APS News

Publishers See Pitfalls to Open Access

Open access. Two bland words that have obliged scholarly publishers, librarians, scientists, funders, and governments to rethink their most basic assumptions, and in some cases begin to tamper with a business model that has held up for more than a century.

Open access (OA) calls for scholarly publications to be available online at no cost and without barriers. Arguments in favor include a broader and more rapid distribution of research results, and the essential fairness of allowing taxpayers who paid in part for the research to access it without paying again.

But publishers worry that making manuscripts freely available would weaken the scientific peer review process, because libraries, the main source of revenue for most publishers, would no longer have to pay for subscriptions to the journals. 

APS Treasurer/Publisher Joseph Serene said that if many libraries cancel their subscriptions to the journals, the lost revenue could adversely affect the Society’s ability to evaluate new manuscripts.

Although reviewers of the papers do so voluntarily and without compensation, it takes a staff of about 50 full-time paid editors, most of them physics PhDs, to organize, edit and accept or reject the 35,000 manuscripts the APS receives a year.

“To do this well is a time-consuming process and it requires skilled and highly qualified people to run it.” Serene said. “This is a nontrivial job.

“Public policy makers, science students, and the scientific community generally need to know what parts of the publicly available scientific information… is actually sound,” Serene said. “The only proven way of providing that insurance both to ourselves and to the community is peer review.”

He added that APS is not opposed to open access, and has enacted several policies allowing for greater public access to the journals. Procedures are in place for both public libraries and high school libraries to freely access the full content of APS journals, a benefit that many such libraries have taken advantage of. APS allows authors to post the published version of their articles either on their own websites or those of their institutions. In addition, authors can purchase open access for their papers, for a fee that reflects the costs of evaluation and publication.

In recent months, the British government announced a new policy requiring research conducted with government funds be made freely available to the public. In the US, the White House’s “We the People” petition website has collected more than 30,000 signatures calling for federally funded research to be posted freely online.

“It’s a very powerful…populist message,” said Michael Lubell, APS’s Director of Public Affairs.  But he cautioned that there were possible unintended consequences, pointing out that the public itself is the ultimate beneficiary of the existing peer review system.

“We require the FDA to make sure drugs on the market are effective and not harmful,” Lubell said. “The same kind of logic should apply to scientific publications. Peer review provides that public good.”

Keeping the peer review system intact while making science more freely available has been a tricky issue to resolve. Serene pointed to Physical Review D, APS’s journal covering particles, fields, gravitation and cosmology, as a sort of test case for what can happen to a journal when its content is widely available for free on the web. He estimated that nearly 98 percent of the papers in it are available in some form on the open access preprint server arXiv.org, hosted at Cornell University. Presumably as a result, downloads per paper from the journal website itself are roughly a third of those for the other Physical Review journals, a trend that started when the preprint server came online. Subscriptions to Physical Review D haven’t declined significantly, however. Serene surmises this may be because libraries usually subscribe to the journals as part of a package, and wouldn’t save much money by dropping a single title.  

One frequently discussed business model is for journals to forego subscription revenue altogether and switch to an “author pays” model. Under such a system, the authors of every paper published would have to pay the additional fees to make their papers open access, and to cover the cost of processing, between $1700 and $2700 for APS journals.

However Lubell said that such a system would likely have a disproportionate impact on smaller research teams and theoretical physicists. A few thousand dollars for publishing costs would be a much bigger portion for a lone researcher with a grant in the tens of thousands of dollars rather than a giant research team with hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars.

“You’re going to have less money in your grant to pay for other things,” Lubell said. He estimated the physical sciences would need an infusion of two to three billion dollars to make up for these new publishing fees, an amount Congress is unlikely to appropriate in the near future. Lubell added that such a system would create an incentive for researchers to publish in less reputable or widely distributed journals, because they would be cheaper.

A consortium based at CERN known as SCOAP3 is working on an open access business model strictly for high-energy physics that would fundamentally alter how journals get their revenue. The consortium has been seeking agreements from research libraries to take the money that they currently spend on certain high-energy physics journals and pool it into a single fund. That fund would then be used to buy open access rights to all high-energy physics articles in those journals, making them free for anyone to read or reuse, without putting an undue burden on researchers or journals.

“It’s a large scale worldwide collaboration to transform the publishing outfit of a particular discipline, in this case particle physics,” said Ivy Anderson, the director of collections at the University of California’s digital library and one of the organizers of SCOAP3’s founding meeting at the University of California, Berkeley. She added that the goal of the organization is to ultimately bring the cost of journals and peer review down for libraries and for researchers who can’t afford access. With a budget of about 10 million Euros worldwide, its organizers hope to bring the consortium online in January of 2014.

“I don’t think that it should have negative effects on peer review,” Anderson said. “There’s certainly not any intention to disadvantage any of the players in the current ecosystem.”

The plan is audacious, and many publishers are willing to give it a chance to work. However, there are reservations about how sustainable such a fund will be, or even if it will ever get off the ground.

“I have some supportive skepticism,” Serene said. “I’m afraid there’s an instability problem with  it because there’s no tangible cost to a library that withdraws.”

He pointed to the classic “free rider” problem in economics. A university, if faced with a tight budget, could drop funding of the program, but still have access to all the same information. If enough institutions do this, the consortium wouldn’t be able to pay for the open access costs of the journals, and the system would collapse.

Serene raised other concerns as well. He said that without knowing how concrete the agreements SCOAP3 has with its libraries are, it’s unclear how much of the claimed 10 million Euros will actually materialize. In addition, with its current budget, SCOAP3 has not been able to include the more influential and expensive journals, such as Physical Review Letters.

The way libraries are funded in the US makes it difficult to follow the model that Britain recently announced. After recommendations by the government-appointed Finch Commission, the British government has pledged £10 million to researchers to buy open access rights for their journal articles.

It’s not clear how much this will benefit libraries. Most papers are from researchers outside of Britain, meaning the libraries would still have to subscribe to the same journals in order to get access to all of the research from abroad. In the US, library funding and research funding sources are much more diversified, spanning different federal agencies, state and local governments as well as private institutional support, so rerouting money from libraries to researchers is logistically much more difficult.

“Our authors and subscribers are very international too,” said Gene Sprouse, APS Editor in Chief. “We want everyone who needs our journals to be able to access them. We keep our prices low and strive to keep quality high. Open access is wonderful, provided that it doesn’t compromise our ability to fund the peer review  process.”


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