I received a nice letter from an editor at The Scientist asking for permission to reprint a comment I wrote regarding an article about the American Chemical Society titled "Unrest At The ACS" by Andrea Gawrylewski. They even offered to throw in a free copy of the magazine.
Other than mentioning it in my blog I had forgotten all about that comment and I assumed the issue had blown over until I was reminded of it by a piece in Open Access News, courtesy of a writer named Peter Suber, today.
There were two main issues in the ACS piece published in "The Scientist" and it may have seemed odd that someone who simultaneously endorsed high executive salaries and free, open access science could comfortably exist in the same brain. Yet exist I do. Open access exists too and the ACS is just beginning to discover that riling up activists about it can take their public relations efforts to a weird place.
The article made a point of noting that there were incentives for executives who make profits for their publications. "The Scientist" is also in business to generate revenue so someone, somewhere, in their company is getting paid based on performance. I doubt their writers work for free. So let's forget that part of it and assume every media company has to make money.
The real crux of the issue is whether or not a non-profit corporation can use its membership fees to engage in competitive practices that the members might not like. On Suber's Open Access News I saw that an ACS member, Janet D. Stemwedel, wrote a letter to the ACS asking for a clarification of editorial policies at the ACS and the financial interests involved in them.
Turns out the writer works for a site called ScienceBlogs.com, which is owned by Seed Media - like "The Scientist" they publish a science magazine ( "Seed", since I mentioned "The Scientist" by name and I want to be fair ) and they are in business, like most, to generate a profit for their investors.
That makes two writers at for-profit magazines going after a non-profit group regarding open access and giving away material for free - which boggles the imagination in a delightful way - but she made a key point:
Especially if ACS is using its resources (as a non-profit membership organization) to do things like lobby against open access, it might be worth examining which members are having their interests overlooked -- indeed, which members have interests that the ACS may actively be working against....
So the issue the ACS must decide is whether or not ACS members benefit more by open access or by the system in place at the ACS publications. Tough call.
Obviously I think open access has value. I wrote an article, "Sharing Research Leads To Good Citations" based on work by Heather Piwowar in which she notes a survey finding that 48% percent of the cancer microarray clinical trials with publicly available data accounted for 85% of the aggregate citations.
Researchers who are under review or seeking funds do well to have an impressive list of citations to their credit and open access allows less work to be duplicated by other groups and also provides greater exposure to valued research for other researchers. So open access clearly pays for the individual scientist. Does it pay for executives with a six-figure salary? Not so much.
Rudy Baum, Editor-in-Chief of Chemical & Engineering News is unsurprisingly not a fan of the concept.
I happen to think that the extreme open access model advocated by its most rabid proponents is very bad idea that will do substantial harm to the scientific enterprise, and I have written to that effect. I know you and some members of ACS disagree.
He did come out against open access, on political-economic grounds, particularly in this editorial, "Socialized Science", stating
Many observers believe that, if the NIH policy takes effect, other funding agencies will quickly follow suit. In short order, all research supported by the federal government would be posted on government websites six months after publication.
His contention is if we don't have executives with six-figure salaries managing companies and making sure they generate revenue, there won't be any companies in publishing. Where would we go for publishing if no one can make money? Yes, the government. A valid point but, right or wrong, his stance makes him an enemy to the hard-core open access community, which constitutes a large part of the 'bloggers' out there.
There's a real issue for the ACS and then there's a perception issue. The real issue is that the Board of Directors at the ACS has to look at NIH and general open access, and the slippery slope that they feel leads toward mandatory publishing in the NIH's PubMed archive or some government chemistry equivalent, as a threat. I have no problem with that. But I am not an ACS member and that is the important distinction. The ACS is a member-funded group so they need to keep a close eye on the way the membership is leaning there.
Perceptually, was hiring a public relations company, Dezenhall Resources, to take on the open access movement a great idea? No, but of the four other writers mentioned in this article - Gawrylewski, Stemwedel, Baum and Suber - three of them are being paid by big media companies who could not afford to pay them if open access for everything was actually the case. In that sense the ACS, Wiley and Elsevier were protecting the people criticizing them now.
In this instance money isn't the source of all evil, it can also be the source of freedom. As I wrote in my blog on this topic, I think the ACS is difficult and openly hostile to independent media like us ( I won't rehash that part again), but they may not be all wrong on this part of the issue.
There is a certain amount of protectionism in Baum's rhetoric but there is also a certain amount of rallying around independence. Too much of modern science is reliant on government funding. Were publishing to go the same route, I don't see how that would be a positive for scientists.
Ask embryonic stem cell researchers what they think about having government involvement in their field. Then segue that into publishing.
Like all wars, this one will end but open access is here to stay. Those numbers I cited, 48% of the trials having 85% of the citations, are going to be noticed more and more. Open access availability in biology is crucial to gene studies and it could be the case in chemistry at some point as well. I just wouldn't rush to eliminate the strict standards at prestige publications and replace them with a completely open access model yet.