My advice to the American Chemical Society

When three separate people send you an article in Nature it gets your attention. Since I have a paid subscription to Nature, my attention was ready to be grabbed anyway, but I hadn't yet read this story so a tip of the hat to my informants. I also have paid personal subscriptions to Science and a number of other journals. I am not opposed to subscriptions for journals. But the story is about how some big scientific publishing houses have gotten together and hired a notorious PR hit man to battle Open Access publishing, apparently by any means necessary, whether intellectually honest or not. I am a strong proponent of Open Access publishing, and in the the interests of full disclosure must tell you I am co-founder and co-Editor-in-Chief of a peer reviewed Open Access scientific journal, now in its fourth year and flourishing. I receive no salary or any perks. All my considerable labor as editor is donated. So I am not a strong proponent of Open Access because I edit the journal. I edit the journal because I am a strong proponent of Open Access. What does Open Access mean?

This blog is published under an Open Access license. Click on the Creative Commons button in the left sidebar if you want to know the terms. Here is what Open Access means for one of the leading OA publishers, BioMed Central:

Articles with [the Open Access] logo are immediately and permanently available online. Unrestricted use, distribution and reproduction in any medium is permitted, provided the article is properly cited. See our open access charter.

Anyone is free:

  • to copy, distribute, and display the work;
  • to make derivative works;
  • to make commercial use of the work;

Under the following conditions: Attribution

  • the original author must be given credit;
  • for any reuse or distribution, it must be made clear to others what the license terms of this work are;
  • any of these conditions can be waived if the authors gives permission.

Statutory fair use and other rights are in no way affected by the above.

The NIH has a policy that scientific papers written with their monetary (grant) support should be Open Access no later than 6 months after publication. The US taxpayer has already paid for it once and shouldn't pay again to a rapacious publisher like Wiley or Elsevier or a scientific society like the American Chemical Society. Unfortunately the NIH's wise policy is honored more in the breech than in fact. Open Access is good for every scientist, every reader of this blog and especially for our colleagues in the developing world who have access to scientific work they would not have otherwise.

The for-profit publishers don't like BMC or Public Library of Science (PLoS) or any of the other open access publishers and are determined to crush them. So they hired the PR firm of Eric Dezenhall, who also worked for convicted Enron execs and others of that ilk, to do "media messaging." We know this because someone on the inside squealed and provided emails and memos to Nature who spilled the beans in this news article.

Here are some choice bits:

"He's the pit bull of public relations," says Kevin McCauley, an editor at the magazine O'Dwyer's PR Report.

Now, Nature has learned, a group of big scientific publishers has hired the pit bull to take on the free-information movement, which campaigns for scientific results to be made freely available. Some traditional journals, which depend on subscription charges, say that open-access journals and public databases of scientific papers such as the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) PubMed Central, threaten their livelihoods.


From e-mails passed to Nature, it seems Dezenhall spoke to employees from Elsevier, Wiley and the American Chemical Society at a meeting arranged last July by the Association of American Publishers (AAP). A follow-up message in which Dezenhall suggests a strategy for the publishers provides some insight into the approach they are considering taking.

The consultant advised them to focus on simple messages, such as "Public access equals government censorship". He hinted that the publishers should attempt to equate traditional publishing models with peer review, and "paint a picture of what the world would look like without peer-reviewed articles".

Dezenhall also recommended joining forces with groups that may be ideologically opposed to government-mandated projects such as PubMed Central, including organizations that have angered scientists. One suggestion was the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank based in Washington DC, which has used oil-industry money to promote sceptical views on climate change. Dezenhall estimated his fee for the campaign at $300,000?500,000. (Jim Giles, Nature)

What is so galling about this is the intellectual dishonesty from publishers whose whole business depends on intellectual honesty. They are also willing to get in bed with some of the fiercest enemies of science.

On the censorship message, [Brian Crawford, a senior vice-president at the American Chemical Society and a member of the AAP executive chair] adds: "When 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."

What a steaming pile of horseshit. Better we should have a handful of big publishers who have bought up most of the independent scientific journals control things?

If I thought the American Chemical Society and their cronies Wiley and Elsevier had any shame I'd say, "Shame on you." As it is, the best I can do is, "Go screw yourself" (instead of screwing the rest of us).

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I'm not personally familiar with the ACS or the journals that were involved, but perhaps scientists could boycott the journals that were involved in this. Stop sending them manuscripts. Stop subscribing to their journals. It would be interesting to see what would happen.

Jackie: They are major journals in the field and there will be no shortage of people wanting to pubolish in them. I regularly read Environmental Science & Technology, the major environmental chemistry journal. The people to reach are the membership of the ACS.

It isn't only the ACS among professional societies. Many of them receive most of their revenues from subscriptions and are resisting this mightily. There is a role for subscription journals and as I noted I subscribe to many. Nature and Science are both subscription only journals and they hire journalists like Declan Butler who do a valuable service. But they need to learn to co-exist with Open Access journals that provide an important service. Nature understands this and my hat's off to them.

I rank that right along with publicly funded studies being kept from the public. I whanged em one but good here in Memphis when a study was done on the bridge structures and what would happen if the big one came. Well they tried to hide it. Then I FOIA'd it, then they edacted it. Then I had an attorney call them and they tried not to send it all too me. Then I dropped the notification that a lawsuit was going to be filed.

Then I got it. It only said that 85% of the bridge structures in W. Tennessee would be in the water over which they were to pass. I think thats kind fof significant. Same thing applies here and I am totally against any sort of monopolistic crap or witholding of information.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 26 Jan 2007 #permalink

Randy: Just to be clear. They are not withholding information. They are just making you pay for it (again). Whether that's OK or not, they shouldn't be beating up on those journals that feel you have a right to information you already paid for.

Well said, Revere. Like you, I've been involved in this whole journal publishing issue for a number of years now, and like you I edit an Open Access journal in the biosciences.

I've heard a lot of nonsense coming from big publishing's apologists, but with this recent partnership we could be heading for a new all-time low.



Since you too have had to listen to all of the apologists for Big Publishing, you might enjoy reading the collection of their excuses that Ted Bergstrom at UCSB has compiled:

Weasel's Manual of Apologies for Misbehaving Monopolists

Best regards,

The more you look at the American Chemical Society, the more it looks like a corporation and less like a professional society trying to advance science.

Scientific American has an update on the article, pointing out that the American Chemical Society has paid two lobby shops almost half a million dollars to defeat open access.

Here's the article:

There's a great quote in the article from Rudy Baum, who is apparently the editor in charge of ACS: "I find it incredible that a Republican Administration would institute a policy that will have the long-term effect of shifting responsibility for communicating scientific research and maintaining the archive of science, technology, and medical (STM) literature from the private sector to the federal government."

I find it odd that ACS is apparently sending out appeals to the Republican Party.

But then, I watched a recent PBS documentary where a journalist working for Environmental Science & Technology was fired for reporting on documentst that proved members of the Bush Administration were suppressing reports from federal scientists that linked hurricanes and global warming.

There's an online version of the documentary that you find by clicking on Science Fiction:

The ACS is not an evil Big Publishing corporation. It is a not-for-profit chemistry society. The leadership of ACS is elected by ACS membership which is composed of chemists. It is wise to allow chemists to run their own professional society and publish their own journals free of government interference. Realize that ACS journals are technical journals. There is little (if anything) in them that a non-chemist would be interested in. I am therefore surprised at the self-righteous demands for open access to these journals. As for people that can actually benefit from ACS journal access (i.e. working chemists) I doubt that there are any that do not already have access through their university or company. ACS journals already have an excellent reputation and publishing in them is a relatively efficient, quick process. If it aint broke.

Benny: Rudy Baum is the editor-in-chief of Chemical and Engineering News, a news magazine published by ACS about the chemical industry and academia. He is not the president of ACS; he just edits the magazine. Baum is not a Republican stooge; in fact, he is notorious for gratuitous anti-Bush editorializing. His comment above was a stab at Republicans rather than an appeal to allies.

By Herb West (not verified) on 27 Jan 2007 #permalink

Herb: You misunderstand. I was once an ACS member and I know it is a professional socieity. But there are two issues. The first is their intellectually dishonest attack on Open Access journals. If they want or need to stay subscription that's fine. Nobody is saying they must go OA. But it is reasonable to say that after a period of time (currently 6 months) papers funded by the taxpayer should be available for free. This isn't government control. It is an expression of the fact that ACS paid nothing for those papers and doesn't really deserve the copyright. If they insist on it, then it should have short duration. This won't affect their subscriptions as I can't get any current papers without a subscription. By the time it has to go Open I can't get it by subscription either because it is in a past issue.

ACS has behaved in a way that disgraces their membership and their profession and science in general. I hope this public relations debacle hurts them. They deserve to be hurt for this. BTW, I used to subscribe personally to ES&T and now read it online with an institutional subscription. I am not knocking the journal. It got too expensive for me, which is another way they are cutting their own throat.


You have failed to address pertinent issues. Nobody said that Baum was the president of the society. ACS fired a well-know journalist for writing a story that touched off Senate investigation into the White House supressing researchers from talking about climate change. That move by ACS resulted in a documentary that ran on PBS and the journalist won a prize for the story.

ACS has a pro-industry slant. I'm sure it's no "accident" that they used the same PR firm that, as Business Week reports, also works for the American Chemistry Council.

One of the reasons that Baum is so against open-access is because he, and many other executives at ACS, receive bonuses based on how well the publishing side does. That's the dirty secret, but it's known by people inside ACS.

Then there's this from CJR:

Copyright 1995 Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia Uni-versity
Columbia Journalism Review

May 1995 / June 1995


LENGTH: 173 words

BYLINE: This column is compiled and written by Gloria Cooper, CJR's managing editor, to whom nominations should be addressed.

DART to Chemical & Engineering News, published by the American Chemical Soci-ety, for pouring contaminated oil on troubling journalistic waters. Getting wind of the news that staff writer Wilbert Lepkowski's year-long investigation into the dismal history of Ashland Oil and its legal and environmental woes was just about ready to erupt, Ashland vice president John Brothers flew from com-pany headquarters in Ashland, Kentucky, to Washington, D.C., where he and ACS executive director John Crumb had a little chat.

Did the v.p. remind the direc-tor that the image of the industry might get a little stained? Or of the large number of CEN subscribers employed by Ashland Oil? Whatever was said, following that meeting the Ashland piece was sunk.

"To continue work on the article would not have been in the long-term interests of the magazine," editor Michael Heylin later explained to Corporate Crime Reporter.

The question of whether it would have been in the best interests of the public didn't seem to come up.

Not that it'll have any impact whatever, but I've fired off a (constructively critical) missive to Elsevier (the only one of these publishers I've ever bought anything from).

I'm not personally familiar with the ACS or the journals that were involved, but perhaps scientists could boycott the journals that were involved in this.

Elsevier publishes several hundred journals, including the Lancet (which is famous enough that even I've heard of it!). It's a pretty major player...