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APS and the Challenge of Open Access

By Joseph Serene and Gene Sprouse

Joe Serene


Joseph Serene


Gene Sprouse

Gene Sprouse


As many readers of APS News will realize, APS has just completed a major strategic planning exercise. Not surprisingly, a significant component of that exercise concerned challenges facing the Society, and Open Access to the APS journals held a prominent spot among those challenges.

We believe that APS has a well thought out approach to the challenges and opportunities presented by Open Access. Though our approach continues to evolve in response to new developments, it grows from a consistent core of both philosophy and practice reaching back at least fifteen years. Nevertheless, discussions surrounding the development and implementation of the APS Strategic Plan have made us keenly aware that relatively few members of APS know our policies on Open Access or the fundamental principles underlying and guiding them.

This article aims to provide an overview of the policies, practices, philosophy, and plans of APS regarding Open Access. As an introduction to what follows, we offer the following “elevator speech” summary: (1) APS supports the principle of Open Access to its journals to the fullest extent consistent with financial stability; (2) peer-reviewed journals continue to be essential to scientific research; (3) high-quality peer-reviewed journals have significant, irreducible costs; (4) the leading approaches to Open Access all carry both promise and potential problems; (5) Open Access is a thoroughly international issue, which brings both complications and stability.   

In November 2009 the APS Council adopted a formal policy statement on Open Access:
The APS supports the principles of Open Access to the maximum extent possible that allows the Society to maintain peer-reviewed high-quality journals, secure archiving, and the Society’s long‑term financial stability, to the benefit of the scientific enterprise.

This statement codifies our previous practices and informs and guides our ongoing policy decisions.  

The current broad-based focus on Open Access grows from two roots: (1) a sincere public interest in access to the medical research literature, and (2) severe pressure on the acquisitions budgets of research libraries, in large part due to the pricing policies of a few dominant commercial publishers. One can argue about the in-principle relevance of each of these to physics and to society publishers such as APS, but as a practical matter they set the stage on which we must play.   

Public discussions of Open Access sometimes assert that traditional peer-reviewed journals are no longer needed in the age of the World Wide Web or that even if they were needed, they should cost very little to produce, since referees donate their time and effort. These claims are seriously in error.

Peer-reviewed journals are, if anything, even more essential in our Internet-enabled environment. In an era in which a vast amount of un-refereed scientific literature is freely available on the web, refereed journals take on special importance and their publishers perform critical services. The peer review system identifies subsets of the open literature that relevant scientific communities have singled out as sound, significant, and worthy of dissemination and preservation, and improves the papers selected for publication. The importance of peer review is enhanced by the growth of interdisciplinary research and extends not only to the scientific community, but even more so to the general public, whose members have no other basis for discriminating reliable science from bogus claims. This is most apparent for the medical literature, but closer to home, examples such as climate change come readily to mind.   

Innovations such as post-publication commenting have not yet justified the high expectations surrounding their introduction. The true experts whose comments would be needed are too busy to read and comment on numerous papers of widely varying quality, and such systems are notoriously prone to gaming.

In addition to managing peer review, publishers provide copyediting and full-text electronic formatting (currently in XML) facilitating electronic linking of references and sophisticated search capabilities; secure archiving; and well-designed, stable online platforms providing seamless access to a significant fraction of the literature. APS provides online access to everything ever published in the Physical Review family of journals, back to 1893, a total of approximately 500,000 papers.

Peer-reviewed scientific journals represent a remarkable cooperative activity of the international scientific community, and an appreciation for the scale of this activity is essential background for discussions of Open Access. APS publishes ten peer-reviewed journals, which in 2011 received approximately 35,000 submissions. We eventually published 19,000 of these, with the help of 25,000 volunteer peer reviewers.

Roughly 22% of the submissions, 27% of the published papers, and 33% of the referees came from the US. Physics publishing is a thoroughly international enterprise.

In spite of the major contributions from volunteer referees, peer-reviewed journals on the scale of ours are still expensive to produce. For example, the APS editorial office has a staff of 150, including 50 full-time PhD editors, maintains three geographically distributed, fully-mirrored data centers, and provides approximately 16,000,000 full-text downloads of papers every year. We have taken major strides to reduce expenses, such as moving to all-electronic operations and transferring our XML composition and copy editing to highly efficient vendors, but excellent editors and editorial support staff, an outstanding IT group, and the physical infrastructure to support them form the core of our publishing operations and generate expenses that come to nearly $30M per year.

These costs are now covered (primarily) by subscriptions from libraries in universities, colleges, and research organizations. Although this provides access to APS journals for a very large fraction of active researchers, it does not cover members of the general public, whose taxes help to support scientific research all over the world. It can also present barriers for researchers at smaller educational institutions and at small high-tech companies, even though APS uses a tiered subscription pricing system, with prices keyed to an institution’s level of research activity and journal usage, and a factor of approximately 2.5 between prices for the top and bottom tiers.    

Gold Open Access-What Does it Mean?

The simplest method to provide universal access is so-called Gold Open Access, in which authors (or their institutions or funders) pay an Article Processing Charge (APC) to make an article Open Access, either in a purely OA journal (such as our Physical Review X and Physical Review Special Topics–Physics Education Research) or a hybrid journal where only some papers are OA. Physical Review A-E and Physical Review Letters are all hybrid journals in this sense. Physical Review Special Topics–Accelerators and Beams is a less-usual variation on the Gold theme (but one of the oldest Gold OA journals, dating from 1998), with APCs replaced by contributions from accelerator laboratories.

Our current APCs , providing Open Access with a Creative Commons CC-BY license, are $1700 for PRA-E and PRST–PER ($1000 for short papers), $1500 for PRX, and $2700 for PRL. These fees are set so that they would at least replace the current subscription revenue if all authors chose the OA option. The charge to publish in PRL is significantly higher because of its significantly lower acceptance rate and associated editorial expenses. Although selective, well-refereed journals from different publishers differ in details of editorial and business models, their APCs are remarkably similar; publication expenses are real and essential for high-quality journals.

At first glance Gold Open Access, with hybrid journals as a transitional step, looks like the best approach from a publisher’s perspective, because it simply replaces one revenue stream by another. But Gold OA raises a number of short-term and long-term concerns. One might think that the money now spent by libraries for subscriptions could be redirected to pay APCs, but this fails because many subscribing institutions contribute very few papers. Furthermore, if a single country opts to pay for Gold OA, as the UK has recently done, due to the broad international author and subscription base it cannot expect to recover its APCs from reduced subscriptions fees for hybrid journals (even if publishers are scrupulously fair in reducing subscription fees).  

These observations mean that a large fraction of APCs would come from a relatively small number of major research institutions and from research funds provided by national or international funding agencies such as DOE and NSF, which would in turn reduce the funding available for equipment and supplies, support of graduate students and postdocs, etc. These charges against research grants at research-intensive universities producing many papers would be significant, and far larger than their current subscription fees.  The Gold path to Open Access may ultimately be the best, but one must realize that following it will effectively redirect some fraction of current research funding to APCs.

The SCOAP3 initiative, which aims to make most of the High Energy Physics literature Gold OA, attempts to circumvent these problems by convincing the entire international community of libraries with HEP journal subscriptions to make an instantaneous transition, by redirecting all of their HEP subscription funds to CERN, for subsequent distribution to publishers for pre-set APCs. The model has its own start-up challenges and long-run stability issues, but APS is following the project with intense interest and engagement, and will participate if the funding materializes.     

Mandated Gold OA could also drive some papers to lighter-reviewed but less expensive journals, for example when an investigator’s funds were running short and she or he had to choose between supporting a graduate student and publishing in a higher-quality journal. Finally, we worry about having large parts of our revenue tied to a small number of government agencies, all over the world, because of potential unpredictable shifts in the national budgets for these agencies. Our widely diversified set of library customers brings an element of stability, even though keeping track of them can be an administrative burden.  

The UK government, acting on the recommendation of a distinguished government commission (the Finch Commission), including librarians, publishers, and scholars, very recently adopted Gold (including hybrid) OA as the immediate goal for all UK government funded papers (with the Green options discussed immediately below as acceptable fallbacks), and provided significant funding to help enable this transition. APS journals already provide all of the acceptable options under this policy.  

Green Open Access-Availability Somewhere on the Internet

The other possibilities for ensuring broad public access, and the ones that we favor at present, fall under the (large) umbrella of Green Open Access. One can think of this as encompassing all forms of public access other than complete Open Access to the publisher’s Version of Record on a journal platform. For example, APS allows authors to post our final PDF of their paper on their own websites or their institution’s websites (i.e., in institutional repositories), and we allow the author’s versions of the paper, including revisions resulting from the peer review process, to be posted on any free site at any time, without embargoes. We were the first publisher to adopt such a policy, in 1997, in support of arXiv.org (then xxx.lanl.gov) in its early years. We also offer our entire journal collection and archive to any US public library or high school library for walk-in access, at no charge (an idea borrowed by the UK), and we offer a low-cost article rental option for all of our articles through DeepDyve (a commercial venture). We note in passing that the use (to date) of these opportunities has been very low, at least suggesting that the actual public demand for research papers in physics is not large.

We believe that extending these approaches could provide acceptable public access at a relatively low cost to funding agencies and relatively low risk to publishers. For example, funding agencies could require that a final version of any paper that they support must be either (1) posted on an author’s website or an institutional website; (2) posted on an Open Access repository such as arXiv; or (3) published Open Access in a Gold or hybrid journal. This is essentially the recent UK/Finch policy, with less bias toward the Gold option.

In conclusion, although no one knows the precise trajectory of Open Access, the APS journals are long-time participants and are positioned to respond and to lead as needed.  

Joseph Serene is Treasurer/Publisher of the APS. Gene Sprouse is APS Editor in Chief.

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