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Open Access, ACS Archives, PubChem, and the CAS Registry File - Commentary by Gary Wiggins

:: The following commentary by Gary Wiggins, Director, Program in Chemical Informatics and Interim Director, Program in Bioinformatics, Adjunct Professor of Informatics School of Informatics, U Indiana, appeared on the CHMINF-L discussion list today. My thanks to George Porter for bringing this post to my attention. It's well worth the read:

Dennis P. Curran, coeditor of Organic Syntheses, writes in the May 9, 2005 Chemical & Engineering News (pp. 3-4) that Organic Syntheses provides a model for free open access. Since the Web version of that well-respected tool at http://www.orgsyn.org can be accessed by anyone at no cost, his comments have some bearing on the current debate on open access, not to mention the threat of a lawsuit by the American Chemical Society (ACS) against the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for creating PubChem.

Curran attributes the capability to give away Organic Syntheses to the fact that the nonprofit corporation was so successful in selling the product throughout the years, "primarily to libraries," that the board of directors decided to give it away. He says, "In essence, the revenues of yesterday help bankroll the operations of today." He labels this the "endowed publication" model.

That reminded me of an argument I made some years ago when complaints about access to SciFinder Scholar by small academic organizations were much more in evidence than they seem to be today. I suggested that Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) allow the larger academic institutions of the world to subsidize the smaller schools by purchasing additional seats that would be pooled and shared by the small schools. If enough of the large schools bought into this, the less-well-endowed schools, in effect, could have had "free" access to SFS. Of course, we are in a different budget era now, and I am sure that with the new options available from CAS for small schools to license SFS, there is surely little need for such altruism (and even less ability of the large schools to afford it), right?

Bill Carroll (an Indiana University alumnus, adjunct professor, and current President of the ACS) was in Bloomington when he was running for office. He took the opportunity to hold a couple of open forums in order to gain more input for his three-year stint as President-elect, President, and Past-President of the society. At one of those, I raised the issue of free access to the ACS journal archives after the initial costs had been recovered. Bill's answer should have been anticipated,given what I know about the overall funding of the ACS. He tied the revenue from the Publications Division to society programs in general and justified the continued charge on that basis. [I'm sure that everyone on this list knows that in a normal year, the combined income from the CAS and ACS Publications Divisions exceeds their operating expenses by several million dollars, all of which goes into the general income flow of the society.]

My point to Bill and one that I would like to share with you is that chemistry has an opportunity to join the bioscience community in making a statement about the general good of sharing scientific knowledge with all people in the world. I believe that the tarnished image of chemistry among the general public has not improved significantly in spite of efforts to show that we are really good guys who just happen to have had a few unfortunate past events (Bhopal, Love Canal, Hanford, etc., etc.). What better way to say to the world that we believe chemistry, like the life sciences, exists for the benefit of humankind than to put the public record of that science on the Web for all to see?

There is a past cost, and likely to be a substantial ongoing cost to continue the ACS archive (and other journal archives). As members of the ACS who are most knowledgeable about the difficulty of obtaining continued funding for scientific materials, librarians ought to be able to advise ACS on the best route to fund the ongoing costs of publication-related expenses. Tacking the costs of the archive on to the current subscriptions is the only option that makes sense to me. Wouldn't it be interesting if ACS, like the producers of Organic Syntheses, priced this surcharge in such a way that would allow them to say to the world some day, "Those who buy our publications believe strongly that chemical knowledge belongs to everyone and they, by renewing their subscriptions each year, give to the world the access to the backfiles of the world's premier chemical journals, those published by the American Chemical Society." Maybe such a line of reasoning might even be followed by another major division of the ACS concerning at least a portion of its product line, thus sparing us as ACS members the cost of a protracted lawsuit on the one hand and as taxpayers the cost of the construction of a service with public funds that some would claim is a major threat to the existence of the society as a whole.

Why is PubChem such a threat to the American Chemical Society? Because there is no "free" Registry File. Because we as ACS members have acquiesced over the years in allowing the major publications of the society to fund ACS services to such an extent that the income from the ACS Publications Division and Chemical Abstracts Service is now indispensable. My old mentor, Herb White, used the phrase "ingratiated irreplacability" in other contexts. Maybe it is appropriate here as well.

Gary Wiggins
Director, Program in Chemical Informatics
Interim Director, Program in Bioinformatics
Adjunct Professor of Informatics
School of Informatics
901 East Tenth Street
Bloomington, Indiana 47408-3912
Phone: 812-856-1086
Fax: 812-856-4764
E-mail: wiggins at indiana.edu

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