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Can Open Access be viable? The Institute of Physics' experience

The Institute of Physics (IOP) has considerable experience in Open Access, through its New Journal of Physics (NJP), This Month's Papers, and IOP Select. Launched at the end of 1998, several years before the current Open Access movement, NJP is our highest profile venture in the area. A joint initiative with the German Physical Society, NJP involved several dimensions: to publish an on-line-only journal, of high scientific quality, with rigorous peer review, covering all physics, under a then-innovative business model-free to all readers and with authors of published papers required to pay a publication fee of £300 1.

What have we learned from this bold venture? As with any start-up journal the first, major challenge has been attracting good quality papers. Like other mature fields, physics is well served by a large number of journals, offering authors choice from a range of authoritative and broad-based competitors, as well as niche titles from commercial and learned society publishers alike. Competition from established journals is intense and back in 1998, web-only publication in journals like NJP was still regarded as 'not 100% serious' by some academics.

The first few years saw NJP make a steady, if far from spectacular, start, publishing a cumulative total of 77 articles to the end of 2001. A commissioning drive kicked in during 2002, when, combined with high on-line visibility, a total of 101 articles were published. NJP has continued to grow and last year's performance was the best yet, with 161 articles published. This still required a lot of 'pump priming' with a significant number of these articles in 'Focus issues' commissioned by the Editorial Board.

One of the obstacles for publishing in NJP was removed in 2003 when the journal gained an impact factor, which ranked it 14 of 68 titles in the Physics, Multidisciplinary category of ISI's Journal Citation Reports. A recent study on Open Access journals from ISI has shown that NJP's 2002 impact factor of 1.768 was one of the highest for a physics or chemistry Open Access research journal (see ref. 2).

As with any new journal, the first few years require investment of time and money. The financial prospects for NJP to achieve break-even in a small number of years' time involve several factors. In order for NJP to cover its direct costs three key assumptions need to be met:

  • The number of published articles grows from the present (2003) level of 161 to 400 per annum-an increase of 150%;
  • The proportion of authors paying the publication fee increases from the present 60% to 95%;
  • The publication fee increases from the present £400 to £600.

'Direct costs' excludes all overhead costs of IOP Publishing Ltd, which are borne by the overall business, namely the traditional subscription journals, and I refer only to the journal meeting its direct costs within the year of publication. Repayment of the prior decade of investment will take longer. The total direct investment in NJP by the Institute of Physics and the German Physical Society in the years 1998 to 2007 will be around £600,000 (or more than £800,000 if allocated overheads are included). Estimated repayment of that investment will take a further 5-10 years.

In summary, NJP will break even on its annual costs after ten years of publication, repaying its investment after 15-20 years. Both of these are projections that have yet to be achieved. Typically a new science journal would be expected to break even after five years and repay its investment within seven years.

When we devised the NJP in 1997 and launched it in 1998, it was an entirely new and experimental model invented by IOP (and independently by one or two others) long before the term 'Open Access' was coined. Although well-regarded, this experiment has shown that the model is not scaleable to the whole of our activities. NJP's 2003 output of 161 articles, with 60% of authors paying, compares with a total of more than 10,000 articles published in our subscription journals, and the electronic readership of those traditional journals, through our generous distribution policies, is as high as NJP.

Two examples of these distribution policies are:

This Month's Papers: a free service to authors, and to the international physics community, where all papers published in our journals are made available online for 30 days from the date of on-line publication.

IOP Select: another free service comprising articles chosen by our editors for their novelty, significance and potential impact on future research. IOP Select provides additional visibility for our authors and each article is available free online for 365 days after publication (see

Meanwhile, we also have experience of an experiment in which a journal moved away from Open Access to subscription. In 1997 the International School for Advanced Study (SISSA) in Italy launched the Journal of High Energy Physics (JHEP), free online and subsidized by grants from six funding bodies without direct author charges. JHEP was successful editorially but costs rapidly outstripped funds and SISSA approached the IOP for assistance. Since 2002 SISSA and the IOP have published JHEP in partnership as a subscription-based journal. The subscription rate in 2004 is £715 and the journal is also available as part of our journal packages and consortium arrangements. This strategy has proved successful; we provide access to more than 1000 academic institutions and the editorial success has been maintained.

The IOP exists on behalf of its members to advance physics and is an experienced publishing organization. We believe that the traditional subscription model of journal publishing serves scientists and their funding organizations well. At the same time we are keen to see innovation and experimentation. Some Open Access journals may succeed and co-exist with traditional journals, and we choose to offer such an option to our community.

We are sure, however, that a wholesale change to Open Access would be unsustainable financially and, moreover, would challenge the established culture of publication and recognition upon which science depends. Authors in physics continue to prefer to publish in journals where there are no publication fees or page charges and where an established journal conveys scientific authority, impact and prestige to both authors and readers.

John Haynes

Assistant Director, Journals Business Development, IOP Publishing Ltd

  1. Haynes, J. New Journal of Physics: a web-based and author-funded journal. Learned Publishing 12(4), 265-269 (1999).

  2. The impact of Open Access Journals: a citation study from Thomson ISI.

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