Rising cost of science journals worries top science officials

Science departments seek Rs 500cr for journal subscriptions during the 12th Five-Year period, say officials
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First Published: Thu, Oct 25 2012. 10 52 PM IST
CSIR Anusandhan Bhawan, in New Delhi. CSIR, India’s largest science body with 39 laboratories, subscribes to more than 8,000 academic journals.Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
CSIR Anusandhan Bhawan, in New Delhi. CSIR, India’s largest science body with 39 laboratories, subscribes to more than 8,000 academic journals.Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
New Delhi: Even as India has announced plans to significantly raise its research and development budget during the 12th Five-Year Plan (2012-17), its top science officials say they can’t afford to subscribe to international science journals.
While India is yet to publicize the 12th Plan document, officials said that science departments wanted Rs.500 crore for international journal subscriptions during the five-year period, a fivefold increase over what was needed in the 11th Plan.
While slowing economic growth and concerns over a yawning fiscal deficit has meant a tightening of the purse strings, science officials said that the government wanted to rein in spending on journals, mainly because of “concerns over profiteering”, or the practice of pricing journals way over what it cost to publish them.
The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), India’s largest science body with 39 laboratories, subscribes to more than 8,000 academic journals. It said that its contracts with several international publishers would end by the year end and it still hadn’t decided on renewing them.
“I can’t afford their exorbitant prices,” said Samir Brahmachari, director general, CSIR. “We are still negotiating but publishers seem to expect too much of a margin on publishing journals. That’s unacceptably high.”
He didn’t name any of the publishers.
Brahmachari’s comments came on the back of science minister Vayalar Ravi’s publicly stated concerns over the price of science journals.
“I’ll try my best to get this (budget for journals) passed, though I doubt whether the Planning Commission will allot Rs.500 crore just for journals,” Ravi said last week as part of a longer speech on the 60th anniversary of the National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources (Niscair), a CSIR body. Access to academic journals is a basic necessity for professional scientists. Researchers compete to publish their best research in top academic journals and the frequency of articles in top journals is crucial to career progression as well as the general advancement of science.
The amount being sought may be a minuscule fraction of the Planning Commission budgetary allocation, a total of Rs.4 trillion, said several scientists. The surge in the number of journals published and the concentration of the top titles in the hands of a few publishers, have over the years contributed to the impasse between publishers and science institutions.
“This is an issue that’s been brewing for sometime,” said Gangan Prathap, director, Niscair, who follows citations in academic journals for research purposes. “Qualitative research output is closely tied to publishing in highly rated journals and well over 80% of these top journals are dominated by one or two international publishers. There’s no real option of opting out.”
Prathap is part of a group of scientists who are in talks with key publishers on the pricing of journals. Generally, organizations that subscribe to international journals on an institutional basis, such as CSIR as well as the department of science and technology, negotiate as bulk buyers with publishers in a bid to keep prices low. He added that he was hopeful “of some kind of compromise”.
India isn’t alone in its concerns over the rising costs of science journals. Earlier this year, the UK-based Guardian newspaper reported that a memo from Harvard University officials encouraged its faculty to refrain from publishing in journals that don’t allow free, unrestricted, public access. “Major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained: continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable,” the memo was cited as saying. “Prices for online access to articles from two major publishers have increased 145% over the past six years, with some journals costing as much as $40,000,” the memo added. The case that universities make for lower-priced journals—which is seconded by India’s science officials—is that much of the research that is published is publicly funded. Also, the peer-review process—the most important part of the scientific publishing process—is done for free by fellow scientists. “There’s no justification for the high margins that publishers charge, and especially given that all journals are now available online,” said Brahmachari.
Experts say the Indian establishment has to take some amount of blame for letting matters get to this point.
The country’s reluctance to better promote local journals allowed foreign publishers to establish a monopoly, said Prakash Chand, who leads the Indian Citation Index, a website that commercially tracks local science journals.
“International journals are the dominant players, but if there was a concerted attempt to promote even one Indian journal, Indian scientists wouldn’t have to be dependent entirely on foreign publishers,” he said.
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First Published: Thu, Oct 25 2012. 10 52 PM IST
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