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Free Particle Physics!

Posted by Ruth Graham  October 1, 2012 12:54 PM

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The once-sleepy arena of academic publishing has been roiled in recent years by the debate over whether scholarly research should be freely and more widely accessible online. Now, an entire scholarly discipline is defecting to “free” en masse for the first time. The field of particle physics is preparing to shift to open-access publishing, a significant step forward in the movement to lower the barriers between research and readers.

The journal Nature reported last week that the Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access Publishing in Particle Physics has negotiated contracts with 12 major journals to release their articles free upon publication starting in 2014. Since most particle physics papers are published in these few journals, the deal will encompass about 90% of papers in the field. Open access proponent Peter Suber, a philosopher at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, tells Nature that this is “the most systematic attempt to convert all the journals in a given field to open access.” The project’s head says he hopes it will lead to similar efforts in fields like astronomy and astrophysics.

The traditional scholarly publication distribution system is frustrating for just about everyone involved: Libraries pay thousands of dollars a year for access to each individual journal, and meanwhile scholars’ publicly funded research remains effectively locked away. Libraries, many of which also receive public funding, pay annual fees that have been rising at a far speedier rate than the consumer price index. (Harvard alone pays almost $3.75 million a year for journals.) Meanwhile, commercial publishing houses now publish almost half of all academic journals, whose profit margins prompt resentment all around, including from a general public that’s increasingly accustomed to getting most of its reading material for free. But the conflict is trickier than it sounds: While “information wants to be free” is a catchy slogan, journals do perform a crucial legitimizing function that isn’t, in fact, free. In particle physics, the idea is that funds from libraries, funding agencies and research groups -- the same sources that have always paid for research -- will somehow be used to fund the open access system in the long run.

The recent move suggests how complicated the transition is: Particle physics is a relatively easy field to organize a deal, since most of its research is published in a small number of journals and the profession largely organizes itself around CERN, the laboratory in Switzerland where the Large Hadron Collider is located. And even so, the negotiations took six years.

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Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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