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Is physics the new biomedicine?

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A new set of physics and maths journals are planned for BioMed Central. Siân Harris finds out why this open-access publisher is branching out from biomedical sciences.

Much of the early talk about open-access publishing has focused on biomedical science. This area receives considerable public funding and generates research results that are interesting to the general public. What's more, significant funders in this area have begun making free access to research findings a requirement of their funding.

Such a situation is echoed by those who make the research results available. The open-access archive PubMed Central and its new UK sister UK PubMed Central both focus on making biomedical sciences and life sciences research information available. And traditional publishers experimenting with hybrid open-access models tend to report a higher take-up of the open-access option on biomedical titles. What's more, one of the giants of commercial open-access publishing, BioMed Central, which publishes nearly 170 open-access titles, has built its reputation in this research area.

However, this publisher has begun to move beyond the boundaries of biomedical sciences. Chemistry Central was launched last year and now gives access to seven open-access titles. This has been followed by PhysMath Central.

This isn't the first time that the publishing community has applied the open-access model to physics or maths. The OSA has published Optics Express under this model for 10 years and the open-access New Journal of Physics has been jointly published by the Institute of Physics Publishing and Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft, the German physical society, since 1998. Meanwhile physics, maths and engineering take centre stage in the portfolio of the already-profitable Egyptian open-access publisher Hindawi Publishing. And, like biomedical researchers, physicists have had their own open-access archive, arXiv, for many years.

Despite these significant moves, however, there is still caution about the role of open access in physics, according to Chris Leonard, publisher of the new PhysMaths Central website. He described many editors of physics journals as 'quite luke warm' on the topic of open access.
So why has BioMed Central been attracted to physics and maths now? According to Leonard, several factors combined to make this a good time. Having been going for seven years and being near to profitability, the open-access publisher wanted to broaden its scope. 'We found out that there was quite an appetite for similar services in other disciplines,' he explained. 'It was partly a push from our side and partly a pull from the scientists' side. They've seen their colleagues benefiting from open-access exposure to their research.'

Pressure from science

This can particularly be seen in another significant factor that has been emerging in tandem with the publisher's own ambitions. CERN, the huge international particle-physics facility in Switzerland, is putting the final touches to its new particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (pictured above), which is due to be switched on later this year. And with this new collider comes a new plan: to make all particle-physics research results open access. To this end, CERN and other European particle physics funding agencies have established a consortium known as SCOAP3 (Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access Publishing in Particle Physics). According to CERN, this is 'the first time that an entire scientific field is exploring the conversion of its reader-paid journals into an author-paid open-access format.'

For this reason, particle physics seemed like a good starting point for the new PhysMath Central. Its first three titles, PMC Physics A, PMC Physics B and PMC Physics C, will all focus on various aspects of this area. But this is not the end of the story, according to Leonard. 'We will cover the whole scope of physics and maths,' he promised. He anticipates that PhysMath Central will launch about seven titles this year. 'They will be fairly broadly-scoped as there is quite a lot of overlap between different areas of physics and maths. A narrow subject focus can be an advantage when selling subscriptions but doesn't work so well with our model. A broader scope allows for serendipitous discovery,' he commented. He hopes the website will have its first articles online this summer.

Experience from the community

Leonard believes that experience with using the arXiv preprint repository has helped the cause of open access in physics and maths. 'In the past, the fact that researchers could submit articles to arXiv without peer review meant that this archive could coexist with subscription journals,' he said. 'Now, however, physicists increasingly question why the definitive, peer-reviewed versions are locked away behind subscriptions. Although they like the peer review, they want the end results to be free.'

PhysMath Central is capitalising on researchers experience with this repository by enabling them to submit papers to the PhysMath Central journals directly from arXiv or to submit papers to both arXiv and the new journals at the same time. 'We hope that this will help cement arXiv as the repository for physics. We are also beginning to speak about ways to avoid duplication of effort. This might include automatic deposit in arXiv of the final, peer-reviewed versions of papers,' he said. Another area of interest for PhysMath Central is the raw data: 'We want to host the raw data accompanying the articles wherever we can.'


The new PhysMath Central website focuses on open-access maths and physics articles

So how will these new open-access titles be financed? This answer is fairly clear in the area of particle physics thanks to the enthusiasm of CERN and the other SCOAP3 members. For pure maths, however the story could be a bit different. Maths has tended to be cited as an example of a research area with little funding and little public appeal and therefore one that is likely to struggle with the open-access model. Leonard is not daunted by this, however. 'It is true that there's not much money in maths research, so we are looking at alternative funding models,' he explained. Firstly, he pointed out, if the authors' institution is already a member of BioMed Central then they will not have to pay to publish. Membership covers a certain number of papers regardless of what discipline they are in.

The company is also looking at potential sponsorship models. This could seem more attractive for applied fields but Leonard believes commercial companies will also be interested in sponsoring the more pure fields. Software companies, for example, employ large numbers of mathematicians so could well be interested in getting their names in front of potential employees. And it's not just commercial companies that might be interested in sponsoring journals.

In common with many other publishers, BioMed Central also waives the article-processing charge for researchers from poorer countries. This is one of the ways in which Leonard believes that the open-access model can help emerging and developing countries. 'Open access opens up research to those who wouldn't have had access before,' he noted. 'It is very popular in emerging scientific nations such as China, Brazil and Iran. Such countries have a broad base of scientists but not necessarily the funds to subscribe to many journals.' He also observed that finding interesting articles in journals makes such researchers more likely to publish in those titles.

Fighting the establishment

Nonetheless, there is still a large pool of established, high-impact-factor physics and maths journals out there that do not have any publication charges and many of them are experimenting with open access by offering a hybrid model. Leonard is not concerned: 'We don't see a lot of competition from the hybrid model. You would think that we would because the journals have already made names for themselves but actually their open-access uptake is very low. I am surprised any authors are interested in the idea of paying to have their articles free in a subscription journal. They are paying twice for the same article - or three times if you count paying for the original research too.'

If the full breadth of research coverage that is envisaged with Chemistry Central and PhysMath Central are achieved, then their parent BioMed Central will have significantly broadened its open-access remit. But Leonard does not think that this will be the end of story: 'There is no reason why we couldn't expand into humanities or engineering if there is a call for it from researchers and if there is the right funding model.'

Image of CERN's new particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, is courtesy of CERN Geneva