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Our community is used to immediate release of preprints

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As head of CERN's library, Jens Vigen works with a large number of physicists from all over the world and is seeking to ensure that their research output can be read by others in the physics community and beyond.

What is CERN's view of open access?

JV: Our definition is that everything should be freely available, to everybody, without any embargo. This goes back to the founding of CERN after World War II. The founders, 12 European governments, set out a vision that all research results from the centre should be published or otherwise made freely available. In a way this was an early vision of open access. The high-energy physics community started distributing pre-prints in the mid 1950s so when the opportunity came to do this online it was nothing new. Today people talk about publishers allowing publication of pre-prints six months after publication but for us that is a bit of a step backwards. Our community is used to immediate release of preprints, six to 12 months before publication.

Publishers tell us that the physics pre-print archive does not affect their subscriptions. I think this is because our community is responsible and knows that if they unsubscribe from journals then they will destabilise the peer-review process. The system that we have today is based on peer review and this must be paid for. If too many libraries cancel their subscriptions then that will leave just a handful of libraries bearing all the costs of the peer-review process. Open-access publishing could disrupt the peer-review process but it could actually make it more stable if the funding bodies got involved.

How would publication fees affect researchers?

JV: In high-energy physics, around 90 per cent of the papers are theoretical. Those researchers only really need a computer but the cost of publishing in pay-to-publish journals would still only be 3-4 per cent of their grants. For the 10 per cent of papers that are experimental the cost of the experimental equipment is so great that the cost of publication would essentially be negligible.

The new model should include ways to fund those who do not have grants. My personal opinion is that there could perhaps be a submission charge as well as a publication charge. That would create extra funds to manage the process and encourage people to think about what they submit to journals. We need to maintain the quality of journals so the rejection rate has to be maintained. However, it would have to be kept simple. We don't want to add more bureaucracy.

Open access is going to move to perhaps $1000 per article. The average author cannot produce more than about three articles per year so this would make around $3000 per year, which I think is affordable.

What is the role of CERN's archive?

JV: Our archive is a combination of an institutional archive and a subject archive. About two thirds of the connections to our system come from outside CERN. I think that both institutional and subject-based archives are needed. With an institutional archive we can experiment with new ways to do things such as the peer-review process. Interesting experiments with this have gone on at Los Alamos laboratory in the USA. We cannot abolish publishers but maybe with an institutional archive we can find a better way to do things.

The main purpose of having an archive is to have 100 per cent control of our own publications rather than giving the control over to a publisher. For example, I recently wanted to scan a series of reports that we have produced since the start of CERN and put them into our archive. Around 20 of these were published by Elsevier and it did not grant permission to scan them. This shows how even 50 years after publication we still do not have control of our own material.

What does the archive contain?

JV: Our archive contains scientific articles, academic lectures (both transcripts and videos), photographs, theses, small films, posters and administrative documents. With the exception of some administrative documents, these materials – close to 400,000 documents — are available to everybody.

We have a mandate that material must be published in the archive and have rules defining who a CERN author is and what they should submit. Materials are generally added by secretaries. Thanks to our long history of publishing pre-prints, researchers are used to going to the secretaries to get report numbers for everything they publish.We also fish on the internet for documents that mention CERN so that we can at least get the metadata and then we email the authors for the full-text of the articles.

Around four of our 20 or so librarians work full-time on the archive. There are also about three people working full-time on the technical side of it. We have invested a lot into the technology but our system is freely available for other institutions to download and use. In essence there does not need to be any additional cost to an institution in having an archive, just proper organisation of its library. The priorities are to get both metadata and the full-text of articles available to the general public without embargo.

The driving forces here have been the scientists, librarians and management hand-in hand. We had worried that it would seem like a library-led initiative but we have not seen any opposition to open access at CERN even from those researchers who are also editors of traditional journals.

What does the future hold?

JV: I think that we still need publishers but not the subscription model. We are trying to convert publishers to implementing publication charges. How this should be funded depends on the field. We could get consortia agreements or add publication grants as part of research funding. Authors will turn their backs on publishers whose journals they cannot read. I am quite convinced that we will get major publishers in our field on board within the next few months. However, even with the major publishers on board the transition will take about five years and we are trying to get funding to cover that transition period.