Ann S. Okerson
Ann S. Okerson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ann Okerson has been a member of the international steering committee for SCOAP3, the CERN based project to transition the main scientific journals in the field of high energy physics to a sustainable gold open access (OA) business model.  SCOAP3 launched on January 1, 2014 with LYRASIS as its US National Contact Point and Ann is the National Contact Person.

Q:  You are a librarian, not a particle physicist, so how did you get involved in SCOAP3?

A: Correct!  First some background:  if it were not for the desire of many particle physicists that their articles and journals should be open access, SCOAP3 wouldn’t have been launched. High Energy Physics (HEP) as a discipline has long supported widest accessibility for its articles & journals — initially through the SLAC preprint service, which migrated to free e-access in physicist Paul Ginsparg’s 1991 LANL preprint archive service, later re-named ArXiv. Repositories may not contain the final peer reviewed versions of articles as published in journals of record, and to date there is consensus in the community that high quality published journals provide a service and are needed.  SCOAP3 is a vote of confidence in such journals. That said, while the physicists have been strong supporters and articulators of this vision, they are occupied with their research and do not have so much time to devote to open access project implementation. And librarians, who generally manage campus and research institute journal budgets, are good at organization and process, and have often established a track record for supporting innovation in open access.

Specifically, when CERN – the Geneva-based center that has been key in the search for the Higgs boson — convened a meeting in April 2011 to actually realize SCOAP3 by developing a detailed implementation path, a wide range of participants was invited, including scientists, funders, publishers, and particularly leaders of library consortia that were licensing and paying for such journals. Likely this particular invitation came because of my long-standing and well-known consortial and licensing work, both in my day jobs and as the leader of the LIBLICENSE project. That meeting laid the foundations for the subsequent SCOAP3 components, such as a market survey, invitation to publishers to tender their specifications, the specific funding arrangements via calculations that would extract individual HEP titles from large publisher journal packages, outreach to libraries to engage them in the project and process, the Memorandum of Understanding and much more. CERN welcomed those of us who were prepared to step up with creative time and energy. And, I must add that, as the project unfolded, it became increasingly challenging, compelling, and interesting. To test converting an entire sub-discipline to OA is no small thing. Apart from creating this new type of OA “observatory,” I was captivated by new, committed, warm colleagues and a strongly shared sense of purpose. Colleagues across CERN (Director General Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Open Access Director Salvatore Mele, librarians, legal, purchasing, administrative, technical) have been exceptional, smart, and committed. It’s a privilege to work with all of them.

Q: SCOAP3 seems pretty complicated to me. As I understand it they make deals with leading particle physics journals, so that when those libraries that participate in SCOAP3 pay the article publishing charges, everyone’s subscription price is either lowered or eliminated, depending on whether some or all of the articles are paid for.  Is that correct?

A: Roughly put, that’s true. “They” are “we” in this case. Let me note here that without the interest and participation of the publishers, SCOAP3 would not have launched on January 1st, already with hundreds of 2014 articles in the SCOAP3 repository at CERN and now flowing in on a daily basis. The SCOAP3 Technical Working Group developed, in conjunction with the Steering Committee, a set of criteria that formed the basis for publisher participation. Publishers received the Invitation to Tender and responded by describing in detail the way in which they would participate and at what cost per article. Perhaps at the outset some were more enthusiastic than others, but as a kind of inexorable march to STM OA became evident via international, national, and institutional commitments or mandates, SCOAP3 participation became of more urgent interest. Not just physics publishers, but all STM publishers are looking for ways forward. Testing the SCOAP3 model can be one of those avenues to success.

So — we developed methods for calculating the $$ value of journals within packages, worked with all the participants to refine and simplify these and presented librarian workshops in use of the SCOAP3 Calculator tool, a spreadsheet into which librarians can input the price they currently pay for a package, developing the data that are then presented to publishers for verification. Once developed, the numbers are input into a “Reconciliation Facility,” a giant CERN spreadsheet used to sort out discrepancies that may arise and come to agreements.

The libraries and institutions don’t lose access to the titles that are part of large packages.  The publisher continues to include the titles — there are no URL or link changes, for example. However, the price of the journal within that package becomes $00.00, and the school is able to “redirect” that money towards SCOAP3, which now pays NOT for annual subscriptions but for Author Publication Charges (APCs). To participate in SCOAP3, therefore, the library cash proposition is unchanged. No extra funds are required. Same dollars + different model = open access worldwide.

Q: What participants pay is also based in some way on a per country basis. How does that work? Given all the international collaboration in particle physics, how do you allocate or count papers with authors from multiple countries?

A: In general, as noted above, at this time the participating libraries are contributing (“re-directing” from their subs) the same amounts as they paid in subscriptions previously.  The researchers at CERN have run many numbers, such as HEP articles published annually and approximate shares of authorship per country. We estimate that the authoring percentage bears an approximate relationship to the subscribing $$ percentage that libraries will contribute country by country. For example, about 25% of HEP articles originate out of the US and the US target for libraries has been set at about 25% of what SCOAP3 needs to pay in APCs. These data will be refined as we go.  For the moment, even if imprecise, this is our best way to make a fundraising start. Exactly how counts and averages of multiple authorships across countries were defined by CERN, I don’t fully know.

Q: What then is your role as National Contact Person? For example, are you recruiting more libraries, counseling the participating libraries, working with the US journals, or what?

A: Yes, to all the above. I’ve participated in SCOAP3 meetings, helped to develop processes, reached out to libraries to join the partnership, made presentations to individuals and groups, walked them through the process of developing the needed data, worked with my counterparts at Elsevier, IoPP, and Springer to reconcile numbers (these are the publishers of HEP journals whose $$ value had to be extracted from journal packages), worked with the talented SCOAP3 operations staff to input data and troubleshoot, done analysis… and more. This ambitious type of project takes a village. In the US, the overall organizational entity is the LYRASIS consortium, and their lead is Tom Sanville, a key, seasoned licensing executive. Tom and I work closely together, and our US work is also supported by Ivy Anderson (California Digital Library) and Carol Hoover (Los Alamos National Lab). The village includes definitely the CERN folks, our counterparts in other countries, and our colleagues in the publishing community.  We need each other’s contributions.

Q: The SCOAP3 web site says that “…articles are Open Access, the copyright stays with the authors, permissive CC-BY licenses allow text- and data-mining applications.”  What if an author does not want to grant a permissive CC-BY license?  We have seen surveys suggesting that many authors do not.

A: Interestingly enough, I’m not aware of such instances so far with either our participating journals or their authors. The notion of an author’s retention of rights has become more and more widely held, and an increasing number of publishers permit this. As you note, in order to qualify for the tender, publishers agreed to CC-BY (citation and reproduction with attribution). No aspiring participant balked at this back in 2012. I think/hope it’s a non-problem, at least in physics. If there is a problem, we’ll work on it.

Q: A Nature article on the launch points out some problems that have cropped up. For example the Stanford and Yale libraries have pulled out, as has the top American Physical Society journal. Is this serious?

A: SCOAP3 is a big idea and an innovative one, so everybody we’ve talked to has had to slow down and think about it. I’m delighted by the positive response to date. No libraries have pulled out, but sure, some haven’t joined. In some cases, the decision process is slow and complex; in others there is discussion about possible long-term effects, and in even more cases, we haven’t had time yet to reach the right decision makers in an organization. Doing such a project the first time through is a constant learning experience on the SCOAP3 side. Lots of conversations are continuing. I’m optimistic that as the year goes on and more libraries hear and consider — and realize that joining is pretty straightforward and that so many other libraries, over 1,000 worldwide, have done so — they will become part of the partnership. Perhaps some may be embarrassed at being supported by other library colleagues — I don’t know. Personally, I was very sorry that the APS pulled out last summer. They are excellent colleagues and no librarian wants to jeopardize their journals. I’m hopeful that as SCOAP3 gains legs, experience, and more participants, there would be discussion that leads to a different outcome. SCOAP3 has proved a lot and will prove more.  It’s a great way to support OA and build a community of practice without libraries having to spend a single extra dollar.

Q: SCOAP3 started with what it deemed the top journals. Are you looking to add more particle physics journals?

A: See above — in due course.  We’ve pushed a large rock up a steep hill; we’ve a little more pushing to do and then need to gain more experience. Once that happens, more is possible.

Q: Do you see SCOAP3 as a model for the rest of STM publishing?

A: SCOAP3 is an observatory, a Grand Pilot, and a test of various things — to what extent it can be a model for other disciplines is one of those aspects to be tested. With SCOAP3, we had the adventure of being first to try something — we have a lot to offer to other sub-disciplines that may wish to try the SCOAP3 “flip” from subscription to OA/APC, and we can help them shortcut their implementation time! SCOAP3 also has huge positive factors in its favor:  the bias of the HEP community and its long activism towards widest possible access; the commitment of a great international organization and its leaders (CERN); immense talent within the lead organization; and a willingness and capacity for trying new things. So… as with other aspects of SCOAP3, we’ll learn as we go.

And for your readers who might want to learn more now, we’ve got a couple of very helpful websites:

Global site (CERN):‎


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13 Thoughts on "SCOAP3 Lifts Off: An Interview with Ann Okerson"

One of the original aims of OA was to save libraries money, was it not? This project evidently does not do so and perhaps even increases some costs, such as administration (of APCs, for instance). Is this a model OA advocates really want to see extended across the whole STM terrain? It is so complicated that I can’t see it working at all in the HSS fields.

Sandy: This is basically a library consortium project so I am curious as to what aspect you think is beyond HSS to handle?

HSS journals are handled by many more publishers, and many more small publishers, and they are seldom sold in “packages” as STM journals are. Many are also published by society publishers, and if APS was skeptical of joining this project, I suspect other society publishers would be as well. And given the much lower prices of HSS journals, would substituting subscriptions for APCs be able to generate enough APC funds to make this scheme workable for HSS?

As I understand it the APC rates are set specifically to match the subscription income, so in that respect the publisher can’t lose money. This makes it a relatively safe way to flip a journal from subscription to APC, compared to just winging it. Mind you I do not know how long this commitment lasts. I am also curious as to how price increases are negotiated, a question I did not think to ask. This may not have been worked out yet.

No idea what APS did not like. I have seen their Board minutes on the decision but they do not give a specific reason, saying basically that they are doing enough OA already. There are however several other non-profits on the SCOAP journal list — As Ann says, it is early days yet.

On reflection my first paragraph above is incorrect. The member libraries only match their subscription costs. Assuming they are not the only subscribers this amount will be less than the total subscription income. How much less depends on the journal and so this plan will be differently attractive to different journals.

The most fundamental plus of SCOAP3 may not be in its precise collecting and accounting mechanisms. But, what SCOAP3 shows is that (a) there’s enough money now in the system to publish high quality journals; and (b) if publishers and subscribers can talk together and agree that OA is a high priority, and that both sides will still continue to participate as they now do — there’s no monetary obstacle to OA. In the case of SCOAP3, we have a highly credible third party, CERN, demonstrating commitment, brokering the conversation, and being the ultimate psychological guarantor. OK, the argument implicitly goes, with CERN backing this conversion in the field of HEP, it’s serious and yes, we all want the OA result for HEP journals. CERN’s involvement gives us the confidence to give this a try.

So to transfer such a model (library subscription funds committed to OA transition) to another discipline, we don’t necessarily need to start the conversation with APCs or subscriptions; instead we want to talk about how to broker the conversation between publishers, subscribers, and authors in a way that gives all confidence in each other’s good will and commitment to the common project. If we take that lesson from SCOAP3, then the model seems to me genuinely extensible and could work for single journals, for a society’s journals, or a subdiscipline. In every single of its details and process, SCOAP is not necessarily *the* answer for OA, but it’s one way to move ahead.

As for cost containment: (1) APCs are an understood concept in STM, and publishers who responded to the Invitation to Tender committed to their initial journal APCs for 3 years; these are very cost effective and in some cases well below current rates; and (2) on the library side, we anticipate that in general libraries will also stay with the program for those same 3 years – as we tailor and refine the project. This is a work in progress.

thanks Ann and David for a very interesting interview. Ann – I’ve heard concerns expressed that SCOAP3 isn’t scalable – is that a fair comment?

I can’t speak for Ann or SCOAP but one obvious way it can scale up is by adding journals. In principle it can go beyond particle physics and keep going. There is no need this way to clone SCOAP with multiple library consortia. But even in that case the precedent is the hard part and that is done.

Not sure what scalability means here — adding articles/journals, extending over time, or expanding to other disciplines, or maybe all 3? At times, I’ve heard the question asked in a “prove SCOAP3 scalability to me in advance, or else the project isn’t worth dong” kind of mode. If proof were need to launch a new type of OA effort, then it would be terribly hard ever to innovate. My view is that SCOAP3 can scale, that we’ll find find out just how over time: it’s an adapting, adjustable, creative effort, and with excellent worldwide leadership and already the buy-in of thousands, it’s off to the races.

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