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Some of Britain's leading scientific publishers have warned a parliamentary inquiry that open-access publishing could undermine the integrity of the world's top journals.

They say that open-access models — in which journals give free access to their content but charge authors to publish research — could reduce editorial standards. This is because many scientists would not be able to afford the high costs required to cover editorial processing and production costs in top journals. As a result, journals would be forced to publish lower-quality papers, or favour more wealthy authors.

The comments were made this week at a hearing of the science and technology select committee of the House of Commons into scientific publications, which was set up last year to investigate the cost and availability of journals.

"Under an author-pays model, we estimate the actual cost per paper published would be in the region of £10-30,000," said Richard Charkin, chief executive of Macmillan, which publishes Nature, in written evidence to the inquiry.

"Such an amount would be unaffordable to most research scientists, and so journals such as Nature would be forced to reduce editorial criteria … [potentially undermining] the integrity of the world's highest quality journals, with unwelcome consequences for the scientific community, and for the wider public."

The other publishers represented at the inquiry, namely Blackwell Publishing, Wiley and Reed Elsevier, also put up a vigorous defence of the traditional publishing model, in which the cost of processing papers — and the publisher's profits — are met through subscription charges.

"We think that the present model has served the scientific community very well – people often underestimate that," said Crispin Davies, chief executive officer of Reed Elsevier, which holds more than 20 per cent of the UK science publishing market. "The penetration of scientific research has widened [in recent years]. It is estimated that more than 90 per cent of scientists worldwide have access to our content."

He said that Reed Elsevier makes profits of 34 per cent, but that the real profit level was nearer 17 per cent as the company was investing more than £100 million a year in new technology.

The publishers also argued that developing countries do not lose out under the current system, particularly following recent efforts to reduce or eliminate access costs from such countries.

"The publishing industry has effectively given free access to poor countries," said Robert Campbell, president of Blackwell Publishing, referring to programmes such as the World Health Organisation's HINARI, which provides journals for free or at reduced cost to certain developing countries.

Furthermore, developing-world authors might have difficulties raising the funds to publish in open-access journals, the publishers said.

Most of the publishers were willing to admit that open-access might have some role to play in scientific publishing. But they emphasised that there were questions over its long-term viability.

"We are neutral on open access at the moment," said Davies. "We want to watch, learn and see what happens."

Link to statement to the inquiry by Nature Publishing Group 
Link to statement to the inquiry by Reed Elsevier
Link to statement to the inquiry by Blackwell Publishing Ltd