Chemical and Engineering News


Letters -  July 11, 2005  Volume 83, Number 28 pp. 6-8                         


More debate on open access

I am becoming increasingly concerned by the actions of ACS.

First I read that ACS is suing Google for the use of the word "Scholar" in the Google Scholar search engine, claiming infringement on SciFinder Scholar (C&EN, Latest News, Dec. 10, 2004). Would House of Pancakes win a suit against House of Carpets over a name? How many hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney's fees are going to be wasted on this?

Next I read in Science (May 6, page 774) that ACS is lobbying Congress to shut down PubChem, the new NIH-funded open-access database that has some overlap with Chemical Abstracts Service. This ACS action is fundamentally antiscience. New search engines and databases stimulate creativity, innovation, and healthy competition. If Bell Labs had kept all its information about transistors to itself, we wouldn't have laptop computers today.

Then I read the May 16 editorial that sees nothing good in open access and equates ACS publishing to marketing BMWs. This comparison betrays just how far the "corporatization" of ACS has gone. The society has strayed from its primary mission of serving chemists and chemistry, adopting the culture of a for-profit corporation when it should be adopting the ethics of a library. The protection of 1,200 CAS jobs in Columbus, Ohio, is one of the major lobbying arguments being used against PubChem. I am reminded of the corporate-style salaries, several in the $500,000 to $1 million range, that are paid to the top executives of our not-for-profit society (C&EN, Aug. 9, 2004, page 4).

The May 16 cover story on open access to the scientific literature nicely lays out the choices before ACS as scientists increasingly demand freer access to their science and libraries balk at the cost of the scientific literature. ACS has had several opportunities to take a leadership role in this arena, for example, by making the electronic backfile free after 12 months (as recommended by all the editors of ACS journals). Open access in any form increases readership; promotes the innovative use of information; and, if practiced by ACS, could promote membership loyalty and journal subscriber loyalty. The recent resignation of a Nobel Laureate from ACS is a warning (see

Unfortunately, ACS has so far made only trivial concessions to open access. This conservatism is increasingly making the society the target of criticism, when it is the commercial publishers who are truly price-gouging our libraries. What the C&EN story failed to emphasize is that the present cost of scientific publishing is unsustainable. ACS is living off library budgets, and living pretty high on the hog. With its greater than $1 billion in assets, ACS should put pressure on the commercial publishers by opening up access to its backfile, making the society into one we love rather than criticize.

Too much energy and too many resources at ACS are being used to protect existing knowledge bases and existing revenue streams rather than fostering innovation in the new arena of creativity that is the Internet. I am mindful of the need for sound business practices in a professional society, but ACS could easily change its access/publishing business model, be more proscience, and generate great public relations in the process.

Chris Reed
Riverside, Calif.