Particle physics volunteers to be fleeced….

I heard the news yesterday that a body called the Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access Publishing in Particle Physics (SCOAP3) has arranged a deal whereby virtually all articles in particle physics will be available for free on journal websites. The deal will mean that authors will not have to pay thousands of dollars up-front in “article processing charges” in order to have their work available via Open Access media.

So far so good, you’re probably thinking. But read a little bit more about it and it becomes absolutely clear that SCOAP3 has walked straight into a trap laid by the academic publishers with whom it brokered the agreement. The principal deterrent to authors publishing via the “Gold” Open Access model has been that they would have to pay up-front fees, potentially around $2000 for each paper. Any sensible researcher would rather spend $2000 supporting their research than lining the profits of greedy publishers, so would probably opt for a “green” mode instead. Indeed many particle physicists already do this, putting their work on the arxiv where it is available for free anyway.

The publishing industry realises that most authors would simply bypass it and go for self-publication if they could, so it is naturally very keen on deals like this. What actually happens in the SCOAP3 agreement is that an author’s institution pays fees directly to the publisher. According to Nature News:

The consortium will pay the contracts from an annual budget of €10 million, which is funded not by authors or research grants, but by pledges from more than a thousand libraries, funding agencies and research consortia across the world. In effect, existing journal subscription fees are being repurposed to provide the open-access funds.

And there’s the rub. “Existing journal subscription fees” are already extortionately high, and out of all proportion to the actual cost of disseminating scientific knowledge. Authors may think that they’re not paying for Open Access under the new agreement, but in fact they are. It’s just a bit less direct. Their grants will continue to be top-sliced to pay for the SCOAP3 arrangement and, since science budgets are unlikely to rise for the foreseeable future, that means the cash available for actually doing research will fall. This agreement is very good for the publishers, but very bad for science.

The average cost for Open Access publication in Physics Review D. under the new scheme will be $1900 per paper. Ouch! And how does the publisher justify this cost? “To maintain revenue levels…”. I rest my case.

More of the  is going to happen in the UK, where £10M is being set aside from existing Research Council budgets, nominally to “pay for the transition to Open Access” but actually in order to maintain profit levels at the big academic publishing houses. Much of that £10M will no doubt disappear in deals like the one brokered by SCOAP3.  And that means continuing high profits for the publishers at the expense of falling levels of research funding. The whole thing stinks.

And if as an author you decide that you have a moral objection to being scammed in this way, under the SCOAP3 agreement you now have no way out. Even if you bypass the arrangement and just publish on the arXiv, the publishers will get their money directly anyway. You have to admit it’s a clever sting, but I’m still surprised the particle physics community has fallen for it.

This development convinced me even more that the research community has to take matters into its own hands, and organize its own publication strategy. Traditional journals are already virtually redundant and I confidently predict they will die a natural death in just a few years, but while they linger on their publishers will continue to fleece the academic community as long as they can. The sooner we put a stop to it the better.

13 Responses to “Particle physics volunteers to be fleeced….”

  1. This is really so stupid it makes one angry. Presumably SCOAPP are well-intentioned: but can they really not realise, or have anyone onboard who can tell them, that “virtually all articles in particle physics” are available online for free already? Who selects these idiots to broker deals on our behalf?

    • That’s a very good question. I forgot to add the link to the Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access Publishing in Particle Physics. I have now done so. It lists institutional membership, but not the individuals concerned

    • To be sure, while almost all articles are on arXiv, there is no guarantee that what is there is the latest, greatest version accepted by the journal. This step does make these versions available. Of course, not necessary if everyone updates the arXiv with the final version, but not everyone does.

      The solution, of course, is to have a journal which essentially uses arXiv; the journal would be just links to accepted articles. One thing the editor could do is make sure that, after acceptance, the arXiv has the proper version of the article.

      If arXiv were really all we need, then even the people who agreed to this Gold Access wouldn’t have been stupid enough to agree to it. The added value (too expensive, but still there) is open access to accepted versions by reputable journals. So, the missing ingredient in order to bypass the journals and use arXiv without using the traditional journals is to provide quality refereeing. While perhaps not anyone can put something on arXiv, many can, and some stuff is crackpot and wouldn’t appear in a serious journal. arXiv doesn’t do any refereeing, but they do some basic quality control. arXiv is as good as it is because most stuff goes somewhere else as well. If in the future there is only arXiv, then the quality will deteriorate unless there is some new online refereed journal to ensure quality.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    On a par with paying farmer-landowners NOT to produce crops…

    Time for action rather than words.

  3. So this basically means where previously our ATLAS papers were put on the arxiv as open-access without cost (except from the instituions that fund it) now in addition they will be added to a duplicate open access system called SCOAP that needs new money to pay for it?!

  4. […] The SCOAP3 consortium has announced a plan to support commercial journals publishing HEP papers, paying them 1000-2000$ per HEP paper they publish according to a complicated formula. Elsevier would get about $2.4 million/year for papers in Physics Letters B and Nuclear Physics B, but somehow reduce its subscription fees to compensate. I don’t understand at all how this is supposed to work (obvious problems include that of why anyone would subscribe once it was all open access, and what the mechanism is to stop publishers from increasing revenues by publishing more second-rate papers). Nature has an article explaining more about what is going on here. Steven Harnad describes the scheme as Unnecessary, Unscalable and Unsustainable, Peter Coles as “Particle physics volunteers to be fleeced…” […]

  5. Andrew Liddle Says:

    Dear Peter,

    I agree with what you say, but it is perhaps worth noting that this mechanism is exactly how the arXiv, which is also not actually free, is funded. My own institution is one of the many that make what is essentially a voluntary contribution to help ensure that it stays in existence.

    So the real issue is not the mechanism, I think, but the cost. The arXiv is right at the cheapest possible end of the spectrum as it is not-for-profit and carries out only minimal peer review (but it does do some – not anything can be posted to the arXiv). 2000 pounds/dollars/euros goes off the other end of the scale.



    • Agreed. But We have the arXiv and any peer review that happens for journals is done by academics for free. So why not just introduce refereeing for arXiv submissions and get rid of the journals?

  6. It appears that the British Library carries ApJ from 1895 onwards, as well as MNRAS etc. Doesn’t this already make the articles open access?

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Interesting point! It might if you are in London or Boston Spa (the BL’s main repository), although you might need a letter of introduction from a university to access books, ie the general public can’t just go in (which would not be great given that they pay for it). I’m not sure. But there is a bigger point here regarding openness of access in the internet age. Logically, a PUBLIC library ought to be able to scan everything it holds and put it in the PUBLIC domain online, but it would then be regarded as breaching copyright. The difficulty of physical access relative to e-access makes a legal difference – and a moral one, in the case of book authors.

      The same distinction holds in regard to court cases. The default, altered in only a few situations, is that courts are public places and the general public may attend (sitting in the dedicated ‘public gallery’). But the transcript of a court case costs a large sum to get hold of, and I believe the service is no longer run by the government but by a private enterprise. (Whether it is obliged to pay a portion to the government is an interesting question.) You also have to apply in person at the court where the trial took place. To my knowledge the courts do not put a list of previous trials and their outcomes online. This has the (deliberate?) effect of making it impossible to do internet searches to find out who has been tried for what, with what outcome. Yet this is public-domain info given that anybody can attend any case. And this in turn reminds me of discussions about private companies who scan the telephone directory and get people to pay for reverse searches, ie what name goes with a given number.

  7. stevanharnad Says:

    1. High Energy Physics (HEP) already has close to 100% Open Access (OA): Authors have been self-archiving their articles in Arxiv (both before and after peer review) since 1991 (“Green OA”).

    2. Hence SCOAP3 is just substituting the payment of consortial “membership” fees for publishing outgoing articles in place of the payment of individual institutional subscription fees for accessing incoming articles in exchange for an OA from its publisher (“Gold OA”) that HEP already had from self-archiving (Green OA).

    3. As such, SCOAP3 is just a consortial subscription price agreement, except that it is inherently unstable, because once all journal content is Gold OA, non-members are free-riders, and members can cancel if they feel a budget crunch.

    4. Nor does membership scale to other disciplines.

    5. High Energy Physics would have done global Open Access a better service if it had put its full weight behind promoting (Green OA) mandates to self-archive by institutions and research funders in all other disciplines.

    6. The time to convert to Gold OA is when mandatory Green OA prevails globally across all disciplines and institutions.

    7. Institutions can then cancel subscriptions and pay for peer review service alone, per individual paper, out of a portion of their windfall cancelation savings, instead of en bloc, in an unstable (and overpriced) consortial “membership.”

  8. […] palkkaisi kuusi täysipäiväistä tutkijaa. Mutta SCOAP3:n järjestelmässä yksittäisillä tieteilijöillä ei ole mahdollisuutta vaikuttaa siihen, että aina kun he julkaisevat artikkelin lehdessä, niin ehtyvistä julkisista varoista […]

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