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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Winter 2008

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The American Chemical Society and Open Access

Bob Michaelson
Seeley G. Mudd Library for Science and Engineering
Northwestern University

Copyright 2008, Bob Michaelson. Used with permission.

"Open Access publishing" can mean many things (see e.g. {} pp. xi-xii) and it is not yet clear how Open Access (OA) publishing may find a sustainable business model.  Nonetheless, OA is already important for scholarly communication, and seems certain to become more so, as demonstrated for example by the recent vote of the Harvard faculty. We must therefore sustain a serious conversation among all players – researchers, funding agencies, libraries, and publishers – about potential implications, both beneficial and detrimental, of various sorts of OA.

Unfortunately, serious conversation is ill-served by some publishers’ strategies, including, regrettably, those pursued by the American Chemical Society.

Editorials in Chemical & Engineering News as far back as 2004 denounced OA as "socialized science" -- whatever that is supposed to mean. In 2005 Nobel Laureate Richard J. Roberts published an open letter announcing his resignation from ACS out of disgust at the Society's opposition to OA.

In January 2007 Nature (445, 25 January 2007, 347) reported that ACS was among a group of members of the Association of American Publishers (AAP) that hired "pit bull" Eric Dezenhall to attack the Open Access movement. Dezenhall advised the publishers to focus on simple messages (more honestly: simple-minded dissembling slogans), such as "public access equals government censorship." Indeed, ACS senior Vice President Brian Crawford told Nature,"[w]hen any government or funding agency houses and disseminates for public consumption only the work it itself funds, that constitutes a form of selection and self-promotion of that entity's interests."  By mid-2007 Dezenhall had founded PRISM ("Partnership for Research Integrity in Science and Medicine" – "integrity" is presumably used in the Rovian sense), launched by the Executive Council of the Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division of the AAP. This organization proceeded to make, without evidence or plausibility, claims about OA presaged in the Nature account:  that it could "undermine the peer review process" and even "open the door to scientific censorship in the form of selective additions to or omissions from the scientific record." Such ludicrous claims led a number of publishers, including Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, Columbia University Press, and University of Chicago Press, to disavow PRISM (see e.g.

If the ACS regrets its association with PRISM's misstatements, they don’t show it. After a long legislative fight, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was able to secure passage of a mandate on open access for NIH-funded research within a year of publication. (Compare the six-month requirement of other funding sources such as the Wellcome Trust, Australian Research Council, and Medical Research Council.) But as reported in LJ Academic Newswire, {the ACS threatens a legal battle}. Executive Director Madeleine Jacobs makes the claim, according to Chemistry World, that "the policy would result in conflicts with copyright law and intellectual property rights," resurrecting the claim that it could "interfere with scientific peer review" and adding that it would "adversely affect the sustainability of scientific journals." It seems to me that all of these claims are nonsense. LJ Academic Newswire notes that the library community refuted ACS's copyright claim in July 2007. As Peter Suber has repeatedly discussed, peer review is entirely compatible with open access.

If the ACS is to be a party to discussions of OA, they must stop getting their policy advice from PR flacks and start making rational contributions to the discourse. Otherwise they will continue to poison the waters, and deservedly will be accorded no credence.

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