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.