Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Monday, January 14, 2008

Interview with Christopher Leonard

John Dupuis, Interview with Christopher Leonard, Associate Publisher of PhysMath Central, Confessions of a Science Librarian, January 14, 2008.  Excerpt:

Welcome to the latest installment in my occasional series of interviews with people in the scitech world. This time around the subject is Christopher Leonard, Associate Publisher of PhysMath Central....

Q0. Hi Chris, tell us a little about yourself and how you ended up as Associate Publisher of PhysMath Central?

...As a publisher in Elsevier I certainly got a feel of the issues facing researchers and librarians very quickly. I was in charge of various portfolios of journals in mathematics, physics and computer science and all of these disciplines had the same concerns - namely the prices of subscription journals, 'big deal' packages for online access and the questioning of the value-add by the publisher -- this by people fully au fait with TeX and the issue of hosting articles for retrieval in a large database.

It didn't take me long to see that Open Access was the future. I was aware that the biosciences were well served by PLoS and BioMed Central, but there were few options for chemists, physicists, computer scientists etc, to get research published in peer-reviewed, open access journals. Then I heard that BioMed Central were looking to expand into exactly these areas. My former colleague at ChemWeb, Bryan Vickery, explained what they wanted to do with PhysMath Central and I was sold. So here I am, back in Middlesex House again, sat next to Bryan again!

Q1. Please tell us a little about PhysMath Central and how it works? What is your vision of a sustainable publishing business model, if I may use that term.

PhysMath Central is based on the same model as BioMed Central - namely that the costs of publishing are covered before publication. This way we can make the article available, permanently, for free. The articles are published under a Creative Commons license, which allows anyone to sue the article freely, so long as the original authors, citation details and publisher are identified. This means that an individual could, in theory, have a copy of all articles published by BMC or PMC, in full, on his hard disk, or even website. It also opens up a host of possibilities with data mining since all our articles are available in full text as XML/MathML.

We also make sure all of our articles are deposited and permanently archived in a number of national archives. For PhysMath Central, this includes, whom we work closely with (indeed authors can submit to us using just their arXiv IDs).

These 3 elements are what I call the ABC's of true open access publishing: Access (immediate and free), Back-ups (permanently archived by third parties) and Creative Commons (copyright model).

As to what makes a sustainable model, that answer will vary slightly from discipline to discipline. BioMed Central are just about to break even after 7 years of publishing with a model which combines institutional prepay subscriptions, payment from author research grants, sponsorship from funding bodies, and many other smaller sources. We also offer waivers automatically to all authors from countries with low-income economies (as defined by the World Bank).

In addition, in physics we are witnessing the birth of an exciting project called SCOAP3, which intends to centralize library budgets in high-energy physics to pay for open access to every paper in this field.

In other areas, research grants are typically either non-existent or very small. Here it is unreasonable to assume a grant-paying model will work, and as such we will investigate other options for covering open access charges. A central fund for an institute, or a whole field (as with SCOAP3), or even sponsorship would be a more likely way to achieve sustainable open access for these disciplines.

Open access publishing doesn't cost more than traditional publishing (indeed, it is much less)....

Q5. First it was BioMed Central, then Chemistry and PhysMath Central, what's next? Is computer science going to be included in PhysMath Central? It seems that the engineering disciplines are particularly poorly served by Open Access.

We certainly plan to launch our first computer science journals in 2008, so yes, computer science journals will be included in PhysMath Central, but given the name of that platform, it may make sense to have a dedicated computer science platform instead. Expect to hear some news on this before the summer.

You are right in saying that Engineering is not well served by Open Access - although Hindawi have some titles in this area. However once central funds for open access are in place, you will see an expansion of journals in all areas, including engineering and the humanities....

Q7. Is there an Open Access tipping point in the near future, where suddenly all sane scientists will suddenly think to themselves, "Of course! It all makes sense now! Why would I ever publish in a journal that wasn't Open Access?"

There was an excellent 'guerilla' project in some major US university libraries recently where students placed stickers on journals informing the reader of the price of a subscription to that journal. When you're suddenly confronted with the fact that your Nuclear Physics A subscription costs the library $25000, that's a shock the system....

I think the big tipping point, however, may be a financial one. As library budgets plateau or decrease, the 'big deal' packages simply become unaffordable. Having access to 1000s of journals switched off overnight may jolt people into realizing that open access isn't an option anymore, it's the only way which makes sense.

Q9. How about the recent push back from some of the commercial publishers, like the all the fuss about the PRISM Coalition?

I view a lot of this 'push back' with nagging sense of unease and disappointment. Of course directors of multi-million pound companies are going to defend their positions, but to do so with a disinformation campaign with the aim of spreading Fear Uncertainty and Doubt, leaves a sour taste in one's mouth. I think the number of publishers who have publicly dissociated themselves from PRISM is a sign that they seriously misjudged the mood of most of their members -- and the majority of scientists, if number of blog postings is anything to go by.

Thankfully with people like Peter Suber on our side, the open access movement is always ready to strike back with some facts. As each day passes it seems to me that open access for all areas of research is inevitable and unstoppable. My favourite quote on open access actually predates the movement and is from Albert Einstein: "The free, unhampered exchange of ideas and scientific conclusions is necessary for the sound development of science, as it is in all spheres of cultural life". Open access publishing is huge step forward to make this happen sooner, rather than later.