Open Access in Chemistry – thoughts for Thursday

The RSC is hosting a meeting on Open Access on Thursday:

Event Details

Open Access Publishing in the Chemical Sciences
The meeting will revisit the area of open access publishing including Bioinformatics and data repositories.
Date: 22 May 2008 09:30 – 17:00

and I’m kicking off so I will spend a little time setting the scene. Over the next 3 days I’ll use this blog to explore some ideas that might be relevant. This has the advantage that I can get feedback to see if I’m on the right track. It also acts as a set of notes in case (a) the projection system breaks down and (b) people want something afterwards. It may even persuade people to come to the meeting (no idea whether there is spare space).
So th issues…
Chemistry is an established subject, over 200 years old and data-rich. It has well-established learned organisations (IUPAC, RSC, ACS and other national societies). Chemistry itself is less in the forefront of radical scientific change in physical science  (the ideas of the C19 chemists are still fundamental today) although it continues to shed insight on certain aspects such as fast processes and quantum mechanics.
It’s increasingly an applied science – chemistry is used to explain processes in other sciences such as bioscience, climate, etc. It is has a very large design/engineering motive – can we make something with the following properties or to do the following job? There has been a large and successful chemical industry for over 100 years. Chemistry will still be around as a discipline in 50 years’ time, though it may have changed its name and organisational location. All of which makes it hard to come up with a single approach to “Open Access Publishing”.
Chemistry is a conservative discipline, in contrast to much bioscience and much physics and the whole of informatics. This is reflected in its buildings, orgainsations, and publishing. There is nothing necessarily morally wrong in being slow to change, but it’s likely to cause tensions with fast moving areas such as the Web and bioscience. And it does.
Most chemistry publishing is closed access, not even allowing Green self-archiving (unless paid for). There is no sign that any of the major closed publishers (ACS, RSC, Wiley, Springer, Elsevier, Nature) are likely to change in the immediate future. There are Open Access publishers, the most prominent in the PLoS or BMC camps. They have little market share at present and they will have to work very hard to change this. (This is not true in bioscience where the Open Access publishers are making major advances).
They have been challenged by the various Open Access (or Free Access) archiving mandates, most notably from the NIH. Some of them, particularly the ACS, see this as unacceptable government action leading to the destruction of scholarly publishing. It is likely that chemical publishers have been lobbying to continue closed access to defend peer-review.
I hope the meeting does not discuss these played out issues or it will be mainly a non-productive talking shop. Where we differ we are unlikely to agree as a result of a few hours presentations.
What I hope we can do is to look to what is technically possible and desirable in the future of chemical publishing. Chemistry has enormous potential – it could be one of the most exciting data-driven sciences.
But it isn’t. That’s because of the conservatism of outlook and that fact that whatever the current business model we are prevented from innovation (even if we paid zillions for it).
There are hundreds of thousands of papers reporting chemistry each year and many of them – probably most – are loaded with facts. These facts are high quality. Not all, but most. Most chemistry is reproducible (much bioscience is not). Chemists care about reproducibility.
But we cannot get the facts. I’ll use “data” from now on, but they are facts. The melting point of X is Y (temperature) at Z (pressure) is a fact. I hope at least we can agree on that, and that it isn’t a “creative work”.
There are large compilations of chemical facts, but they are a small percentage of the published literature. Partly because some need reviewing/curation, but mainly because there are just too many. The aggregators of facts can’t keep up. Even if they could we can’t reuse the facts in their current form. Each supplier of aggregated facts has their own idiosyncratic data format, each will only let them out under licence, and these licences form an anticommons which effectively prevents their re-use.
I shall present a scenario where these facts are gathered automatically and made instantly available. It’s not fantasy – we’re actually doing it. And it’s not even expensive – it can be done on marginal costs.
But – it seriously threatens a conservative publishing industry. Not because I want to, but because in the nature of CE 2008 and beyond. We cannot prevent it. It’s happening.
So chemical data publishing will make a decision on Thursday. There is no escape from making a decision. I hope it’s a positive one, but  not facing up to the changes of the Web is also a decision. It says “we will continue incrementally in the same way as we have been doing”. It’s an incremental decision.
If the chemical data publishing industry continues in its current form, does it have a future?  Yes, and I’ll try to suggest it for Chemical Abstracts and for the Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre (I have no inside knowledge on either).
Can it and should it make major changes? It should, because the future will be brighter. Can it? I am not a business expert and have no useful opinion. But I hope so, for chemistry’s sake.

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4 Responses to Open Access in Chemistry – thoughts for Thursday

  1. I hope to be there to cheer on from the sidelines. Must actually get around to registering though!

  2. Peter Murray-Rust writes: “Most chemistry publishing is closed access, not even allowing Green self-archiving (unless paid for). There is no sign that any of the major closed publishers (ACS, RSC, Wiley, Springer, Elsevier, Nature) are likely to change in the immediate future.”
    Peter is right that ACS is likely to be the last of all publishers to go Green on OA self-archiving (See EPrints ROMEO), but he is mistaken about most of the others on his list:
    ACS: gray
    Wiley: GREEN
    Springer: GREEN
    Elsevier: GREEN
    Nature: pale-green

  3. Chris Surridge says:

    I think that one of the significant differences between Chemistry and the Bio/Medical Sciences is that the arguments in favour of unrestricted public access to research, which have proven politically powerful, are less effective here. Partly this is because the ‘general public’ are more interested in the diseases that unpredictable afflict them than the materials that surround and support their everyday lives. Partly it is because there is a greater level of commercial-funded, rather than taxpayer-funded research in chemistry (I don’t have any data for this and may be generalizing inaccurately but I don’t think I am).
    What this means is that in chemistry the case for Open Access publishing has to be made on more pragmatic basis. Look at the things that can be done because papers/data/facts are available OA and which cannot proceed if the information is maintained behind subscription and copyright restrictions.
    The good thing about this approach is that the well structured nature of chemistry and chemical data may make it easier to conceive and implement such OA apps, as to the more chaotic situation in much of modern biology. I certainly hope that the talk on Thursday is more about these things than the more philosophical arguments around entrenched positions.
    I think you are taking the right approach here and hope the other participants on Thursday engage at the same level.

  4. Pingback: » Blog Archive » Facts are chiels that winna ding

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