Eleventh hour for SCOAP3
SPARC Open Access Newsletter, issue #152
December 2, 2010
by Peter Suber
The SCOAP3 project is in its eleventh hour.  Since 2007, SCOAP3 (Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access Publishing in Particle Physics) has been pulling together research institutions, journal publishers, and subscribing libraries to negotiate a transition to libre OA for peer-reviewed journals in particle physics.  The idea is that a portion of the money now spent on subscriptions could support the same journals, at the same quality, after converting to OA.  The hope is that all the stakeholders would benefit from the conversion, and that direct talks would help everyone see the win-win logic. 

SCOAP3 is still the only systematic attempt to convert all the journals in a field to OA at the same time.  It's the only field-wide attempt to show that the transition to gold OA can be a peaceful revolution based on negotiation, consent, and self-interest.  The project was kicked off by CERN, the nonpareil particle physics lab in Geneva where the World Wide Web was born, but is now an international consortium of institutional partners. 

The project has entered its endgame.  It has approached government agencies, research institutions, and subscribing libraries in nearly every country on Earth active in particle-physics research.  More than 160 institutions in 24 countries have decided to join, while others have chosen to stand back for now.  The immediate goal is to obtain budget pledges from a critical mass of libraries.  Because SCOAP3 is a specific project to flip TA journals to OA, not an ongoing advocacy program, at some point it must decide whether its membership list is sub-critical and will not ignite.  Because the central, elegant idea is to flip a whole ecological niche of journals at once, not one journal at a time, there's no smaller version of the idea to fall back upon.  Plan B is to pull the plug. 

Today the consortium has pledges for about 71% of its budget, and it's running out of new institutions to ask.  It's also running out of time.  It must have pledges for a larger percentage of its budget in order to negotiate details with publishers before the 2011 subscription season starts. 

The success of SCOAP3 now depends on the seven countries most productive in particle physics that do not yet participate in the consortium:  Japan, China, Brazil, Russia, India, Korea, and Poland.  Japan and China alone could close half the remaining budget gap.  The consortium's first Russian member joined in October.

Eleven Chinese libraries just released an open letter suggesting that China will participate.  From their November 11 letter:

We, the undersigned libraries, represent the major institutions in mainland China engaging in HEP [high-energy physics] research and in subscription of key international HEP journals. We support the SCOAP3 initiative, and will joint request that the Ministry of Science and Technology of China...and the National Science and Technology Library...join the SCOAP3 initiative through the national scientific literature platform program.

Here's an updated picture of the SCOAP3 budget if China decides to participate.

The project can't ask already-committed nations to close the budget gap, since participating countries only pay to support OA for the literature they produce.  Without wide international participation SCOAP3 would lose its comprehensive coverage of particle physics and lose its advantages over hybrid OA journals, which cost libraries much more than full OA journals.

Will Japan, Brazil, Russia, India, Korea, and Poland be able to make nation-wide pledges --in the next few weeks-- to help this promising project fulfill its promise? 

Here are four losses we'll suffer if SCOAP3 doesn't reach its goal.  I don't speak for CERN.  By "we" here, I mean the worldwide research community.

(1) We'll have lost a ripe or nearly-ripe opportunity to flip TA journals in particle physics to OA.  Either we'll have to return to a journal-by-journal conversion campaign, or be content with green OA uncomplemented by gold OA. 

Green OA in physics is more adequate than green OA in any other field, covering a larger percentage of new research and attracting the participation of a larger percentage of authors and readers.  But gold OA is a critical complement to green OA.  It brings immediate OA (not delayed or embargoed OA) to the peer-reviewed published editions (not just the author manuscripts) and, more often and more easily than green OA, can offer libre OA (not just gratis OA) to the results.  Self-sustaining gold OA also supports the costs of organizing peer review rather than depending on others to provide both peer review and the funds to support it

In nearly every field outside physics, green OA is still inadequate, and helping it grow is a top strategic priority.  But green OA in particle physics is fully mature, with roughly 100% participation from researchers.  Particle physics is the first field in which we can think about stepping beyond mature green OA to systematic gold OA.  SCOAP3 is a custom-built plan for that transition.  It's also an experiment to test the opportunities and obstacles that other fields will soon face, and a sophisticated answer to the question what comes next after high-volume green OA. 

High-volume green OA may bring about the transition to gold OA on its own, without a transition plan beyond that of growing green OA itself.  But the SCOAP3 transition will be cooperative, and carry stakeholder consent all around, while the default transition through high-volume green OA will be fractious and widely involuntary.  More on this in #4 below. 

(2) I've often pointed out that CERN dominates particle physics in a way that no other institution dominates any other field.  Its centrality allowed it to convene the stakeholders in particle physics, persuade them to take this bold idea seriously, and start recruiting project partners around the world.  If SCOAP3 succeeds, however, it won't merely prove that CERN can pull off ambitious projects, which we already knew.  It will prove that this particular ambitious project has an underlying win-win logic convincing to stakeholders. 

It's critical to look past CERN itself to that win-win logic.  A success in particle physics would give hope that the tested win-win logic could be lifted and adapted to other fields without their own CERN-like movers or shakers to pave the way.  A failure in particle physics, however, would just about dash hopes that we'd ever see a field-wide flip in a CERN-less field, even if the win-win logic is real.

(BTW, CERN isn't an ordinary giant, if there are ordinary giants.  CERN is itself a consortium funded and administered by 20 countries, and hosting researchers from 580 institutions in 85 countries.)

(3) Under SCOAP3, participating publishers would be paid for services rendered, but those services would essentially shrink to the organization of peer review and a few other editorial services.  SCOAP3 is the first field-wide effort to decouple peer review from distribution as functions of a scholarly journal.  This is a crucial step in the evolution of journals, regardless whether distribution is eventually done by publishers, authors, universities, funding agencies, OA repositories, P2P networks, or in new ways still over the horizon. 

This decoupling recognizes the new reality that the internet slashes the cost of distribution but not the cost of facilitating (the most respected forms of) peer review.  It recognizes that online journals can still compete on the quality and price of their vetting systems, but cannot compete on distribution.  It ensures that peer-review facilitators will be paid for facilitating peer review, enabling them to release the results into an OA distribution system without economic loss.  It frees peer-review facilitators from perverse incentives to monopolize (claim exclusive rights over, erect access barriers to) research they didn't fund, perform, write up, or purchase.  And it would free the rest of us to use that research without interference from publishers still laboring under those perverse incentives.

Without SCOAP3, other projects to decouple peer review and distribution would continue.  But they'd be piecemeal and uncoordinated rather than systematic. 

With SCOAP3, peer-reviewed journals would still publish different articles.  In that sense, they'd still be natural mini-monopolies, not fungible or competing delivery services for the same articles, and would still compete for authors more than for readers.  But by decoupling peer review and distribution, they'd no longer be able to use the natural monopoly of publishing different articles to support an artificial monopoly of exclusive rights and take-them-or-leave-them access fees.

(4) I've often praised SCOAP3 as our best hope for a peaceful revolution in the shift from peer-reviewed TA journals to peer-reviewed OA journals.  However, SCOAP3 is not the only strategy for that transition.  It's just the only one that builds on negotiation, cooperation, and stakeholder consent.  The chief alternative to the SCOAP3 strategy is to grow the volume of green OA --whether or not it triggers a shift from TA journals to gold OA.  I support both strongly, with equal emphasis on "both" and "strongly".  I don't want either to be the only arrow in our quiver. 

I strongly support green OA mandates and other methods for growing the volume of green OA, and I support them regardless of their effect on publishers.  If SCOAP3 fails and we continue to grow green OA as fast as we can, then in addition to accelerating research, we'll find ourselves testing whether or for how long subscription journals can compete with free.  If high-volume green OA turns out to be compatible with subscriptions --which is the case to date--, then our future will consist of green OA without gold OA for a long time to come.  If high-volume green OA eventually triggers TA journal cancellations, then many TA journals will convert to OA as a survival strategy.  But that path to journal conversion won't be a peaceful revolution. 

The goal of green OA is not to force subscription journals to convert to gold OA.  The goal is to share knowledge and accelerate research.  The idea is not for researchers and research institutions to harm or transform publishers, but for researchers and research institutions to act in their own interests.  However, the effect could create economic risk for publishers, and hence create economic pressures to avert that risk.  Instead of a frictionless flip, brought about by consent and self-interest, the all-green strategy could bring about a high-friction flip, preceded by hostile lobbying and disinformation and followed by resentment and acrimony.  (Insofar as we already see hostile lobbying, disinformation, and acrimony, it's from publishers who fear that current trends will lead to economic risk rather than cooperative transition.)

But as I said, I support the green strategy regardless of its effect on publishers.  I'll take this revolution with or without friction.  I support green OA because it delivers more OA more quickly and less expensively than gold OA.  It needn't wait for journals to decide to convert or for new born-OA journal to learn the ropes.  It isn't limited to new work submitted to OA journals, but can cover new work published anywhere.  However, for the narrow goal of increasing gold OA, as opposed to broader goal of increasing OA overall, I support the win-win logic of SCOAP3.  Both strategies may bring about the same volume of OA in the end.  But if it works, the win-win logic will convert publishers and journals with consent and cooperation.  As I argued in SOAN last year, "Peaceful revolution through negotiation and self-interest is more amicable and potentially more productive than adaptation forced by falling asteroids."

I applaud the commitments of the 160+ institutions in 24 countries to join SCOAP3, and urge the subscribing libraries in Japan, Brazil, Russia, India, Korea, and Poland to make similar nation-wide commitments of their own.  The success of SCOAP3 is now in their hands.  Friends of OA in those countries can help the cause by bringing the argument --and the timetable-- to the attention of academic administrators, library leaders, and relevant government agencies.

SCOAP3 home page

About SCOAP3 (the best introduction)

SCOAP3 members to date

OATP tag library for "oa.scoap3"

My past blog posts and newsletter articles about SCOAP3


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