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Research & Scholarship

Open Access in the Physics Community before the Internet: Preprints

March 24th, 2016 by Janet Pease

A very interesting article was posted by Carl Straumsheim on Inside Higher Ed on February 24, 2016 describing the intricate planning that went into making the announcement and publication of the news that the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) collaboration had at last discovered gravitational waves, an important part of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity.  Physicists at Syracuse University are members of that collaboration, so the news was especially exciting for the Syracuse community.

The LIGO’s council members chose Physical Review Letters (PRL), a hybrid open-access (OA) journal published by the American Physical Society.

Open access is less of a contentious issue in the sciences as perhaps in other disciplines and in physics in particular.  In High Energy Physics (HEP) especially, sharing results and new ideas has been ubiquitous for decades through mechanisms such as the arXiv, and it’s long ago predecessors, paper preprint libraries that were located in many physics departments, including here at Syracuse. Preprint libraries are gone now, but an abbreviated history of the role of preprints in Open Access in the area of HEP might provide some context for current OA efforts.

Preprints are printed copies of manuscripts that are submitted for publication in peer-reviewed journals.  In the “old days” (late 1950s to 1990s) these manuscripts were also printed in bulk and sent by printed matter mail to other preprint libraries around the world.  This was a reciprocal arrangement so preprint libraries would receive as many preprints as they sent out and physics departments had in-house libraries with a rudimentary filing system since preprints were meant to be temporary documents held only until the manuscript was formally published.  Fifty or more preprints could arrive in a given week.  The gap between manuscript submission and publication in a journal could be 6 months to a year, so preprints filled a gap in getting results out more quickly.

Preprint libraries were somewhat underground, and as one author put it, created a “privileged class.”  Institutions that could afford the mass printing and mailing were most likely to receive preprints in return and this was by no means an inexpensive enterprise.  (Estimates from the late 1980s place the cost of between $15,000 and $20,000 per year.) Also, preprints were grey literature and were not indexed anywhere, so if a researcher was at a small or not well-funded institution without a preprint library he/she would likely not be aware of potentially useful research until the professional journal article was available.  And less affluent institutions might also not have a subscription to the high-priced scientific journal even if a researcher did know about it.

Somewhat mitigating this were efforts to corral preprints into preprint repositories that produced weekly lists of new preprints that were mailed to subscribers, and later sent electronically.  Examples of these include the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) and the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg, Germany.  (SU sent air mailed preprints to these three places so they could be added sooner.)  Individuals could then make requests for preprints directly from the authors.

Fast forward to 1991, when Paul Ginsparg started the first e-print archive at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL):  The preprint culture had evolved into an electronic full-text database.  Among other things, this leveled the playing field so everyone could access and disseminate information freely.  Cornell University Library has hosted and supported this endeavor, now called arXiv since 2001 and the coverage has expanded way beyond HEP to include mathematics, computer science, astrophysics, nonlinear sciences, quantitative biology and statistics.

This is a very condensed version of the history of preprints, but I hope it shows the important role that Open Access has played in the advancement of HEP.



L. Addis, “Brief and Biased History of Preprint and Database Activities at the SLAC Library, 1962-1994

Luisella Goldschmidt-Clermont, “Communication Patterns in High-Energy Physics” High Energy Physics Libraries Webzine, Issue 6, March 2001

Robert Aymar, “Scholarly communication in High-Energy Physics: past, present and future innovations

Paul Ginsparg, “First Steps Towards Electronic Research Communication,” Computers in Physics, vol. 8, No. 4, Jul/Aug 1994

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