Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Thursday, December 06, 2007

More on the state of OA in chemistry

Rebecca Trager, Chemistry's open access dilemma, Chemistry World, December 2007.  Excerpt:

...The ACS wants the NIH policy to remain voluntary. 'Depending on how they implement this, it could represent a federal taking of copyrighted materials,' ACS spokesman Glenn Ruskin told Chemistry World.

A compulsory policy would need costly monitoring and penalisation systems, Ruskin said. 'Why expend monies on a mandatory policy, when they could get to their endpoint a lot quicker if they just worked more cooperatively with the publishers?'

'The idea of public access to research information is a little bit specious,' added Robert Parker, managing director of RSC publishing. 'The UK government will be funding the London Olympics in 2012, but that doesn't mean that everybody can have free tickets - there is a big difference between funding something and having it be freely available.'

But the open access provision is endorsed by a coalition of more than 200 academic libraries, the US Chamber of Commerce, and numerous scholarly societies. 

They're concerned that the academies are acting more like profit-hungry companies than scholarly associations. And in October, an anonymous memo from an alleged 'ACS insider' ratcheted up the tension by accusing the society of working to undermine the open access movement. Circulated to librarians, university administrators, and to at least one public listserv, it claims that 'management is much more concerned with getting bonuses and growing their salaries rather than doing what is best for membership.'

The ACS argues that staff bonuses are tied to the financial performance of the entire organisation. 'If we weren't financially viable, that would position us poorly to advance our members' needs,' Ruskin said.

Meanwhile, a campaign launched a few months ago by the AAP to communicate the risks of government interference in scientific and scholarly publishing is becoming increasingly controversial.

The Partnership for Research Integrity in Science and Medicine (PRISM) argues that the Congress bill could damage peer review by compromising the viability of non-profit and commercial journals. Predictably, the campaign has sparked outrage among open access lobby groups. In the wake of the furore, nine publishers have disavowed PRISM, including Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, Columbia University Press and University of Chicago Press. The ACS - which had been closely involved with PRISM - has now also played down links with the campaign....

[Despite the progress of OA in other fields] chemistry...has yet to embrace either open access or pre-print archives (see 'Surfing Web20', p46) . While there are more than 60 small open access chemistry journals..., no major chemistry publications are fully open access.

According to Bryan Vickery, editorial director of Chemistry Central - an offshoot of open access publisher BioMed Central - the most important resources for chemists, like Chemical Abstracts and the Beilstein Database, are still locked behind hefty subscription fees....

As a result, the steps taken by the RSC and ACS to enter this new world of publishing [with hybrid OA journals] have received a stilted response from chemists.

For roughly a year, the RSC has had an Open Science service that allows authors to pay to make their article freely accessible to all. The basic fee for a primary research article is £1600 with a 15 per cent discount for RSC members, owner societies of RSC journals, and authors from subscribing organisations. So far, just four authors have participated. 

Likewise, only 40 articles are available through AuthorChoice, the ACS's one-year-old foray into open access, which has an upfront fee of $3000 for non-ACS members with discounted rates for members and subscribing institutions.

'Most practising chemists in the first world have reasonable if not excellent access to the journals they need or want,' explained Steven Bachrach, a computational chemist at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, US. 

'OA just does not really offer much advantage for these people - and a serious disadvantage because now they have to pay to publish - and where is that money going to come from? Not from their grants.'

However, Vickery believes that a growing number of members of not-for-profit learned societies are questioning whether the large surplusses they earn from their journals are being wisely spent - a point roundly refuted by the societies in question.

And some chemists now see the rise of open access as inevitable. 'Daily we see more people coming onboard . any company or publisher who fails to prepare for open access is being very foolish,' said Peter Murray Rust, a chemist who leads a research team at the University of Cambridge, UK, and is an ardent open access advocate.

Indeed, there are calls for bold and decisive leadership on this increasingly divisive issue from all sides of the chemistry community. 'Vision is needed. Where we are at the moment is unacceptable,' said the ACS's Ruskin.


  • According to ACS spokesman, Glenn Ruskin, "Depending on how they implement [the NIH policy], it could represent a federal taking of copyrighted materials." 

    Ruskin should re-read the bill in Congress that would mandate OA at the NIH.  After describing the policy to be adopted, the relevant provision of the bill concludes, "...Provided, That the NIH shall implement the public access policy in a manner consistent with copyright law."  If he's saying that the NIH could disregard this proviso, then his position is a tautology:  if the policy violates copyright, then it will violate copyright.

  • "A compulsory policy would need costly monitoring and penalisation systems, Ruskin said." 

    The bill in Congress says nothing about monitoring and penalization, and the NIH has said nothing about them either.  Most OA mandates around the world have no penalties for non-compliance and rely on the expectations created by the mandatory language.  The minority with sanctions usually say that past compliance will affect future funding.  This does not require an expensive bureaucracy.  If the NIH took this route, it could simply revise its grant application form:  Have you received any previous grants from the NIH (since the OA mandate took effect)?  If so, have you published any articles in peer-reviewed journals based on the funded research?  If so, please provide URLs to OA copies all such articles.  Click.

  • According to RSC spokesman Robert Parker, "The idea of public access to research information is a little bit specious...The UK government will be funding the London Olympics in 2012, but that doesn't mean that everybody can have free tickets - there is a big difference between funding something and having it be freely available." 

    What's specious is this misfit analogy.  Tickets to the Olympics are rivalrous goods, which means that possession or consumption by one person excludes possession or consumption by others. But knowledge and digital representations of that knowledge are non-rivalrous. They can be shared with everyone without diminishing possession or consumption by anyone. There is a huge difference, therefore, between giving taxpayers free access to publicly-subsidized seats in a stadium and giving taxpayers free access to publicly-subsidized knowledge.

  • Against the charge that ACS executives receive bonuses based on the profits of its publications, Ruskin answers, "If we weren't financially viable, that would position us poorly to advance our members' needs." 

    That's true but evasive.  The charge is that ACS executives face a conflict of interest when they receive such bonuses and decide that the society will officially oppose government OA policies.  And by the way, Madeleine Jacobs, executive director of the ACS, confirmed to the Chronicle of Higher Education (October 24, 2007) that ACS executives do receive such bonuses.

  • The RSC and ACS say that their hybrid OA journals have very low rates of author uptake (4 and 40 articles respectively) because chemists already have adequate access to TA journals, making OA is unnecessary.  I have another explanation.  Both hybrid journal programs charge high fees and offer few benefits.  Neither program lets fee-paying authors retain copyright or use CC licenses.  Neither program promises to reduce subscription prices in proportion to author uptake; hence both embrace a frank "double charge" business model. For details, see my blog reviews of both programs (RSC and ACS).