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October 25, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 43

Cracking open access

Rudy Baum's editorial "Socialized Science" highlights the issue of the future structure of scientific publishing (C&EN, Sept. 20, page 7). The tone of his remarks reveals a frustration that will only grow if the American Chemical Society continues policies that remove it from a leadership position in this critical debate.

Open-access publishing is a worthwhile goal that presents complex challenges to scientific publishers. A large amount of research is supported by public funds, with the results published in electronic format by scientific societies or commercial entities. The cost of electronic publication is substantial, and the medium has evolved so rapidly that it has been difficult to design adequate pricing models. Scientific societies aim to cover the cost of their publications and return a portion to the society to support its activities. Commercial publishers attempt to maximize profit and have driven subscription costs to such a level that libraries are under extreme financial duress. The backlash in the scientific community has been slow to build but has now reached a crescendo.

Many societies have balanced the demands for open access with sound business practices by charging for current subscriptions but allowing free release of all published material after six months to a year. ACS has not chosen this path. It was the first scientific publisher to digitize its backfile, thereby providing seamless electronic access to all of its publications. This accomplishment was costly and technically challenging and one for which the society should be very proud. ACS adopted a two-tier pricing model in which access to the backfile and the current subscription are charged separately. It also charges for access to abstracts through each of its journal websites. These policies have irritated the library community and figuratively positioned ACS in the camp of commercial publishers. They also place ACS publications at hazard because authors will likely migrate to journals that provide the widest access to their published work.

Clearly, these are complex issues that strike at the heart of the mission of scientific societies and the mechanisms they use to support themselves and their publications. ACS is the premier scientific publications program in the world; those of us who edit its journals are privileged and proud to do it. It is inconceivable that ACS is not leading the discussion on the future of scientific publishing. Our society will find itself increasingly alienated from its sister societies and increasingly frustrated by misguided initiatives coming from the radical fringe of the open-access community.

The National Institutes of Health initiative that Baum decries is a case in point that illustrates how things can devolve when political and administrative solutions displace reasoned and open debate. It is time for ACS to come off the sidelines and assume a position of leadership. This will require that it break down its own barriers to open access and restructure its business model for publishing scientific information.

Richard N. Armstrong
Editor-in-chief, Biochemistry

Lawrence J. Marnett
Editor-in-chief, Chemical Research in Toxicology


In June of 2003, publishers began prohibiting public access to the scientific literature at publicly funded university libraries for the first time. Although online publishing promises a great benefit to the scientific and engineering communities, not everyone is benefiting (C&EN, July 26, page 12). Many professional scientists, medical doctors, and engineers, as well as the general public, who previously had free access to printed journals at these libraries, have been effectively banned, as many libraries have been forced by subscription prices to discontinue printed journals and restrict their online access to only faculty, staff, and students. Access to online journals by other means is prohibitively expensive.

This is a problem that bothers me both philosophically and personally.

First, taxpayers fund most of the research published in the scientific literature and should therefore have access to it at publicly funded university libraries. The need for inexpensive access to the literature is vital in many ways. The current prohibition effectively bans almost anyone not associated with a university from applying for tenure-track university positions. Developing the necessary research proposals for applying is difficult without access to the literature.

Outsourcing of U.S. jobs requires that American workers retrain to transition into new jobs. Unemployed scientists find it difficult to keep up with their fields or learn about new areas without literature access. Female scientists, such as my wife, who take time off work to raise children, cannot effectively keep up with progress in their disciplines. My wife is a molecular biologist, and her knowledge will be quite outdated when she is ready to go back to work.

Citizens who need to make informed decisions regarding medical care cannot directly research reports in medical journals because of this prohibition. In fact, private medical doctors sometimes find it difficult to access the medical literature.

Finally, I do not believe that publishers should profit by exploiting taxpayer-funded research, relying on professionals to review papers for free, and straining library budgets by rapidly increasing journal prices. There is little competition to keep prices in check.

Ideally, the scientific literature should be free for all, but this is a long-term problem in which the legitimate costs of publishing must be considered. In my opinion, walk-in library access to the literature is the short-term solution that affects most private individuals.

I was happy to learn that ACS does not prohibit libraries from offering walk-in access to its online journals and that it often offers premier journals at subscription rates much lower than commercial publishers. Unfortunately, commercial publishers do not seem to be following the example. I don't know the solution, but perhaps funding agencies, universities, and researchers should consider these issues when choosing the journals in which to publish. NIH is beginning to take steps to seriously address the problem of open access, and I hope other funding agencies follow its example. I also encourage ACS to continue its efforts to develop fiscally responsible publishing models that provide taxpayers reasonable access to the chemical literature.

E. Todd Ryan
Wappingers Falls, N.Y.


I find it surprising that you speak about the long-term archival implications of digital publishing and fail to identify the dangers implicit in the present state of affairs--dangers BioMed Central is trying to address.

As you state, publishers are maintaining their own digital archives. Publishers, no matter how committed and reputable they are, are first and foremost businesses. A business will make hard decisions in hard economies. A business can merge or even cease to exist. What happens then? Can we turn to the libraries and assume that they have the digital archives?

In most cases no, we cannot. The average academic library--due to shrinking funding, double-digit inflation of science/technical/medical (STM) literature, and the structure of publishers' licensing agreements-- will probably not have permanent access to digital archives and may not have the corresponding print. The potential for losing vast amounts of information is huge. No one library has the money or the technical resources to protect the scientific community from this kind of tragedy.

BioMed Central is trying to step into an industry in flux and provide a solution to safeguard our national knowledge base. The government paid for the research, and it is in the long-term interest of the country to have the knowledge available to future researchers. This is not a political issue nor is it uncharted territory. In fields such as medicine and education, the government has historically played the role of ensuring as much access as the technology allowed by funding Index Medicus/ PubMed and ERIC.

Bridget Faricy-Beredo
Elyria, Ohio


Patent flaws

In his letter "patents and papers," Lawton Shaw got it half right (C&EN, Aug. 23, page 2). He's correct that patents are a mode of reporting potentially profitable inventions. But published patent applications and issued patents are rarely "the first" reporting of a potentially profitable discovery.

As a patent lawyer who represents both private-sector and university inventors, I regularly find myself rushed to file patent applications in advance of the publication of a corresponding scientific paper reporting the invention. Because U.S. and Patent Cooperation Treaty patent applications are automatically published 18 months after their filing, and are not refereed or reviewed prior to publication, published patent applications are not as timely as papers, nor do they carry the cachet of a publication in a major scientific journal.

A case in point from my own personal experience is Sam Gellman's ß-amino acid polypeptides. Gellman's first patent covering the compounds issued on May 2, 2000 (on an application filed in March 1998). The ß-peptides that are the subject of that patent appeared both in a paper and on the cover of C&EN well in advance of the issuance of the patent. In my experience, most important inventions follow this course.

Joseph T. Leone
Madison, Wis.


I was a little surprised at the statement that "this group found dozens of patents on individual reactions pertaining to Monsanto's glyphosate synthesis, but no scientific papers over the past 20 years." This suggests that the search for 'papers' was done neither in PubMed nor in Chemical Abstracts, which, in addition to excellent patent coverage, provides worldwide coverage of the scientific literature.

A search for "glyphosate" (CAS RN 1071-83-6) in SciFinder Scholar (Chemical Abstracts plus PubMed) retrieves nearly 100 references from the nonpatent literature over the past 20 years, indexed by CAS as "preparation" (many of which are from Chinese journals).

Dana L. Roth
Pasadena, Calif.

  The science of visas

In the past few years, more than half of the applicants for H1-B1 (work permit) visas were either Chinese or Indian, most of whom work in the field of information technology (IT). In the sciences, there does not seem to be a plethora of foreign students coming here for doctoral studies. They might come for master's studies, as it gets them into the U.S.--then they switch to IT. Most students/friends I know did not come from India to pursue higher studies because they loved it, but because it is an easy route to the U.S.

So the issues brought up in the letter "Brain drain" do not really hold (C&EN, April 12, page 2). The fear of how the U.S. economy would be affected and whether we are comfortable with people of foreign birth working here is exasperating and borderline xenophobic--in a country made up primarily of such people.

First, the U.S. is getting "free" engineers, scientists, and physicians, as it did not have to pay for their education and growth. Second, a person is a foreigner as long as he or she has not become a citizen. Third, these issues apply only to a small sector of industry--IT and, to some extent, the medical industry. Also, let's not confuse two issues: the inflow of foreigners who come here to work/study and the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs.

I think Americans are some of the most hardworking people I have come across. The reason many do not go on to higher education is probably because they can lead a comfortable life by pursuing other professions than those in the high-tech sector. Finally, I think the time to be concerned (in the short term) will be when foreigners do not want to come and settle in the U.S. ("reverse brain drain") because they can find equally good jobs in their own countries; this is definitely happening in the IT sector in India. In the long term, supply and demand will take care of things.

If one looks around at the U.S. industry (except IT), I am not so sure that it is dominated by foreign-born workers.

Shashi Gupta
San Diego


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