Too Many Cultures

During my first semester of college I took an introductory chemistry class from a poet, playwright, and Nobel laureate — that’s all one guy, not three. His Nobel Prize is in chemistry, which made him more than qualified to teach us about acids, transition metals, and the other basics of chemistry. He also advocated a well rounded education, and he required we read The Periodic Table by Primo Levi. In addition to our exams and lab reports, we had to write an essay about one of Levi’s short stories.


I bring this up because the intro-chem instructor, Roald Hoffmann, gave a lecture last night at my current university. The talk consisted of four vignettes. Hoffmann began by describing a discovery from his career as a chemist — about how three ethylene molecules are arranged around a metal ion. This transitioned to a discussion of a couple of his favorite poems and poets, followed by an example of painted portraits (including Diego Velazquez‘s Las Meninas and its derivatives), and ending with some examples of Japanese ceramics. The entire talk was unified under the goal of finding commonalities between the arts and the sciences. Part of Hoffmann’s thesis is that scientists and humanists share the common goals of creating things and disseminating their creations. This topic hits a particularly relevant chord given the recent goings on in scientific publishing.

In the past couple of decades the World Wide Web has given nearly everyone access to information from nearly anywhere. This information revolution has greatly affected scientific publishing. Prior to the revolution, journal articles were only available to those people with subscriptions to the paper copies of the journals. Academics may have had a subscription to a few journals via their society memberships, but the big subscribers were academic libraries. Basically, if you wanted to read primary accounts of science, you had to visit your local university library.

Most scientific journals now publish each issue online, and some have abandoned paper copies all together. Despite the online availability of many journals, access to this information is often still limited to those of us with university affiliations (and only if our university has a subscription to the online content of the journal). Some journals have truly embraced the capability of the Web and provide the articles in each issue for free online; these are known as Open Access journals.

Publishing an open access journal requires a different business model than the traditional journals are used to. Both open access and traditional journals usually require the authors to pay a fee to publish with them. They also both make money from advertisers, but traditional journals also profit from subscription fees (especially the enormous fees charged to university libraries for online access). The traditional model is profitable for the publishers, but the public must pay threefold for every article — once to fund the research, again to pay to have it published, and a third time to access the research via a subscription. Open access journals must find a way to stay in the black without garnering subscription fees.

The inspiration for the ethylene discovery Roald Hoffmann described in his talk occurred when he visited the library to read the latest issue of one of the premier chemistry journals. In today’s world, he would have read the article online, provided he had access. I bring this up because one of the premier publishers of chemistry related journals, the American Chemical Society (ACS, which did not publish the article that inspired Hoffmann), is actively fighting against the movement to make scientific publishing open access. The anti-open-access movement is being carried out under the guise of a group called PRISM. Amongst the high profile publishers, the ACS has taken the brunt of the criticisms for their actions and affiliation with PRISM (see here for recent ScienceBlogs posts on this topic).

If, as Hoffmann claims, both the arts and the sciences are united by discovery (or creation) and dissemination, how are they each impacted by the open access movement? If dissemination is the primary goal, then open access publishing seems like the best way to go. As a scientist, I advocate publishing in the forum that provides for the widest dissemination of one’s results. Sometimes you must sacrifice open access for visibility, but with the increase in high profile open access journals, that sacrifice seems to be lessening. How about in the arts? Do we see a similar movement toward open access amongst artists? Does it even make sense to discuss open access in the arts?


  1. #1 Matt McIntosh
    November 6, 2007

    I think I like this man. Just curious: Who were his favorite poets?

  2. #2 MissPrism
    November 6, 2007

    I wish the anti-open-access lot hadn’t decided to use my name.

  3. #3 Rich Lawler
    November 6, 2007

    This is an interesting and mostly relevant paper (link below), one of the first to apply stats/theory to journal publishing. The authors make the distinction between for-profit publishing houses (such as Elsevier) and University publishing houses, which are not always aggressive profiteers. They don’t specifically address open-access publishing (e.g., PLoS) however.

    The first author normally studies microbial evolution, but teamed up with his dad, an economist, to write this paper.


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