Open Sesame II

Earlier this week I posted a paper on the Arxiv (which is described here). The next morning I woke up to an email asking if my co-authors and I were interested in submitting our paper in a new, open access astrophysics journal, Physics of the Dark Universe.  The Editorial Board is full of people I respect and — unlike many Open Access journals — there are no page charges: it is free to both authors and readers. Even more interestingly, the journal is published by Elsevier, one of the main whipping boys of the Open Science movement.  

So what gives?  So far as I can tell, Elsevier hopes to negotiate blanket deals with science funding agencies and consortia of institutions to cover the cost of these journals.  And I suspect many scientists will be apprehensive at the thought of Elsevier inserting themselves even more deeply into the world’s scholarly infrastructure.

But on the other hand, Elsevier are taking a risk if they pursue this new model — government agencies have more negotiating leverage than individual universities.  Moreover, it is a problem if academics can’t read an article in the literature, so scholarly libraries strive for completeness and (by and large) grit their teeth and pay millions each year to cover journal subscriptions.  On the other hand, it is less of a problem (in most fields) to lose the opportunity to publish in a given set of journals, provided there are viable alternatives.  And this model allows Elsevier to charge for publication, but leaves no room to charge for reading — and Elsevier’s journals typically cost far more on a per article basis than many of their competitors.

‚ÄčThis certainly seems to be a response to the Open Science movement from Elsevier. Whether it is a win for Open Science remains to be seen — the devil will be in the details, but Elsevier is risking much of its present ability to dictate the price it charges for its services.  

My guess is that even if this approach is viable, purists will continue to shun Elseiver — they are the Microsoft of academic publishing. But just as many Linux users switched to Macs when OS X became available during the most vocal era of the Open Source software movement I suspect many scientists could learn to love free-to-you journals — even if they are created by large for-profit corporations.

As for me, the new journal’s focus on the “dark universe” is probably not a good fit for our paper, so it will go elsewhere.  

Open Sesame

There is an “Open Research” meeting here in Auckland this week and I am registered for the “unconference” on the second day (I am also headed to Kiwi Foo on the weekend, which means I will attend more unconferences in a week than I managed in the rest of my life).   

My first taste of open research — but no-one called it open research back then — came as a PhD student at the University of Canterbury in 1990, where the circulation of the “preprint list” was a weekly ritual.  Possibly this is more accurately “open science”, a subset of open research.  Back then, scientists sent pre-publication copies of their papers (“preprints”) to a handful of libraries and leading institutions. As a public service, the library at SLAC mailed a weekly list of new preprints it had received to particle physics researchers all round the world.  (Actually, I think you had to pay an annual subscription to cover the postage.)

After it arrived at Canterbury, the list went from hand to hand among the researchers with an interest in particle physics. When you got the list, you flagged titles that looked interesting, noted the author’s institution, turned to a longer list that provided their postal addresses, filled in the blanks on a special postcard politely requesting a copy of the article, and mailed it off.  A few weeks or months later an envelope arrived in the mailroom with your name on it, possibly some exotic stamps, and the preprint inside.  

Then, in 1991 the “Archive” was launched by Paul Ginsparg from the domain (There was also an earlier, smaller, and less automated service run by Joanne Cohn.)  The Archive sent a daily digest, you submitted papers to the archive by email (or even ftp),  the list was distributed by email, and you requested papers by emailing a software robot. This is what the pre-www Internet looked like. 

Papers arrived as raw LaTeX (or just TeX),  an HTML-like mathematical mark-up language that was (and is) ubiquitous in particle physics. A few keystrokes at the command line turned the source file into a typeset paper, and thus a process which had taken weeks or months now took minutes.  Not only that, a PhD student in New Zealand now got preprints at the same time as a professor at Harvard.

As time went by, the operation became more professional and spread across multiple disciplines. For a taste of the wild west days of open science, check out early messages to Archive suscribers [sic] — search for “suscribe” [sic].  

Nowadays, the Archive (at the domain is the dominant repository for papers in particle physics and astronomy.  But perhaps more importantly, the Archive has reached the point where it threatens to do to traditional journals what MP3s did to record shops, as it represents a radically new model for scientific publishing.  In particle physics and astrophysics, the Archive is essentially complete — I almost never see traditionally published papers that are not also posted to the Archive.   Not only that, I am more likely to download the preprint than the journal’s version of an article, because everything is on the Archive which makes it a one-stop shop, whereas each journal has its own website.  

There are many philosophical arguments in favor of openness in science, but from my perspective the basis of the Archive’s success is entirely pragmatic — it makes it easier for scientists to do science.

[More on Open Science and Open Research in Part 2 of this blog – coming soon.]