Open access and theoretical physics

Nicht verpassen: Am Freitag, dem 26.10.2012, 14.00-15.00 Uhr, haben Sie die Möglichkeit Tobias J. Osbourne kennen zu lernen. Er berichtet im Rahmen einer Veranstaltungsreihe über seine Erfahrungen mit Open Access. Die Veranstaltung findet im Erdgeschoss der Fachbibliotheken am Königsworther Platz statt.

Gastbeitrag von Tobias J. Osbourne

Tobias J. Osborne ist seit 2010 Professor am Institut für Theoretische Physik der Leibniz Universität Hannover und forscht auf den Gebieten der theoretischen Quanteninformation, der komplexen Quantensysteme und der kondensierten Materie. Weitere Informationen zu Tobias J. Osbourne und zu seiner Arbeit finden Sie in seinem Weblog.

Most scientific research is funded, at least in part, by the public. Yet for many years, the bulk of this research has appeared in scientific journals available only for exorbitant subscription fees. However, this unethical situation has been recently challenged by several major governments, for example, by the proposed US Federal Research Public Access Act and the Finch Report in the UK. These initiatives are intended to ensure that all publicly funded scientific research be freely and openly accessible to the public. These are extremely welcome developments and I sincerely hope that they are mandated and that many more governments follow suit.

If publicly funded research is to be openly accessible, what might science look like in an open-access world? A fascinating case study is provided by theoretical physics where open access has been a part of our daily lives for over 20 years. Today a great majority of all research in theoretical physics is submitted to, and hosted by, the arXiv, in the form of openly accessible preprints. This research is usually then submitted to and published by scientific journals in pay-per-view form. However, the preprint, with the tacit agreement of essentially all scientific journals, remains freely accessible on the arXiv. During the past 20 years this situation has greatly increased the ease of dissemination of scientific results.

While publication in a scientific journal is still considered essential and confers a stamp of authenticity to a paper, the go-to source for any publication is now the arXiv: it has become the de facto repository for all of theoretical physics. Indeed, it is now common for authors to host the canonical version of their paper on the arXiv, replete with additional materials (e.g., colour figures, animations etc.) which journals often refuse to print in unmodified form. By providing a centralised database for most theoretical physics the arXiv also greatly accelerates literature searches: using a couple of keywords one can rapidly access essentially all the relevant literature in one place.

There have been many proposals to “improve” the arXiv, e.g., by including social networking aspects etc., and because of the arXiv’s open API this is actually possible in a coherent way: one crucial example is the website which allows the social ranking of arXiv preprints, not unlike reddit. However, scirate only scratches the surface of what’s possible when science is openly accessible. One day it might be possible for openly hosted preprints to transcend the linear paper format and become a truly interactive nonlinear experience, like a wiki.

The arXiv is a powerful case for open access. I look forward to the day when all publicly funded science is openly accessible in a similar way.