not only be unsustainable, but also a threat to the vitality of the country's scientific community.
In evidence submitted to an inquiry into scientific publications currently being held by the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, the Society says that it strongly endorses moves to use the Internet to cut the costs of access to scientific publications.
For example, it points out that it has endorsed a call by the international InterAcademy Panel – of which it is a member – that researchers in developing countries should be given immediate free access to electronic version of all articles appearing in scientific journals, and that those elsewhere should enjoy such access one year after publication.
But it cautions that a full-scale shift to open-access models of publication, in which the production costs of journals are covered by the authors of the papers they publish rather than the users of this information, could raise many dangers.
For example, it says that research funding organisations – of which the Royal Society is itself one – might have to reduce the amount of research they could support if they were required to cover its publication costs, but were unable to recover such costs from elsewhere (for example, from government grants).
"The Royal Society wholly supports the widest possible dissemination of science, particularly to developing countries," says John Enderby, the Society's vice-president.
"However, we are concerned that the model currently proposed for 'open-access' journals, where scientists pay a fee for each paper they have published, is an unsustainable one which could also significantly impact on UK science funding. There are still a lot of issues to resolve before the scientific community could have confidence in this approach to publishing."
The society defends the role of publishers in the process of scientific publication, pointing out that "many have invested heavily in electronic publishing methods to the benefit of both the author and the reader".
It also argues that professional scientific societies that publish journals play a "vital role" in the scientific community by using their publishing surplus not only to support and fund scientists and engineers but also to undertake science communication and public dialogue programmes, to promote science education and to interact with industry.
"A number of the smaller Learned Societies would be unlikely to survive without their publishing income and even the larger societies (such as the Royal Society) would be forced to reduce the scale of their activities," it warns.
Furthermore, says the Society, much of this income represents a net subsidy for British science as a whole from non-British sources. "Much of the income from scientific publishing is generated overseas, 92 per cent in the case of the Royal Society," it says. "In the case of the Learned Society publishers, this represents substantial funding for UK science."
However it makes no mention of the substantial profits made by some commercial scientific publishers – the main source of much discontent within the scientific community – suggesting merely that the government "should ensure that scientific journals are subject to the same regulation as other markets", and adding that "one of the causes of the increase in journal subscription rates is the increase in the number of papers submitted to, and published in, scientific journals".
The society lists a number of concerns about the impact of open-access policies. These include that the overall cost to the science base would be greater than under the subscription model; that some authors would be unable to publish in certain journals due to lack of funds; that the quality of publications might be reduced as publishers bow to commercial pressures to reduce the rejection rate of papers; and that the total number of scientists funded by charities would be reduced in order to pay publishing fees.
"The principle of increasing the availability of scientific information is to be commended," says the Society. "However, given the central importance of scientific publications in underpinning the dissemination of research, and in the absence of a practical demonstration of a sustainable business case for the current model of open-access journals, we (along with much of the scientific community) are understandably cautious."