Turning an entire field open access?

I just got back from a meeting with Salvatore Mele of CERN, who visited our library to talk up SCOAP3, a proposed program whose aim is to make all of the major journals in high energy physics (HEP) open access; that is, freely usable by anyone in the world.

Physicists are already leaders in academia for providing open access to their non-peer-reviewed papers, in places like arxiv.org. The aim of the coalition is to also make their peer-reviewed journal research fully open access as well. It helps that high-energy physics publishing isn’t very big; there’s apparently about 20,000 people in the field who mostly publish in 6 peer-reviewed journals. And the total annual cost and complexity of producing those publications is considerably less than the cost and complexity of manufacturing just one large-scale experimental program.

The project is taking a different approach from many open access initiatives. Rather than starting a new set of journals, or proposing per-article submission fees for authors, SCOAP3 proposes that a central consortium be set up to fund the peer review process at the existing major journals in return for making all the content open access. The funds would then come from major libraries and funding agencies in the countries that have high-energy physics programs, in proportion to the amount they publish. The project believes that it would cost less for libraries to fund the peer research through this program than they formerly paid for major HEP journal subscriptions, so libraries could divert their funds accordingly without having to spend more.

It’s an interesting idea, and reminded me a bit of the strategies of health coverage organizations: use market leverage to negotiate low fees from providers (in this case journal publishers) in order to be included in the services that clients prefer to use, aiming to make service more equitable and affordable, and overall costs lower.

The incentive structures to make this work will be tricky. Publishers, libraries, and authors all have to be willing to cooperate in sufficient numbers to keep the coalition together. Authors need to be prepared to take their work elsewhere if some publishers don’t cooperate. Libraries and funding agencies need to stay convinced that it’s worthwhile to pay for content that would be free to non-payers as well.

But HEP is a community where that may well work. The initiative that physicists have already taken to make their work open access (and also to shift publications away from some overpriced journals) could well keep them and the key publishers in the coalition (especially since some of the publishers involved are nonprofit societies run by the physicists themselves). And the major consumers of HEP journals could be willing to keep paying for the content to uphold their prestige, bolster support from their scholar-clients, and to avoid going back to the bad old days of having to pay skyrocketing journal prices.

The project is relatively new (it appeared on the radar of Open Access News last year), but a number of European agencies have already joined. They’ve just started a drive for US support (with early US endorsers showing up here). I’ll be interested to see how it’s received here, and hope that it will succeed in achieving its goals.

About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library architect and planner at the University of Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to Turning an entire field open access?

  1. John Mark Ockerbloom says:

    Thanks for the pointer to the additional articles! I’m also told that a more appropriate example for the “large scale experimental program” for the high-energy physics field would be something like this one. I gather it has roughly the same estimated cost (400 million euros) and complexity as the program I linked to.

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