APS News

Panel Hears Pros and Cons of Open Access Publishing

By Calla Cofield

Open Access publishing was one topic of intense discussion at the November meeting of the High Energy Physics Advisory Panel (HEPAP), whose members advise the federal government on the national program in high energy physics (HEP). APS Editor-in-Chief Gene Sprouse addressed the general subject of Open Access and its relation to APS, and Salvatore Mele of CERN described SCOAP3, an Open Access model that is gaining steam in the European particle physics community.

Open Access initiatives began in the biological sciences community, and have been attracting interest in high energy physics. The high energy physics community has for years been making preprints freely accessible on the arXiv, but papers posted there are not peer-reviewed. The purpose of Open Access, said Mele, is to “grant anybody, anywhere, at anytime access to peer reviewed, publicly funded HEP research.”  

At the HEPAP meeting, Sprouse said that he supports the principle of Open Access, but there needs to be a financially sustainable model.

Open Access programs have been available in different forms for years, and are already the basis of some physics journals. One APS journal, Physical Review Special Topics–Accelerators and Beams, is an online-only Open Access journal, funded by a consortium of large labs. PR-STAB is not quite recovering its costs, said Sprouse. In effect APS helps to sponsor this journal, but if the same level of loss were to occur in the 25 times larger journal, Physical Review D, it would not be sustainable. APS offers another form of Open Access in the journals Physical Review A-E, Physical Review Letters, and Reviews of Modern Physics. Anyone can pay a fee to make the article free for all to read on the APS website. However, only 30 out of about 18,000 papers have been purchased since the program started a year and a half ago.  

The European Physical Journal has a similar program online. In November 2007, EPJ made its European Physical Journal C–Particles and Fields open access, to experimental papers only, without cost to the author, although it is still maintaining its regular subscription rates.

While various Open Access programs are being tried on a small scale, CERN has conceived a large-scale OA project called SCOAP3, which it is pursuing vigorously.  

SCOAP3 (Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access Publishing in Particle Physics) is a type of Open Access that relies on a consortium made up of national governments around the world. Funding would come from contributions from government agencies, laboratories, universities, and private companies. The consortium would cover the cost of maintaining peer-review journals in particle physics, and thus make the papers freely accessible to the public. Libraries would cancel their journal subscriptions and contribute to the SCOAP3 consortium instead. SCOAP3 would apply to all publishers, both commercial and not-for-profit.  

At the HEPAP meeting, Mele, the project leader for Open Access at CERN, listed various countries in North America, Europe, and Asia that have already expressed support for the project. He confirmed that 25% of the necessary funds to run SCOAP3 have been pledged, with at least 15% more on the way. Mele said the goal is to have SCOAP3 operational in time for the first papers from the Large Hadron Collider.

The majority of articles in high energy physics are published in just six peer-reviewed journals. Since a large portion of research in HEP is published in Physical Review D or Physical Review Letters, an initiative such as SCOAP3 would strongly affect APS.  

While supporting the principle of Open Access, Sprouse explained that APS has concerns about the sustainability of SCOAP3. With Physical Review journal prices already set at near cost, any fluctuation in funding could cause major tremors for APS. Sprouse emphasized that SCOAP3 would have to show not only that the financial support is there, but also that it will continue. There is large pressure on library budgets, and SCOAP3’s request for voluntary contributions will be competing with real needs to get other journals, and there will be no loss of access to the OA journals if the libraries stop contributing.

“[APS] has a responsibility to publish good physics in all fields and to do this we have to remain financially viable. The prospects for long term support must be strong,” said Sprouse.

Several questions about SCOAP3 were raised at the HEPAP meeting. One potential issue with the SCOAP3 plan is that large publishing companies with high journal prices might not see an advantage to switching to SCOAP3 if it means receiving less money. Mele believes that publishers who do not join the SCOAP3 initiative, if it is launched, will see a significant decline in their readership.   

Audience members also raised the question of whether universities and colleges in the US will be inclined to contribute funds to SCOAP3 if they have free access available. Mele says that if SCOAP3 contribution costs are set significantly lower than subscriptions to journals, he believes smaller universities will want to contribute to the Open Access system they are benefiting from.

Audience members also expressed concern that in many national governments, federal funds are not easily re-directed. Mele agreed, but reemphasized the support that governments have already shown.

There is also worry that while SCOAP3 might force large publishers to lower the price of HEP journals, they will simply increase the price of other journals, and that SCOAP3 will have no real impact on inflated journal prices overall. While APS journal prices are relatively low, some libraries have complained about high prices charged by large for-profit scientific publishers.

Sprouse said he is open to SCOAP3 if it can be shown to be sustainable and reversible. “If these conditions are met we’d be open to OA on our site,” he said. For now, APS will continue its current Open Access offerings and its efforts to keep subscription prices down. 

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