Posted by: Steven Harris | March 6, 2008

Minty Fresh or Bad Breath?

I generally support any kind of open access project I come across. My library has supported SPARC, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, BioOne (not really open access, but a publishing alternative), Public Library of Science, and more. There is another open access project in development called SCOAP3. The project would try to “turn” the top-rated journals in high-energy physics to an open access model.

SCOAP3 is essentially a consortium that would attempt to raise money to pay the publishers for granting open access to the journals. The amount of money necessary for that flip would be assigned around the world to represent the home countries of authors in those journals (basically a representation of how important the journals are in each country).

The model is being presented to other consortia, in the hopes of getting libraries to contribute consortially. Libraries would probably contribute about as much as they are paying in subscriptions right now. SCOAP3 would act rather like the subscription agent for the world. It is now the big topic on the discussion list of one consortium we participate in. One librarian observed that it could be problematic for state universities from an auditing standpoint: the library is paying money for something that would be free to the world.

This is a legitimate concern. The other open access projects we have supported are a similar issue, but this could up the ante a bit because of the cost of the journals and the cost of a member contribution to SCOAP3. I have other concerns that cause me to be less than enthusiastic about the project. First and foremost is that most of the journals being targeted are part of packages that we can’t cancel from. We would get no cost savings with which to pay the consortial contribution. It would have to come entirely out of our pocket. It is kind of a chicken and egg situation: if it’s open access, there would be no subscription cost, but can we cancel our subscription to pay the consortial contribution in order to make it open access?

It is unclear to me how willing the publishers are to play along with this model. While negotiating with the publishers as a united world would seem to have some benefits, I’m not sure we wouldn’t still be held hostage to unrealistic price increases. The entire approach seems a bit like offering to pay off the blackmailers and extortionists.

Rather than continuing to pay off the publishers of these highly rank journals, how about trying to implement peer review in the HEP pre-print repositories that already exist? The repositories already have the articles that the research communities need. The only element lacking is the peer review editorial process. Transferring the review to the repository would ensure the quality of the publications while keeping control in the scientific community. I fear that the SCOAP3 model depends too greatly on maintaining a traditional publishing model, only the manner of paying is changed. The journals would still be maintained for one purpose only: to grant status to the authors of articles therein for the purposes of promotion and tenure review. The publishers can still charge what they like for that status.

These views are mine, by the way, and not necessarily those of my institution or my co-workers.



  1. The SCOAP3 financing model includes that the following would be included in a tender to publishers:

    o That journal license packages are unbundled, the OA titles are removed and subscription prices are reduced accordingly; and
    o In case of long-term contracts, publishers will be required to reimburse subscription costs pertaining to OA journals.


  2. Thanks for pointing that out Pam. Makes it less troublesome from our financial perspective.

  3. Pam is correct – SCOAP3 is designed so that existing HEP journal expenditures can be disaggregated from their current bundles and redirected to SCOAP3. There is no double-payment. The publishers understand this, and at least two – APS and IEEE – evidently have endorsed it. The argument that public institutions cannot allocate funds to open access publishing projects like SCOAP3 is surely wrong; many of us have supported the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (which offers contributors no tangible benefit) and other OA publishing efforts without encountering such barriers.

    It’s quite true though that SCOAP3 is a different sort of OA publishing initiative – which is why it merits serious attention (and, I believe, support). SCOAP3’s funding consortium approach avoids the problem of shifting the burden of funding to individual authors, which acts as a powerful disincentive in the ‘author-pays’ OA model. By aggregating funds on behalf of authors, who are really the ‘power players’ in the publishing game, SCOAP3 hopes to exert the leverage of the marketplace to negotiate fees and control costs at an earlier point in the publishing cycle.

    The fact that SCOAP3 is non-disruptive to authors, publishers and societies is in my view not a weakness at all, but a strength. Practicing scholars and scientists rely on the vetting and credentialing functions of the existing journals. It’s possible that layering the peer review process on top of repositories as Steve suggests can be a logical next step; but meanwhile, the critical functions of the current scholarly system that work well for scholars are preserved under SCOAP3, while still undergoing significant transformation.

    SCOAP3 is an experiment that poses minimal risk, and experimentation is what we need right now if we’re going to build a new global infrastructure for scientific endeavor.

  4. Ivy, you are, no doubt, correct in suggesting that we are in a transitional stage. Jumping directly to a model where journals are done away with altogether may be too drastic right now.

    While we have supported OA projects like the Stanford encyclopedia, I think the question about state auditors is real. I know of a case in Texas where real pressure was put on the collections librarian for spending state funds in this way. The UC system is supporting SCOAP3, but I would say that is rather like already having legislative and governmental support: having the imprimatur of UC. The rest of us, I think, will need to get approval from at least our campus executives. But it is possible we can convince them on the grounds that it is no different than the membership fees we already pay.

    Something else I agree about: the author-pay model for OA does not work very well.

  5. I have two major reservations about SCOAP3. First, it’s simply not bold enough. Physics as a discipline has been so far ahead of anybody else on open access–arXiv was developed in 1991 for heavens’s sake, before any physics journals were online. This proposal appears to simply accept commercial publishers’ existing model so that, instead of paying large sums of money to commerical journals, we’ll be paying large sums of money to a consortium of non-profits. Call me crazy, but that doesn’t strike me as a significant improvement.

    My second reservation relates to sustainability. What mechanism is in place to ensure that members of the consortium won’t back out of the agreement? There are inevitably institutions that won’t be able to sustain the cost and will want to drop out. How do you prevent that from happening, or how do you ensure that you have new members coming in to make up for any attrition?

  6. I’ve read the minty breath or bad breath is all due to the bacteria underneath the surface of our tongues.

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