In a field devoted to extending humanity's understanding of the natural world at the deepest possible level, it perhaps comes as no surprise that particle physicists are breaking new ground in how that knowledge gets shared. These are people adept at tracking even the most elusive bits of matter, such as the Higgs boson, as well as responsible for conceiving the internet, and they've long been at the forefront of efforts to disseminate information more freely.
This past winter, through an international initiative called SCOAP3 (Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access Publishing in Particle Physics), many key journals in particle physics—also known as high-energy physics—began operating as open-access publications. Now, rather than requiring an expensive subscription, anyone may read and make use of them, and the journals and their publishers are paid from one central fund filled up by hundreds of libraries and funding agencies based in 24 different countries. All told, it's one of the largest, most ambitious open-access initiatives ever built, requiring the cooperation of libraries, publishers, and scientists across the globe.
"The difference is the economics," explains Ruth Lewis, Washington University scholarly communications coordinator and science librarian. "Publishers are getting their costs from the SCOAP3 pot, so they will not be charging scholars an article processing fee. For authors, the experience of publishing, peer review, and so forth remains the same as with a traditional toll-access journal, and presumably the prestige of publishing remains the same also."
Officially launched in January of 2014, SCOAP3 is still very young, and its long-term impacts remain to be seen. Washington University's own Michael Ogilvie, a professor of physics, likens the situation to being in the middle of a fascinating story, with the ending still uncertain. While the overarching goal of widely distributing scholarship and scientific findings remains unchanged, the publishing and research-funding landscape continues to shift rapidly, with many different interests to be considered.
"We live in a very complicated world in which journals fill a lot of different needs," Ogilvie says. "And we've broken the old model, but we don't yet have a complete, working new model in place. Choices are being made that are likely to have very long-lasting consequences."
The American Physical Society (APS) opted not to join SCOAP3, and APS is not alone in its reservations. For instance, while Washington University Libraries and more than 1,000 other libraries worldwide are supporting the initiative, the libraries at Stanford University and Yale University are not contributing, though they too benefit from SCOAP3.
"One concern is that all articles published in this discipline really are already available within arXiv, an open-access archive of pre-print articles established in the early 1990s," says Alison Verbeck, librarian at the Gustavus A. Pfeiffer Physics Library in Compton Hall. "Also, once the journals become open access, in a sense we lose incentive to pay into the pool, because those that don't pay have the same access as those that do. I believe that was APS's big concern—they don’t want the model to collapse and take their journals down with it."
Ogilvie points out that CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research and the site of the biggest particle accelerator in the world, is the main force behind SCOAP3, and the large European publisher Elsevier is also a key player.
"I think that SCOAP3 is probably a good thing, and open access is definitely where our heart is as high-energy physicists," Ogilvie says. "I'm sure the APS's concerns are really motivated by a sincere desire to create something sustainable. The thing that seems odd is that it's the non-profit APS that is not signing on, whereas the for-profit Elsevier has gone along with it. The American Physical Society—they're not the bad guys. It's just, how do we make this work? How do we make sure that everybody gets a fair share?"
As Ogilvie describes not only SCOAP3 but other groundbreaking efforts such as INSPIRE and its cousin arXiv, begun decades ago when he was still early in his career, his passion for this topic is evident. Clicking from one helpful tool to another, he reflects on how scholarly communication has improved over the years, becoming vastly more cost-effective and efficient.
"Modern scholarship is this enormous web of conversation, and by looking at who said what when, and who is referencing what, we can find out what we are really all talking about," Ogilvie says. "And it's amazingly convenient. It used to be that getting a paper out the door was a multi-week process—now I can have a paper into the arXiv one day and submit it to the journal the next. I can start getting comments back from people within a day rather than months. But on the other hand, it's essential that this is all coming in cheaper and faster, because we’re having to make do with less. The lack of long-term U.S. government investment in research is hurting everybody, and it’s gains like these that are helping to offset other issues."
Photo information for images in order of appearance on this page: 1) CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, is home to the Large Hadron Collider shown here and a key partner in the SCOAP3 initiative (photo by solarnu on Flickr [CC BY-ND 2.0]). 2) Professor of Physics Michael Ogilvie (photo by Alison Verbeck).