Thursday, March 30, 2006

Journal publication, pubmedcentral and the ACS

In the year 2000, Peter Singer published an essay on the pubmedcentral proposal of the NIH.

Among other things, there was a line (about the then hypothetical future of 2002): In retrospect, readers realized that some of the old journals with the greatest cachet had never published a single qualitative article. Singer referred to a hypothetical article: "Medical publishing at the fin de siecle: suppression of innovation and the monopoly of knowledge."

Fast forward to the year 2006, and a letter by Ann Nalley, president of the American Chemical Society:

Dear ACS Colleague:

As a scientist and college professor, I’ve had a life-long passion for finding new and innovative ways of addressing life’s many challenges—especially when these innovations result in real positive societal benefits that improve our lives.

However, not all change is innovation. Change that is not well thought out, or for its own sake, can result in unintended consequences or irreparable harm. One area of change that I’m concerned with is the federal government’s rush to collect and make available articles derived from federally funded research—a process that has traditionally been the province of the private sector and scientific societies like the ACS.

As scientists, we rely on well-established and respected journals, like those of ACS and its sister societies, for the high-caliber peer review, editing, interpretation, and distribution of research that both validates and ensures optimal advancement of our discoveries. Without this refinement and conversion, the raw research results are much less useful in advancing new technologies and the changes they bring forth to our society.

In May 2005, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) instituted a voluntary policy requesting that NIH-funded researchers post their final, peer-reviewed articles accepted for publication in journals like those of ACS, on an NIH taxpayer-funded Web site— PubMed Central—within 12 months of publication. ACS worked diligently to help make this system work by fully supporting author participation and even offering to streamline the process by posting articles on behalf of authors.

But authors must opt in. At present, NIH is concerned that the low participation rate of researchers indicates its policy is failing—even though its policy has been operational for less than 10 months. Why such low participation rates by authors? One key problem seems to stem from lack of understanding of NIH’s new policy or perceived difficulties of posting. One way or another, scientists who write articles—and use them, too—don’t seem to think it’s worth it.

Which leads me to wonder: Is this change for its own sake? Does the new system really provide value that is presently unavailable under the current federal-private partnership? I am particularly concerned because now some people propose that NIH make the policy mandatory and require submission compliance just six months after publication. Even more troubling, the U.S. Congress is discussing legislation to require just such compliance by scientists—even if only partially funded by the federal government.

To be sure, taxpayers fund the conduct of federal research, but scientific societies like ACS and its sister societies add tremendous value to that research through critical peer review, technical editing, dissemination, and archiving— all of which require enormous investment. ACS has been a long-time partner in peer-reviewing and publishing federally funded research in our high-quality journals—among the most often quoted, cited, and cost-efficient in the scientific publishing world.

The value of scientific research—especially in chemistry—exists long after its publication and certainly well past 6 months. Moreover, it will be difficult to maintain a cost-efficient, high-caliber peer review and permanent archiving system if scientific societies have just six months to recoup costs before mandating free access. The prospect of “free” access to literature may seem good, but high quality literature at an affordable price is better.

The complexity of maintaining our system of literature dissemination is not always obvious. We all use the literature, and many of us publish in it. As scientists and citizens we should urge our legislators to make sure that there is an overarching benefit before potentially destabilizing today’s robust, quality system of literature dissemination.

At the very least, such a decision should be driven by hard, independently evaluated data. A credible agency like the Government Accountability Office should determine the long-term implications of these federal policies, before additional mandates. If we don’t, our government may inadvertently undermine the very system of innovation it aims to strengthen.

If you have thoughts on this emerging and important matter, please share them with me at

In context, Nally is complaining about posting of scientists' final, peer-reviewed articles on an internet website (pubmedcentral) within 12 months AFTER publication in the journal.

I could not help thinking about Dan Hunter's article, Walled Gardens, 62 Wash & Lee L. Rev. 607, which complained about the requirement of some law reviews that articles which had been pre-published on an internet website to be removed from the website BEFORE publication in the journal.

The common theme is the perceived undesirability, by the journals, of information being made available on the internet. The noncommon theme is the timing. The SCIENCE journals have the expectation of presenting the information FIRST, and worry about the impact of later publication. The LAW journals do not care that the information has been presented somewhere else first, but don't want someone to access the information (presented elsewhere first) AFTER they decide to publish it LATER.

In the law area, the professors do get the opportunity to get feedback and make changes. This is akin to the practice in science of circulating a preprint (or for example with the ACS Petroleum Division, publishing a preprint). If this practice had been followed with Woo Suk Hwang, things would have evolved quite differently. Even the ACS has had some recently difficulty, with the Journal of the American Chemical Society retracting papers from a group at Columbia University (see for example 311 Science 1533 (17 March 06) on the retraction of certain papers by Bengu Sezen (and co-authors). Sezen is now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Heidelberg.) One notes also some possible issue with work published in Science on bubble fusion. (see 311 Science 1532 (17 March 06)).


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