Monday, May 23, 2005

C&E News wrong on open access journals

We have already seen the opposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) to public databases, such as PubChem.

In an editorial entitled "More Socialized Science" (Chemical & Engineering News, [C&E News, page 5 (May 16, 2005)]), Rudy Baum attacks the "open access" movement in scientific publishing.

Baum asserts scientific information -- peer reviewed, edited, packaged, and archived as a journal -- costs a substantial amount of money to produce. He further notes that conducting research and publishing the results of the research are two separate activities that both involve costs. He asserts that open access shifts the costs of publishing research results from the users of scientific information (in most cases, other researchers, not the general public) to the researchers conducting the research in the form of page charges and submission charges. Baum also asserts this would give a free ride to the chemical industry, a major user of chemical literature but a relatively minor contributor to it.

Time has passed Mr. Baum by.

The costs to disseminate scientific information, whether in the form of databases (such as PubChem) or in the form of journals, have diminished. Journals have a relatively free ride: they don't pay the costs of research, they don't pay the authors for their works of authorship, and they don't pay the referees. The federal government does pay for research, in part in the form of grants from agencies such as the NIH, NSF, and DOE. The federal government expects the results of this publicly-financed research to be disseminated to the public. Yes, to everyone.

Seven years ago, in 1998, there was a debate about whether or not there would be a public database of US patents. There were private vendors of this information, but the services were somewhat costly. Journal subscriptions and use of private databases (such as CAS) are also somewhat costly. In 2005, there are private vendors that sell copies of US patents, and the services are not as costly as in 1998. Information is more accessible, both from the free database and from private vendors.

Baum asserts that industry would get a free ride. This statement has some problems. The bulk of funding for R&D in the US comes from industry, not from government. One can inspect "Sources of Funding" in Chesbrough's book "Open Innovation" (at page 27) and see that in 1998, the ratio of industry funding to government funding was 125,469/59,083. The last time government funding exceeded industry funding was in the early 1980's, more than twenty years ago.

Research results from industry are published, both in the scientific literature and in patents. Work on high-temperature oxide superconductors originated in industry (IBM), was published in journals, and led to a Nobel Prize. The first work on C60 was published by Exxon in 1984 in the Journal of Chemical Physics. Recall that the work of Jan-Hendrik Schon of Lucent was published in the peer-reviewed journals Science and Nature. Recall also it was fraudulent, and millions of dollars of public funds were wasted.

Baum also neglects to state that he, and the ACS, have a financial stake in the outcome of the debate over public databases and open-access journals. The ACS is in the database business (e.g., CAS) and in the journal business (e.g., JACS), and would be adversely affected financially if there were free databases that competed with CAS or open-access journals that competed with ACS journals. Thus, there is a conflict-of-interest.

The idea that peer-review is always a value-added experience can also be questioned. Editors and referees can have their own agenda. One example of this was in the touting (by, among others, Baum) of applications for fullerenes, when the applications were questionable, and there were even stability issues.

From Who's Kidding Whom? More Thoughts on Zurko and
the Finding of Facts, Intellectual Property Today, May 1999, related to the publication of the paper, “Oxidative Stability of Fullerenes”, J. Phys. Chem., 98, 3921 (1994):

There are a few further details to note. The underlying early belief that bulk fullerenes were stable to air/oxygen arose, in
part, from reports that fullerenes were found in soot. The "soot" in question was not that from a diesel engine, or combustor, but from controlled combustion experiments employing laminar (not mixed) flames with a substoichiometric amount of oxygen
(ie, not enough oxygen to form carbon dioxide from all
carbon) and/or not enough
time to react fully. The argument became: if
fullerenes are found in soot, they
must be stable to air. Although experiments conducted
on "real" soot from
processes designed to burn carbon did not show
fullerenes, these results were
generally not discussed. An exception was at the 1989
Carbon Conference at Penn
State (see photograph). Conventional wisdom,
nevertheless, became that
fullerenes were air-stable. Thus, when the
above-noted 1994 paper was first
submitted to the Journal of the American Chemical
Society, it was returned by
the editor without even being submitted to referees
After submission to The
Journal of Physical Chemistry, the referees insisted
that the level of oxygen
found in ambient, bulk fullerene arose, not from
oxidation chemistry, but from
adsorbed water or carbon dioxide. The experiments
done at 115C, which showed
that the oxygen level increased (and did not decrease
as expected for adsorbed
water or carbon dioxide on fullerene), allowed the
1994 paper to be published in
the face of then-disbelief that there was ambient
oxidation. While scientific
arguments worked with the editor of The Journal of
Physical Chemistry, nothing could be done with the
editor of C&E News n15, who pointed to higher
work in the paper and ignored the published low
temperature work n16 (a new
variant on the concept of "negative pregnant"). In
the final analysis, the
facts exist whether or not they are reported
accurately, and they will,
ultimately, be found. Carefully scrutinizing
fact-finding is good for business.

In fact, after the flurry of fullerene patents in the 1990's, we see fullerene patents lapsing (for failure to pay maintenance fees) at a rate in excess of that for patents at large. When a patent holder won't pay a few thousand dollars to keep the patent alive, one understands that the patent holder sees the patent as basically without value. Some people understood this in the 1990's, but Baum wasn't one of them.


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