There’s a big debate within the scientific community in general about how and whether to move away from the conventional model of scientific publishing (journals supported by subscriptions paid by libraries, only available to subscribers) to a model where access to the papers in scientific journals is free to all (“Open Access”). The main problem with this is figuring out how to pay for it.
In his latest This Week’s Finds, John Baez gives a link to some information about the Open Access movement. One of the main actors here is SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition). There’s an associated SPARC Open Access Newsletter and a blog, Open Access News.
Inside Higher Ed has a recent article about this, and last week’s Science magazine also has an article. The Science article discusses a new proposal put out by a task force from CERN that can be found here. The CERN task force has gathered a lot of interesting data about the particle physics literature, counting roughly 6000 papers/year, of which about 80% are theoretical. They found that about half of the journals publishing most particle physics papers are willing to move to an open-access model, with a cost per paper of between $1-3000. These included APS and IOP journals, but did not include Elsevier journals like Nuclear Physics B. The APS has announced a program that would make papers in its journals open access at a cost of $975-1300 per paper, and Elsevier has announced something similar at around $3000/paper. The CERN task force proposes raising $6-8 million/year over the next few years to start supporting the half of the journals (not including Elsevier ones) that it has identified as ready for Open Access.
What is being proposed here is basically to give up on what a lot of people have hoped would develop: a model of free journals, whose cost would be small since they would be all-electronic, small enough to be supported by universities and research grants. Instead the idea here is to keep the current journals and their publishers in place, just changing the funding mechanism from library subscriptions to something else, some form that would fund access for all. The CERN task force suggests various sources for funds over the next few years, in a transition period, but doesn’t address the long term funding problem. If you fund these things out of, say, NSF grants, when Congress decides to cut the NSF budget, there’s a serious danger of the plug getting pulled on a field’s entire scientific literature. One popular idea is that researchers themselves should pay the cost. The problem with this is that the bulk of the literature is theory papers, mostly from people who can’t afford this. When there is a mixture of journals that require authors to pay the cost and those that don’t, authors abandon the ones they have to pay for. The Elsevier journals like Nuclear Physics B achieved dominance over the APS journals during the 70s when the APS journals were financed by “page charges” paid by authors, but Nuclear Physics B cost nothing to publish in.
The CERN task force doesn’t seem to me to be providing a viable long-term plan for moving to the kind of open access model they are supporting. It doesn’t address the fundamental problem of keeping a system where physicists hand over the scientific literature to Elsevier, then have to figure out how to buy it back. Even if a willing organization is found that will give $3000/paper to Elsevier, what will keep Elsevier from deciding to keep publishing more papers? What if the organization in question gets tired of this and decides to stop paying?
The CERN report also contains a lot of highly debatable arguments. It claims that the current refereeing process is extremely important, valuable, and must be maintained at all costs, ignoring the fact that virtually everyone accesses papers at the arXiv, not at the journal. It’s true that the refereed version in a journal may be improved and have errors fixed, but authors are generally free to replace the original preprint version by a corrected one on the arXiv. The description given in the report of the “high standards of peer review” doesn’t agree with the reality of what is going on (see the Bogdanov affair). The mathematics literature still has a functional peer-reviewing system and it plays a very important role of keeping the number of incorrect proofs and unreliable results to a minimum, but the particle physics literature is very different. The report does continually make the point that the refereed journal system is crucial to the ways institutions evaluate people and decide whether to hire or promote them, but it doesn’t address the issue of whether this is a good thing.
The report also tries to claim that the advent of LHC data will somehow make the refereed particle physics literature and open access to it much more important. I don’t see this at all. The experimental results from the big LHC detectors will come out only after very careful vetting by the groups themselves, and I don’t see how a referee is likely to have much of a useful role there. If surprising experimental results are found, there will be a frantic battle among theorists to get a preprint out that explains the new data, and everyone will be following this on the arXiv. By the time such papers get through refereeing and are published, few people will still be paying attention to them.
Update: Nature Physics also has a recent article about peer review and open access.