Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Physics Experiment

Researchers in High Energy Physics (HEP) live for that moment when they can observe results, interpret data, and raise new questions. When it arrives, after a lifetime of planning, funding, and building an experiment, they set aside emotional attachment and let the data speak.

Since 1991, virtually all HEP research papers have been freely available through an online database. This repository, now known as arXiv, inspired the Green model of the Open Access movement: Scholars submit author-formatted versions of their refereed papers to open-access repositories. With this simple action, they create an open-access alternative to the formal scholarly-communication system, which mostly consists of pay-walled journals. The HEP scholarly-communication market gives us an opportunity to observe the impact of 100% Green Open Access. Following the scientists' example, let us take a moment, observe this twenty-year-long large-scale experiment, and let the data speak.

When publishers digitized scholarly journals in the 1990s, they added site licenses as an add-on option to paper-journal subscriptions. Within a few years, paper-journal subscriptions all but disappeared. At first, publishers continued the super-inflationary price trajectory of subscriptions. Then, they steepened the price curve with assorted technology fees and access charges for digitized back-files of old issues. The growing journal-pricing crisis motivated many university administrators to support the Open Access movement. While the latter is about access, not about the cost of publishing, it is impossible to separate the two issues.

In 1997, the International School of Advanced Studies (SISSA) launched the Journal of High Energy Physics (JHEP) as an open-access journal. JHEP was an initial step towards a larger goal, now referred to as Gold Open Access: replacing the current scholarly-communication system with a barrier-free system of journals without pay walls. The JHEP team implemented a highly efficient system to process submitted papers, thereby reducing the journal's operating costs to the bare minimum. The remaining expenses were covered by a handful of research organizations, which agreed to a cost-sharing formula for the benefit of their community. This institutional-funding model proved unsustainable, and JHEP converted to a site-licensed journal in 2003. This step back seems strange now, because JHEP could have copied the funding model of BioMed Central, which had launched in 2000 and funded open access by charging authors a per-article processing fee. Presumably, JHEP's leadership considered this author-pay model too experimental and too risky after their initial attempt at open access. In spite of its difficult start, JHEP was an academic success and subsequently prospered financially as a site-licensed journal produced by Springer under the auspices of SISSA.

Green Open Access delivers the immediate benefit of access. Proponents argue it will also, over time, fundamentally change the scholarly-communication market. The twenty-year HEP record lends support to the belief that Green Open Access has a moderating influence: HEP journals are priced at more reasonable levels than other disciplines. However, the HEP record thus far does not support the notion that Green Open Access creates significant change:
  • Only one event occurred that could have been considered disruptive: JHEP capturing almost 20% of the HEP market as an open-access journal. Instead, this event turned into a case of reverse disruption!
  • There was no change in the business model. All leading HEP publishers of 2012 still use pre-1991 business channels. They still sell to the same clients (acquisition departments of academic libraries) through the same intermediaries (journal aggregators). They sell a different product (site licenses instead of subscriptions), and the transactions differ, but the business model survives unchanged.
  • No journals with significant HEP market share disappeared. Even with arXiv as an open-access alternative, canceling an established HEP journal is politically toxic at any university with a significant HEP department. This creates a scholarly-communication market that is highly resistant to change.
  • Journal prices continued on a trajectory virtually unaffected by turbulent economic times.
Yet, most participants and observers are convinced that the current market is not sustainable. They are aware of the disruptive triggers that are piling up. Scholarly publishers witnessed, at close proximity, the near-collapse of the non-scholarly publishing industry. All of these fears remain theoretical. Many disruptions could have happened. Some almost happened. Some should have happened. None did.

In an attempt to re-engineer the market, influential HEP organizations launched the Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access Publishing in Particle Physics (SCOAP³). It is negotiating with publishers the conversion of established HEP journals to Gold Open Access. To pay for this, hundreds of research institutions world-wide must pool the funds they are currently spending on HEP site licenses. Negotiated article processing charges will, in aggregate, preserve the revenue stream from academia to publishers.

If SCOAP³ proves sustainable, it will become the de-facto sponsor and manager of all HEP publishing world-wide. It will create a barrier-free open-access system of refereed articles produced by professional publishers. This is an improvement over arXiv, which contains mostly author-formatted material.

Many have praised the initiative. Others have denounced it. Those who observe with scientific detachment merely note that, after twenty years of 100% Green Open Access, the HEP establishment really wants Gold Open Access.

The HEP open-access experiment continues.