Could an Open chemistry journal fly?

This post addresses the Closed world of chemistry publishing and offers some not very optimistic comments. I subscribe to the CHMINF-L list which serves the chemical information community. Much of the traffic is about specific (usually commercial) chemical information services or where to find esoteric pieces of information. It reflects the innate conservatism of chemistry. I and a few others have from time to time raised the question of how do we take chemistry into the current century, but generally fail to get much of a response. There is, for example, little belief in the value of Wikipedia, etc. or how to develop virtual chemical communities.
Occasionally, however, some of the membership raise the question of Open Access (and implicitly why chemistry is effectively the least enlightened major scientific discipline by having no major Open Access journals). Michael Engel is one of the few list members who tries to question the way things are currently done and writes (Open Access and costs):

I still do not understand the 3000 USD per paper. How much unnecessary overhead costs are in this figure ?

I wonder how much it would cost to have a Chemistry journal at

virtually no cost to the author and the reader.
Couldn’t it start simple ?
- no printed issues
- no advanced layout; just html/xml and export scripts (pdf)
- open refereeing (registered users only, eventually following the
example of which connects the username to a postal address by
sending the activation code by postal mail, mailing costs could be
sponsored by advertising)
- a lot of sponsors and advertisement – as in printed journals
- allowing mirroring
- allowing mining
Possible problems:
- referees don’t want to comment without the shield of anonymity
- vandals and people trying to change papers
Scaling possible ?
100 papers/year -> 1’000 -> 10’000 -> 100’000
What would be necessary for the reader to make a comfortable reading possible ?
- Good and large index for scrolling and email alerts (automatic
indexing is necessary)
- Online reading of index, abstract and papers in a Google Reader style.
I would really appreciate if some of the CHMINF reader could add some comments/links/hints etc.
Wiki will follow.
I’ll try to give an accurate (and rather depressing) answer here. First a graph which will be explained below…
On simple answer is that it has been tried.
  • Steve Bachrach ran the Internet Journal of Chemistry for a period. It was at ( but the server no longer runs. I was on the board and also authored and refereed papers. Refereeing could be done in very short time and the paper appeared within days. It wasn’t Open (in today’s terms it is Toll Access – no author charges, but subscription-based). The scholarly record is, I think, still extant but may be in danger of disappearing with negotiations with the owner (not Steve)
  • Jean-Claude Bradley publishes his science directly onto the Internet (UsefulChemistry molecules) without peer-review but Openly visible This is effectively a zero-cost model (marginal academic costs – e.g. a university of personal server and effectively part of the actual practice of science).
  • The chemistry blogosphere now contains high quality reviews such as TotallySynthetic which reviews peer-reviewed articles in closed access chemistry publications with the subject of natural product synthesis. I believe that this is effectively peer-reviewed by the community.
  • Wikipedia has a large and growing amount of factual chemistry material which will (I believe and hope) challenge the current overpriced and out-of-date methods of secondary publication in chemistry. IMO Wikipedia is also effectively peer-reviewed by the community.
So the problem is not technical but social. Or, put another way, chemists. The graph above was published in Rich Apodaca’s blog as Name That Graph. It represents the number of articles published in the Beilstein Journal of Organic Chemistry (“an Open Access, peer-reviewed online journal that will encompass all aspects of organic chemistry.”). The Beilstein journal is free to authors and free to readers. So what could be more attractive? As you can see it’s a year-and-a-bit old. All new journals take time to develop (I’m told that other Biomed Central journals took 5 years). So we can’t judge it yet.
But the answer is simple. Chemistry exemplifies the artificial citation economy which is destructive of innovation and amplifies statis. Effectively chemists (like me) are judged on their formal publication record in journals with high impact factors. Maybe this is the best we can do, but it means that anything that isn’t a formal publication in an established leading journal is very difficult to justify. It doesn’t get promotion, it doesn’t get funding, it doesn’t get the institution credit. And the process is increasingly mechanised. I have heard chemists who say that in the US (and probably elsewhere) promotion is determined solely by the number of publications (or possibly citations) in the Journal Of The American Chemical Society. And how are these citations measured? We leave it to a commercial company (such as Thomson ISI) to give us metrics about academic value. In other words we have no metric or worth of our own – we rely on a process which is driven by how much money an independent company can make out of it. There is no societal control over this.
So we are locked in a dystopia. Small changes are detrimental to any individual or organisation who tries to change it. Publish in an unusual way and you will suffer. Yes, there is a visible better future but there is no way to get there by our own will. (That doesn’t stop me trying, but I’m regarded as some sort of maverick, I suspect).
However it must and will change. And I’d point to the following:
  • The Wellcome trust and other funders
  • The changing face of the information world, such as Flickr, Facebook, etc.
  • The increasing economic unsustainability of conventional publishing.
So it will change. I think it will be dramatic. But I don’t think we can say how.
And I’ll be interested to see if Michael Engel gets any positive encouragement from the CHMINF-L…

2 thoughts on “Could an Open chemistry journal fly?

  1. Pingback: Things I noticed #13 at business|bytes|genes|molecules

  2. Pingback: Electric Cars and Open Access

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