"Freedom of Information" is fine as a slogan, but knowledge costs money. Books and journals must be edited, printed, advertised and distributed. That raises the question of what an appropriate price is for scientific information. Sadly, a few publishers nowadays seem to have the view that the answer is, "whatever you can get away with".
We are all too familiar with prices of journals and books rising faster than the rate of inflation. However, Kluwer Academic Publishers caused consternation recently to a few pathologists by pricing a book on "Epidemiology of Plant Diseases", edited by Professor D. Gareth Jones, published in mid-August, at £170. This was a 100% increase on the advertised, pre-publication price of £85 (which itself seems on the high side). This price rise happened without the publishers consulting either the editor or the authors (of which I was one - I must declare a small personal interest here).
A look at recent catalogues will show you that this price is unfortunately not unusual. Kluwer and a small number of other publishers (fortunately, not all companies by any means) seem to have persuaded themselves that academic libraries have untold wealth at their disposal. Authors of academic books are usually paid a minimal amount by publishers, but scientists write them because we want to disseminate the results of our research. Making a book so expensive that it can be bought by only very few libraries in industrialised countries, let alone poorer ones, is totally counter-productive. Constant, excessive price rises are causing libraries to cancel subscriptions to journals, even those that are central to research and teaching, while books with exorbitant price tags are a luxury that simply cannot be afforded.
What can you do if you believe that a publisher is being exploitative, rather than operating competitively but fairly? Scientists could actually wield considerable influence over publishers, if they chose to use it. Publishers have been under great pressure from their customers - the librarians who have to cope with the ever-rising cost of journals and books. Now, what about some pressure from the suppliers - the authors and editors without whom they can't produce any publications at all?
Firstly, you can choose who publishes your work. If you believe that a publisher's prices are so high that your colleagues elsewhere won't be able to read a paper, you can send it instead to a publisher who charges what you believe are fair prices. Secondly, publishers are totally dependent on scientists spending time, usually unpaid, acting as editors of journals. You don't have to be an editor if you believe that your generous gift of your free time is doing more to fatten the publisher's share price than to spread knowledge about plant pathology. Thirdly, publishers can only produce books if scientists agree to write them. If you're asked to write or edit a book, or even just to write a chapter for a book, you can agree a fair, maximum sale price with the publisher beforehand and make sure it's written into your contract.
A final tactic which I have heard suggested is to refuse to act as a referee for papers submitted to a journal produced by an exploitative publisher. Personally, I don't support this option, because I believe that impartial reviewing of papers is a service at least as much to authors as to publishers. However, if it became known that many scientists objected so much to a publisher's behaviour that they would not review papers for its journals, those publications would soon lose credibility, readers and, eventually, sales.
There are two realistic ways of marketing scientific information. One is a fully commercial approach, where publishers charge the maximum the market will bear, and in turn, pay scientists at a rate similar to that of other professional people. The other is the kind of social contract that used to prevail in academic publishing and still holds sway in many companies. Here, authors and editors are paid a minimal amount (rarely anything at all to authors of journal papers) and the publisher charges a price which, while generating a profit, also means that the book or journal can easily be afforded by academic libraries.
My own preference is for the latter option. Let's be clear that publishers should make a profit, and if their marketing is effective, a healthy profit. Yet they must also retain the respect of their authors by showing that they are committed to the spread of information, which will, in turn, generate the scientific discoveries of the future. The social contract between authors, publishers and libraries, which worked well until recently, deserves to continue and to be encouraged.
Whichever approach is right, companies which behave as if they regard both suppliers and customers as suckers do not deserve the goodwill of either. It is high time that scientists - and this goes far beyond plant pathology - started using the power that they could have over publishers to make sure that library shelves stay full and that knowledge is widely available at a fair price.
I would be interested in printing views of other BSPP members - and indeed publishers - about this subject in the next issue of this Newsletter - Editor.
We are delighted to announce that Peter Scott has been elected President of the International Society for Plant Pathology for 1998 - 2003. This is a great honour and recognises Peter's outstanding organisational skills, displayed to the full in his chairmanship of the organising committee of the 7th International Congress of Plant Pathology in Edinburgh in August this year. Peter works at CAB International in Wallingford and was President of BSPP in 1996.
Peter will be assisted by an experience Executive Committee, who are Anupam Varma (India), Vice-President, Charles Delp (U.S.A.), Secretary-General, Chuji Hiruki (Japan), Treasurer and Richard Hamilton (Canada), Immediate Past President.
A few months ago, we received an invitation from the International Society for Plant Pathology to include our membership on their international database of plant pathologists. As this database - unlike our own - will not be password protected, the BSPP Council felt that the members should be given the opportunity to say whether they were happy to be included. Our legal advice was that it wouldn't be enough to offer members the opportunity to contract out; only those positively agreeing to contract in would be included.
This gives us the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, and update our own database at the same time. So, in November, you will be sent a copy of your existing record on the database, with the opportunity of amending it, and at the same time indicating whether or not you are happy for your details to be included on the ISPP database. I am particularly keen to get an up to date e-mail address for each member, as this offers the opportunity to make significant savings on postage.
In order to maximise the return, the 1999 membership renewal reminders will be sent at the same time, so that your database return can be included with your membership renewal. Sharp-eyed readers will note that this marks a return to the old system of sending individual membership renewals. The system used in the last few years of including the renewal reminder in Plant Pathology has led to problems with members not seeing the renewal form or perhaps not receiving it at all. Having reviewed the data (and in response to several members requests) we will be returning to the old system from now on.
Kevin O'Donnell, BSPP Membership Secretary
I don't think the top left photo on p.30 of Newsletter no. 32 (Spring 1998) is coffee rust. This causes large, uniform, dusty-orange lesions on the undersides of the leaves. The leaf illustrated doesn't actually look like coffee, but more like a brassica with a bacterial leaf blight? The photo used at the Edinburgh Science Festival was correct - perhaps there's been a mix up in the photos supplied to the Newsletter.
Chris Prior, RHS Wisley
I can only say that authors would be well advised to label their
illustrations clearly! - Ed.
We are pleased to report that on 5th June 1998 the Registrar of Companies for England and Wales certified that the British Society for Plant Pathology has been incorporated under the Companies Act 1985 as a private company and that the company is limited. Its company number is 357659. The registered office is to be that of our solicitors, Martineau Johnson, St Philips House, St Philips Place, Birmingham B3 2PP.
We have applied to the Charity Commissioners to register the Company as a charity. Once the charitable registration of the company is completed we can then transfer the activities of the existing unincorporated Society to the Company.We hope that all this can be accomplished by the Society's AGM in December when we will be able to give a further progress report.
Nigel Hardwick, BSPP President 1997, and Graham Jellis, BSPP Secretary