In many other fields such as Earth sciences, people are dreaming about the free access for everyone. In high energy physics, this dream is becoming a reality. After all, most high energy physicists have relied on arXiv.org, a freely accessible preprint server (see a NYT story about it), as their main source of information for more than two decades.
Nature tells us some details about the deal that will make the transition of journals to the free form possible.
In the article called Open-access deal for particle physics, Richard Van Noorden describes the contract between the publishers of 12 journals and a consortium of libraries that will make 90% of HEP papers freely available since 2014 – and it will be pretty much the case earlier than that. Note that the Higgs discovery papers were freely published by PRL two weeks ago.
The consortium of libraries is called SCOAP3. The digit "3" is an exponent, a power, because the acronym is really a product SCOAPPP which stands for the Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access Publishing in Particle Physics. It encapsulates various HEP libraries, HEP funding agencies, and HEP laboratories.
This consortium will pay certain amounts of money to each of 12 journals for every paper to guarantee that the access will be free. The journal subscription fees will also be adjusted (reduced) in such a way that all the institutions should see pretty much the same expenses or profits after the transition. Meanwhile, the humanity – I mostly mean readers (of physics) like you – should benefit because it will acquire a free access to all the papers.
It's fun to sort a table from Nature containing the 12 journals and the price of making the papers free. You may interpret it as a kind of the price of a paper. In the table below, I sort the journals according to the number of high-energy physics papers they published in 2011 and copy the price that the journals have negotiated for one paper. If you need to know the full names of the journals and not just acronyms or their publishers, click at "More" over here.
|Journal acronym||2011 HEP papers||Price per paper|
|Eur. Phys. J. C||326||€1,500|
|Prog. Th. Phys.||46||£1,000|
|Acta Ph. Pol. B||23||€500|
|New J. of Ph.||20||£1,200|
|Chinese Ph. C||16||£1,000|
Note that the prices are in U.S. dollars, euros ($1.29), or U.K. pounds ($1.62). They are between $650 and $2,000 per paper. You should realize it's the price for all readers, not just one reader. For some papers, it may seem like a lot of money. On the other hand, for good papers, it's a hugely ludicrous amount.
If the same money were paid to the author, the fees for papers couldn't cover the salaries of most physicists. Take some of the big shots who have 300 papers. Multiply it by $1,667, an estimated average fee per paper, and you get just $500,000 or so, a salary for these big shots for 2 years or so.
It's of course a very subtle question what the actual price of the work and results behind a physics paper is. I would stress that it badly depends on the paper. Everyone would probably agree with this point. However, only people who actually understand physics may meaningfully say which papers are valuable and which papers are not. I think that the "value of the mankind" behind many key papers may be quantified in billions of dollars while some rubbish papers may be balanced by a few pennies (but I mean worse papers than average papers in those 12 journals!).
Don't overlook that the agreed upon price per paper's freedom is not only independent of its quality and later impact (which is unknown at the moment of publication and can only be estimated based on the author's name and other rough criteria) but even of its length. Any incorporation of the length and other parameters into the "freedom fees" would probably be counterproductive because it could push the journals to prefer longer, talkative papers etc. Well, the current system really does the opposite, it supports the publication of many short papers (rename each section to a paper and your journal will make a profit) but please, journals, don't read this insight of mine. ;-)
Can other disciplines emulate the example of high energy physics? HEP has had some tradition in free publishing. However, what I find essential for the transition to be politically feasible is that most papers are not being "bought" by any individual readers because HEP is simply too esoteric a discipline. Most people, including those with science degrees, are only capable of reading popular books by shameful aggressive cranks such as Woit and Smolin but they can't actually follow the science.
In fields where the profit from selling papers comes from many readers, i.e. in "easy enough disciplines", it could be difficult to rearrange all the money flows which is needed to make the papers free. One may express the same idea in a different way: high energy physics is hugely "non-commercial" – almost all the money that circulates in it comes from some government-related institutions so they may just "rename" the money flows in between them. In publishing that depends on many readers' desire to buy the products, making these products free is always a financial problem.