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Open access unnecessary for physicists?

by PhilipJ on 15 May 2007

Bill Hooker wrote an article a few months ago for the APS News Back Page on open access in the sciences. Bill is a molecular biologist, but I am of the opinion (and not just because I’m also interested in biological systems) that the division in the sciences is purely a mental construct. That’s why I find the rebuttal “Open Access Unnecessary for Physicists” in the April APS News so frustrating. As you need to be a member of the APS to read it online, I’m reproducing it here:

It was interesting to read why a molecular biologist supports open access [APS News, Back Page February 2007]. Interesting but unimportant. He has no idea of how a physicist thinks. When I have an interesting problem to solve, I like to work on it myself and see how far I can get. If I come up with an elegant solutions, so much the better. I don’t want to first see what others have done and become biased and perhaps fall into the same pitfalls. The only time I access previous articles is when the referee forces me to.

I used to get paper copies of five journals. For lack of space, I have given up on all but two of them. I have open access to all of them, but I have not taken the time to look. Although it is good for archiving, open access doesn’t work for current literature except for people who have a lot of time on their hands. Bill Hooker notes that someone has to pay for open access but only says half the costs comes from fees paid by the authors. he never says where the other half comes from.

Frank Chen
Los Angeles, CA

Frank’s attitude is particularly confusing given that physicists were largely the pioneers of self-archiving and preprint publishing with the advent of the arXiv. Given the success of the arXiv, I don’t see how Frank thinks he can speak for all of us on the subject. How he likes to work is certainly different than many of his colleagues, and the widely varying discipline that physics is today (which contains people doing molecular biology from time to time!) cannot be cast into a single mold which uniformly couldn’t care about open access. Also, it is certainly true that ignoring the scientific literature might be one way of coming up with novel and elegant solutions to problems, but it’s also a way to reinvent the wheel unnecessarily.

I’m also not sure, given the second paragraph, that Frank really gets what open access is all about to begin with. It has nothing to do with paper copies of journals overfilling his office space, and it doesn’t directly benefit most working scientists in the first world at major research institutes (though chatting with library administrators on the costs of running the libraries and journal subscriptions that we take advantage of would show the indirect benefits that open access might bring). How open access is only for those of us who have excess time on our hands also makes little sense. The point is not to read every article ever published, but to have access to the information if and when it is needed.

Open access might not be necessary for Frank, but he doesn’t speak for us all.

  1. Bill    4115 days ago    #

    Wow. I wonder if Frank ever makes use of arXiv…? I simply don’t understand his final point about cost — I said no such thing, and the ways in which OA is paid for are pretty well defined by now.

    Thanks for posting this — I’m not an APS member so I’d have missed it otherwise. To what you’ve already said I would add that Frank is entirely ignoring, inter alia:

    1. the effect of OA on the speed of the research cycle
    2. access for non-first-world scientists
    3. the impact of OA on scientometrics and research assessement
    4. the data- and text-mining possibilities that open up when OA texts are also machine-readable
    5. issues of scalability (OA scales almost infinitely, traditional publishing doesn’t)
    6. the fact that making his own work OA will increase its impact — and its citation indices, thereby improving his CV

    (BTW, that article was condensed from the first two of a three-part series on 3QuarksDaily; part 3 is here, in case you’re interested.)

  2. Black Knight    4115 days ago    #

    I’m busily choking on my ciabatta at the sentence

    “The only time I access previous articles is when the referee forces me to”.

    I’m afraid I don’t get it. I think Einstein said something similar towards the end, but. . . talk about kicking in the faces of giants.

  3. TheBrummell    4115 days ago    #

    “The only time I access previous articles is when the referee forces me to.”

    I read that as code-speak for “I’m an arrogant prick!”

    Gah. Locking oneself up in a box to think through a problem, then conduct experiments while still out of contact with one’s colleagues may be a useful route to new discoveries on occassion – freedom of thought and so on. But it wastes massive amounts of time in the overwhelming majority of cases – does Frank Chen seriously believe that every problem he attempts to solve has remained completely ignored by every other scientist?

    And the whole thing about print-subscriptions is just a weird non-sequitor – why would any individual maintain a print subscription to any journal at all? How is the geometry of his office related to copyright law?

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