By Michael Lubell and Mark Elsesser
“Open Access” — the unrestricted access to online, peer-reviewed research journal articles — has been gathering impressive momentum. In some cases, it has already altered the way scientific information is disseminated and how peer review and other publication activities are paid for.
During a recent discussion, APS President Sam Aronson noted that “Many commercial scientific publishers consider open access an existential threat to their business. But as a nonprofit publisher,” he emphasized, “APS considers its impact on the research enterprise to be of far greater importance.”
Mac Beasley, the society’s past president and interim treasurer, agreed, adding, “Who will bear the financial burden of open access, what rules will govern it, and how will its implementation affect resources otherwise available for research? These are questions all APS members should be asking.”
APS has long been a supporter of open access, as underscored by its 2009 statement, balancing its innovative initiatives with the need to maintain the viability of its publishing responsibilities. For several years, APS has offered its journals free of charge to all public libraries and high schools for use on their premises. APS has also allowed journal authors to freely post the accepted, author-formatted manuscript on personal or institutional websites and on arXiv. Finally, APS has worked with other scientific publishers (See APS News, August/September 2015) to create the Clearinghouse for the Open Research of the United States (CHORUS). But as new policies are enacted and immediate open access becomes more widespread, it is likely that APS will have to alter its publishing practices if it is to continue providing the physics community with affordable, top-quality journals.
“Free Access” Is Not Free
Free and unfettered access to the results of research has been the dream of a number of constituencies: Members of the public with serious medical problems; university librarians whose budgets cannot cope with escalating subscription costs; entrepreneurs involved in high-tech ventures; scientists, whose work is increasingly international; and political leaders who must respond to their constituents’ demands.
In the United States, for example, elected officials in both parties have embraced the politically appealing argument that “If the taxpayer paid for the research, the taxpayer should be able to see the results free of charge.” Unfortunately, the cost and value of conducting peer review, composition (including embedding links in the version of record, for example), archiving, and other sundry publishing activities go unrecognized.
Throughout the world, almost all scientific publishers of high-quality journals rely on subscriptions to support peer-review operations, editing, composition, and archiving. But if governments begin to compel publishers and authors to make articles freely available immediately after publication or if the vast majority of authors simply choose to make their work freely available immediately after publication, subscribers would have no reason to continue paying for content. The subscription model would vanish, and publishers would have to find other sources of revenue to support the services they currently provide, especially peer review.
At present the “time to free access” set by U.S government directives is 12 months. But pressure to reduce the time has been building both in the U.S. and elsewhere. Pending legislation (H.R. 1477, “The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act of 2015,” also known as FASTR) in the U.S. House of Representatives, for example, would require access “as soon as practicable” but no later than six months (See APS News, August/September 2015). Similar legislation is under consideration in France. And in the UK, Research Council policies in place since 2013 are setting the “time to free access” on a glide path to zero.
The Problems with “Author Pays”
APS believes that it won’t be long before the “time to free access” will shrink to zero both at home and abroad. In that case, the way APS currently pays for peer-review operations will no longer be viable. And APS and other scientific publishers will likely have to adopt an “author pays” model. Unless they have access to other sources of revenue, authors will have to use their research grant money, institutional funds or cash from their own pockets to cover the cost of publication (which may be in excess of two thousand dollars per article). Moreover, a change to an author-pays model would especially harm researchers with small grants or no grants at all. And if federal science budgets remain fixed, the amount of money available for conducting research would decline.
Some authors might be tempted to publish in free or extremely inexpensive journals, but, as recent analyses have shown, the quality control in such journals is likely to be very poor. John Bohannon in Science magazine (October 4, 2013), for example, reported that a significant fraction of open access journals are predatory in nature and have, at best, questionable peer-review operations.
Differing open access rules around the world could complicate matters even further for a scientific enterprise in which international collaborations are becoming more and more common. The UK “author-pays” model, for example, bars authors who publish their work in journals that impose a delay before open access – as current U.S. policies allow – from using Research Council funds to cover article processing charges (APCs). UK policies also prohibit scientists from using Research Council funds to cover APCs even if their journal of choice provides immediate open access but relies on a third-party repository, such as CHORUS, arXiv, or an institution’s website, to do so.
It is possible that models other than “author pays” could become viable, but APS believes they contain substantial risks. For example, CERN has been strongly promoting SCOAP3 (Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access Publishing in Particle Physics). In that model, CERN and other institutions, predominantly libraries in various countries, would directly reimburse publishers using a formula that depends on the average number of particle physics articles they publish and the publishing costs of the journals.
Here’s the rub: So long as all partners maintained their commitments, SCOAP3 would survive. But unless international treaties bind SCOAP3 participating institutions to their support pledges, future budget stringencies or changes in political will could cause SCOAP3 to collapse. It is possible that other enforcement mechanisms could be developed, but APS believes that at present the SCOAP3 model is not without risk.
Final Thoughts from APS Leaders
Reflecting on the rapidly changing landscape of scientific publishing, APS CEO Kate Kirby summed up the situation this way: “As an international publisher, in the short term APS will have to provide mechanisms that satisfy the patchwork of open access mandates across the globe. As a membership organization that advocates for physics and physicists, in the long term APS will have to remain attentive to the impact of ‘author pays’ on scientific research budgets.”
Sam Aronson added, “It is critical that APS members recognize that the publishing world is going to change dramatically in the next decade, and the way they have become accustomed to disseminating their work is going to change with it. We hope APS members will engage actively in the open access discussions.”
Michael Lubell is the director and Mark Elsesser is the senior policy analyst in the APS Office of Public Affairs.
Michael Lubell’s October Inside the Beltway column will again run in November, and then resume its normal bimonthly schedule in December.
APS Begins Release of Public Access CHORUS Papers - APS News, August/September 2015
Getting Up to Speed on FASTR Legislation - APS News, August/September 2015
CERN and APS Announce Partnership for Open Access - APS News Update, September 2014
APS Statement on Open Access
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