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Former librarian in scathing attack on commercial publishers

Universities should publish the research of their own academics as a way of ending the “obscene” profits made by commercial academic publishers, according to Deborah Shorley, the former chief librarian at Imperial College London.

“The scientific community should reclaim its intellectual capital,” she told delegates at an invitation-only Royal Society meeting on scholarly communication in London on 20 April. “Take it back and deal with it yourselves,” she told a room of fellows of the Royal Society, researchers and academic publishing activists.

Shorley, who ran Imperial’s library from 2007 to 2012, is now head of the UK Research Reserve, a collaboration between university libraries and the British Library to pool low-use print journals.

She said that Imperial spent £5.5 million on journals last year, which included a lot of material written by Imperial’s own researchers and sometimes funded by the institution itself. “Can you explain that to me?” asked Shorley. “I can’t explain that it’s legitimate.”

Shorley argued that there was a difference between learned society and commercial publishers. “Learned societies make a lot of money from publishing but that money is ploughed back into their disciplines,” she said, adding that this may not be the best way of doing things but that it was defensible because it serves scientific progress directly. On the other hand, she said, “Commercial publishers make lots of money which goes to their shareholders. That seems very odd to me and it seems odder that we accept it… [And] the profits continue to rise.”

She added that the way that researchers allow others to make money from their intellectual was “obscene”.

Ritu Dhand, an editorial director at Nature, challenged Shorley’s views. As Shorley still sees peer review as necessary, what exactly was different about her desired model?, she asked.

Shorley said she didn’t have a full proposal yet but came back to her main point that she doesn’t understand why scientists accept that “enormous sums” go outside of science and into private publishing companies and their shareholders. Shorley added that she believed that universities that wished to take publishing over could pool peer reviewers.

Although learned societies are more directly concerned with advancing scientific knowledge than commercial companies, many societies work hand in hand with commercial publishers. The meeting also heard how learned societies were growing their publishing activities hugely. Robert Parker, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said that the society’s journals had grown rapidly since developing its business strategy over recent years. Its journals published 36,000 articles last year, up from 6,000 articles a year every year for the 15 years before it began to pro-actively grow its journals around seven years ago. RSC journals are set to overtake those of the American Chemical Society by volume for the first time this year.

The Royal Society’s conference will lead to a report on the future of scholarly communication, including publishing models, reproducibility and replicability, and peer review. The report will inform the society’s work as a funder and publisher over the coming years. The Wellcome Trust, which is co-funding the conference, is considering how to support or fund experiments to address the problems in peer review, and in reproducibility and replicability.