September 12, 2012

UK research sector, publishing trends and facts from the Finch report

Writing about web page http://www.researchinfonet.org/publish/finch/

I have been tweeting all the "Finch report facts" that I found in this recent report on accessibility to research publications. This blog entry presents some of those "facts" back in a discussion of what it seems that the Finch report is saying about the UK research sector and publishing trends, when I look at those "facts" plainly and bring in other contexts and ideas.

I'm not commenting here on the recommendations of the Finch report, nor the debate about routes to open access, although I did pull together a Storify collection of reactions to the Finch report, in case you want to read more about those topics.

UK Researchers' productivity

The UK research sector has some particular characteristics. I tweeted:

Finch report fact p37: There are 250, 000 researchers in the UK & p38 'their rate of productivity is more than 50% above world average'

This rather depends on how you measure productivity!

I also tweeted:

Finch report fact p37: UK is successful at research publications but 'relatively weak in producing other kinds of outputs such as patents'

So perhaps the productivity referred to is really all about publication activity, and I went back to the report to check where the productivity fact came from: it's a paragraph all about the number of articles written by researchers, so it's most likely although not entirely clear that the productivity referred to is about numbers of articles. A footnote against this particular fact also states that:

"It should be be noted that it is sometimes argued that high rates of research productivity in the leading research countries are achieved in part by establishing dependency cultures in other countries."

Have UK researchers achieved high publication rates due to multiple author collaborations? Possibly.

Why are UK researchers achieving high publication rates? Is it driven by RAE and REF processes?

The UK's measures of research performance have centred around research outputs which might encourage UK researchers' productivity against this measure. Looking at the RAE 2008 data (Merit project) we can see that of the 222,177 outputs that were measured, 167,831 were journal articles. I'm rubbish at maths but even I can tell that's about 75%. I expect that for the sciences, the percentage of journal articles that make up their outputs for measurement is even higher.

Another couple of tweets, then:

Finch report fact p71: 120,000 articles by UK authors are published each year. According to p62, this is 6% of articles published worldwide

Finch report fact p62 'researchers in the UK comprise just over 4% of the global research community'...

So, UK researchers are publishing plenty of articles and contributing to scholarly knowledge worldwide on a larger scale then their numbers represent.

REF 2014 will be looking at impact as well as outputs, which brings a different dimension into the measurement since RAE 2008 and that might also affect UK researchers' activity in the future.

The potential effect of performance measurement mechanisms on actual performance is addressed in a RIN report on Communicating Knowledgefrom 2009, describing a bibliometric analysis of the outputs produced in 2003 and 2008 by a sample of authors who were included in those two RAEs. Amongst many other interesting findings, they reported a slight increase in the no. of publications per author in 2008 compared to 2003, but a significant increase in no. of multiple-author works. These are multi-institutional and international. They did not find an apparent difference in citation behaviours between the two time periods. All very interesting!

In REF2014 the assessment panels for the science, technology and medicine subjects will have citation data provided to them. On UK researchers' citation scores, I tweeted:

Finch report fact p38: citations to UK articles increased between 2006 and 2010 by 7.2% a year, faster than the world average of 6.3%

and:

Finch report fact p38: UK’s “share of the top 1% of most-highly-cited papers was second only to the US, at 13.8% in 2010.”

Not only are our researchers producing lots of articles, they are also producing highly cited articles. There have been numerous studies and debates about the value of citations as a measure of the quality and influence of research papers (my own main reservation is the difference in disciplinary practices around citation), but at any rate there is plenty of citation activity and evident attention for UK authored articles, according to citation measures.

In agreement with the findings of that 2009 RIN report and the footnote on the earlier fact about UK researchers' productivity in terms of numbers of research articles, I also found in the Finch report:

Finch report fact p71 Nearly half (46%) of the peer reviewed articles with a UK author published in 2010 also listed an author from overseas

I believe that multiple authorship and involvement of overseas authors could be significant in achieving those high citation rates. The more collaborations and network contacts or reach that a researcher has, the more people will be aware of that author's work in terms of its findings but also its quality, and so the more likely the work is to be cited by those contacts or indeed their contacts in turn.

An international scale

UK researchers are operating on a world stage, of course. There are other facts in the Finch report that give some context to the UK researchers' performance. I didn't tweet this quote from page 38 because it was too long(!), but I find it very significant:

...part of the explanation for the UK’s success is that it attracts internationally-mobile researchers. UK researchers are also more likely than those in almost any other major research nation to collaborate with colleagues overseas...

Even though the UK researchers are publishing a lot, researchers from other countries are also publishing a lot:

Finch report fact p37 Rise in the no. of UK-authored articles has not been as fast as in very high growth countries such as India and Brazil

So I think that those collaborations and multi-authored articles are very significant, and the international scale of research is one that favours the UK because it's known for its high quality research already. I really think that this is key to UK "success" in the context of citations, because those collaborations and networks occur due to the migration of internationally mobile researchers to the UK. It seems to me that international reach is a very important element of impact that UK research assessors should be interested in.

Meanwhile, according to the Finch report, the UK doesn't spend a great deal on research. Apparently, the UK ranked 16th for "research intensity" amongst OECD countries in an Elsevier report that is cited on page 38, in a footnote. In actual figures:

Finch report fact, p37: 28% of UK R&D is in HE Sector. UK is 'strongly dependent' on gov.t, charity & overseas funds ow.ly/c50pU...

Finch report fact p38: 09-10 UK total expenditure on R&D: £25.9bn of which £10.4bn from gov, £5.5bn of which from Research Councils & HEFCs

Perhaps the relatively high reliance on government and the HE sector to pay for our research is also part of the reason why the UK has been more successful at getting articles published than at producing patents and other kinds of research outputs.

Perhaps another reason why UK researchers are so much involved in publishing activity is that the UK is also a key player in the worldwide publishing industry:

Finch report fact, p15: UK publishers are responsible for 5000+ journal titles & 1/5 of articles published each year

The UK also seems to be playing an important role in the development of the online open access repositories landscape:

Finch report fact: US, Germany, & UK account for over 1/3 of repositories worldwide. There are 200+ UK repositories: 150 are institutional

And the UK publishes about 7% of open access journals:


Finch report fact, p32: Currently 7600+ open access journals listed in the DOAJ, from 117 countries: 533 in UK ow.ly/c4ZLa #oa


UK researchers do seem to have good access to published articles:

Finch report fact p47 93% of UK researchers had “easy or fairly easy access" to papers. Those without most often find a different item.

Finch report fact p48: Researchers are more likely to have problems accessing conference proceedings and monographs, than journal articles.

Although library expenditure in the UK is falling:

Finch report fact, p23: library expenditure in UK Unis fell from 3.3% to 2.7% as a proportion of total expenditure ow.ly/c4ZfC #oa

The Finch report also says on page 51 that "Access on its own does not necessarily make for effective communication" and although I know that the report is really referring to the role that publishers play in enhancing discoverability through their search platforms and other work, I also interpret it to mean that all those networks and collaborations of our authors are helping to ensure that they are building on the best research that is out there.

It seems to me that international reach is a very important element of impact that UK research assessors should be interested in.

Publishing trends

Open access is one of the changes to publishing that has taken place in recent years, as the worldwide web has enabled online access to scholarly content. It's the main focus of the Finch report, so there are lots of facts relating to it! There are at least two routes to making content available on open access: the gold route where authors pay a fee or "article processing charge" (APC) for the publisher to make the final version available to readers for free, and the green route where authors own copies are deposited into open access repositories, where readers can find it.

My first publishing trend "fact" is:

Finch report fact p39 in '09 OA journals accounted for 14% of articles published worldwide in medicine & biosciences, and 5% of engineering.

The report goes on to say that only 6-7% of articles published in 2009 were available in repositories. This looks as though the repositories are not as successful a route to open access as the OA journals. But the data is only for 2009, and only for limited subject areas. The report itself highlights that science technology and medicine account for 2/3 of OA journals:


Finch report fact, p33: 2/3 of OA articles are published by 10% of publishers: STM account for 2/3 of journals ow.ly/c4ZV8 #oa


At this point it is worth referring to Steven Harnad's blog post "Finch Fiasco in figures" because he's looked into all this in a much more scholarly way, and has a great graph (figure 6) showing the relative balance of green and gold open access availability of articles: it looks like he has very different data, but even in his graph, the balance looks worst for green OA in the biomedical sciences, so the Finch report should also present data across all the subjects, in the interest of objectivity.

On page 69, the Finch report suggests some reasons for the "low take-up of OA" in humanities and social sciences, and it seems clear to me from the reasons given that the report means the low take-up by publishers, ie that gold OA routes are not so readily available in these disciplines. The reasons suggested are: rate of publication and rate of rejection, length of articles, and the larger amount of material in a journal that is not an article and therefore would not bring in an article processing charge as income. Further, on p71 the Finch report refers to the tradition of the independent scholar remaining strong in the humanities: these researchers would have no mechanism through which to pay an APC.

Another trend that the Finch report refers to is the decline of the monograph:

Finch report fact: p44 refers to decline of the monograph as print runs have shrunk, prices have risen & UK libraries spend less on books.

I've already included the fact about the relative decline in expenditure on libraries in UK universities, and the Finch report also points out another difference that electronic format makes in that it means VAT must be paid by Libraries, whilst printed versions don't attract VAT. I know that many of the libraries I have worked at have had their book budgets squeezed by rising journal subscription costs over the years, so I don't doubt that the monograph is not what it was. But I believe that the research monograph carries as much research credibility as it ever did, even if it is not attracting the same revenues for publishers.

A conclusion?

After meandering through these "facts", I'm pleased to see that the UK research sector is publishing so much and attracting so much attention worldwide, in relation to the amount of investment. I believe that we should keep up our international and collaborative efforts in order to sustain this, and we should also keep up our involvement in publishing activities, perhaps by investing in OA routes as this makes access fairer to all. The Finch report recommends that the UK support gold OA publication: perhaps it will as the RCUK policy seems to have followed this route.

Most of all though, I'm interested in what researchers will do. They are making decisions on where to publish what, with whom they will co-author and whether to deposit in a repository or not and all such things. The rest of us (publishers and librarians) are trying to respond to their need to communicate with each other, and to find out what each other are working on.


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