Particle Physics Group Makes Open Access Deal

September 26, 2012

I’ve written here from time to time (most recently in June and July) about the growing movement to provide more free and open access to scholarly publications.  Historically, these articles have been published mostly in limited-circulation journals,  many of which have very high subscription prices and access fees.  (For example, getting access to a single article can easily cost $25-30, or more.)  The publishers claim that the high prices reflect the value they add, by providing peer review and editorial services; they also claim that high costs (for example, for typesetting mathematics articles) justify higher prices.  There is some truth to these claims; however, much of the (highly skilled) labor required for peer review and editing is provided by academics at no charge, and technology has greatly reduced the cost of specialized production.  In particular, the marginal cost of additional digital copies of a given article is effectively zero.

A recent article at the Nature news site reports that a newly-negotiated agreement between journal publishers and a particle physics consortium, the Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access Publishing in Particle Physics (SCOAP3), may soon make most publications in the field available under open access.

The entire field of particle physics is set to switch to open-access publishing, a milestone in the push to make research results freely available to readers.

The field already is one of the leaders in providing some degree of open access, notably via the arXiv site, but the process is clumsy.

Particle physics is already a paragon of openness, with most papers posted on the preprint server arXiv. But peer-reviewed versions are still published in subscription journals, and publishers and research consortia at facilities such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) have previously had to strike piecemeal deals to free up a few hundred articles.

In exchange for open access, the deal gives the participating journal publishers a contractual payment per article.  Funds for this have been pledges by a group of libraries, research funding agencies, and research consortia; effectively, some funds previously budgeted for journal subscriptions will, under the deal, be used for these payments.  The SCOAP3 group currently has a pledged budget of about € 10 million ($12.5 million).  Assuming all goes well, the arrangement will take effect beginning in 2014.

The deal is not perfect, and its implementation is not a foregone conclusion.

  • Some very prestigious journals, such as Physical Review Letters, are not part of the deal.
  • It has been agreed in principle that participating libraries should pay a reduced subscription fee to the journals, reflecting their up-front commitment. However, the details of this are still to be worked out.
  • The SCOAP3 group has to actually collect on the libraries’ pledges.  If the articles are truly open access, there is a classic “free rider” problem waiting in the wings.

Nonetheless, I think this is an important step forward.  In moving to open access, as  in many human endeavors, one of the key, if unspoken obstacles, is “We’ve always done it this way”.  (Other appeals to unreason are often also significant, of course.)   If scholars in an intellectually prestigious field, like particle physics, adopts open access as the normal way of doing things, it may stimulate thinking about the issue in other fields.


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