Open Access, But Who Really Pays?

To the editors:

While we share the Crimson’s enthusiasm for the benefits of open access to scholarly publications, we feel that your recent editorial (“All for Open Access,” Oct. 2) grossly underestimates the financial challenges on the road to that goal. Together we publish the majority of the most highly cited journals in physics, currently around 32,500 articles and 235,000 pages per year. All of our journals are published online, but approximately half of our institutional subscribers, including Harvard, continue to purchase the print versions as well.

As noted in the Crimson editorial, volunteer peer reviewers provide the primary means of maintaining the integrity and quality of scholarship in academic journals. Peer review, however, rests on a complex underlying system. Our journals review nearly 50,000 papers every year, with help from some tens of thousands of distinct referees. Managing this requires large and sophisticated electronic resources (databases of referees, their areas of expertise and current assignments, the status of papers under review, etc.), associated support personnel, and many paid full- and part-time editors, nearly all Ph.D. physicists (more than 150 at present). Most of our editorial processes are already entirely electronic, and their costs would not decrease under open access.

Whether an article is read online or in print, high quality page composition, copy editing, and the listing and linking of bibliographic and reference data bring unavoidable costs. Information technology has driven the costs of some of these services downward, but not to zero. Furthermore, maintaining and protecting a fully digital archive for an academic journal adds substantial costs.

In short, where the Crimson editorial claims that the internet could replace peer-reviewed scholarly journals “for free or at very low cost,” our experience inside the world of scholarly publishing suggests otherwise. Nothing that provides a service is free. Open access for scholarly publications will improve the academic exchange of ideas only if a sensible economic model evolves in parallel. Giving away something for free is always appealing, but advocates for unfettered open access should do their homework and learn again that you get what you pay for.



College Park, MD
October 8, 2007

The writers are executive director of the American Institute of Physics and editor-in-chief of the American Physical Society, respectively.