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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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April 24, 2012

Harvard's Had Enough

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Posted by Derek

Several readers sent along this memo from Harvard's library: they see the current price structure of scientific journals as unsustainable, and they're asking the faculty to help them do something about it.

The Faculty Advisory Council to the Library, representing university faculty in all schools and in consultation with the Harvard Library leadership, reached this conclusion: major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained: continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable. Doing so would seriously erode collection efforts in many other areas, already compromised.

They're asking faculty members to try to "move prestige" to open-access journals by favoring them for new publications, and in general to do whatever they can to get away from the current scientific publishing model. And that ties in with this post over at the Guardian, saying that not only are the current publishers causing a financial burden, but other burdens that may be even more of a problem:

Research, especially scientific research, thrives in an atmosphere that allows the free exchange of ideas and information: open discussion and debate are essential if the scientific method is to operate properly. Before the arrival of the internet, academic publishers provided a valuable service that was a real benefit to the scientific community. Not any more. . .

. . .But open access isn't just about the end products of research. It's the entire process of scientific enquiry, including the collection and processing of data, scrutiny of the methods used in the analysis, questioning of assumptions, and discussion of alternative interpretations. In particular, it's about access to scientific data.

I believe all data resulting from publicly funded research should be in the public domain, for two reasons. First, it's public money that funds us, so we scientists have a moral responsibility to be as open as possible with the public. Second, the scientific method only works when analyses can be fully scrutinised and, if necessary, replicated by other researchers. In other words, to seek to prevent your data becoming freely available is plain unscientific.

We'll see how far this gets. But this is already the biggest upheaval that I can remember in the scientific literature, and it show no signs of slowing down. . .

Comments (19) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Scientific Literature


1. RB Woodweird on April 24, 2012 9:26 AM writes...

The publishers are killing the goose what laid that valuable ovoid, but not to fret. Congress will soon be introducing the Freedom of Academic Research and Antiterrorist Act which will outlaw putting any research even partially funded by tax dollars into the terrorist-accessible public domain.

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2. CuryWorrks on April 24, 2012 9:41 AM writes...

Open source is a scam every lab now has their own journal which they charge you a fee to profit from your research. There will now be a Harvard series of open source journals and they will further profit. Lets twitter our research so even more crap gets out there.

How much research is worth the time to read.

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3. luysii on April 24, 2012 9:45 AM writes...

Libraries have certainly changed. The library in the Harvard Chemistry Building is a beautiful wood paneled affair with comfortable chairs and big elegant wooden tables. All the returnees on our tour of the department wanted to see it. The graduate student leading our group noted that she almost never goes there, getting what she wants from her computer.

The library was unchanged, except for the fact that there was no one in it about 11AM. The librarian came out of her den anxious to talk to a few living breathing humans, and wouldn't let us go. Solitary confinement is hell.

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4. Curious Wavefunction on April 24, 2012 10:14 AM writes...

Libraries are turning into catacombs. I was the only graduate student in our group to physically step foot into the library every week. Everyone else I know went there maybe twice in five years. Similar to the Harvard librarians, the librarians there were hungry for human contact. I still think there's something to be said for random shelf browsing that can uncover classic gems.

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5. DJ DrZ on April 24, 2012 10:16 AM writes...

The physicists have prospered with Archiv (or however it spelled). The problem with "open access" journals (or the ones I have been approached by) are published in Pakistan or India. They have ZERO street cred. I also imagine they are interested in turning a profit, if not now, then eventually. I am a consultant and I have severe trouble accessing articles I need to read. The really interesting ones from ACS are "not available to someone with my level of access". Hogwash. I agree that publicly funded research needs to be available to the public, for free.

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6. Vader on April 24, 2012 10:51 AM writes...

Open access sounds fine, as long as it doesn't mean an explosion of tripe like this:

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7. Lu on April 24, 2012 11:30 AM writes...

A well-tenured senior professor may go for an open-access journal but his insecure junior colleagues will fight tooth and nail to get into Nature, JACS and whatnot to get tenure and funding.

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8. plosone on April 24, 2012 12:29 PM writes...

Recently we have been publishing in plosone, recently.

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9. pete on April 24, 2012 12:41 PM writes...

@7 Lu
Valid point. But that can change if high-profile labs are seen to target more of their output to open access journals.

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10. Iron Chemist on April 24, 2012 12:42 PM writes...

As has been mentioned in previous comments sections, the current open access journals charge pretty high fees. Fees which a junior and/or not as highly funded researcher cannot afford. And as noted by #5, most of the current OA journals are sketchy.

That said, I'd love there to be a viable alternative. The current system really is broken when even Harvard can't afford to get all of the quality journals from major publishers.

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11. marklar on April 24, 2012 1:40 PM writes...

"...major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained: continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable."

No sense tapping into the current $32B endowment.

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12. FairPlay on April 24, 2012 1:57 PM writes...

Can I suggest that all readers of this blog commit to not publishing in Elsevier journals. I personally made this commitment a year ago. Anyone else care to join me?

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13. paperclip on April 24, 2012 2:27 PM writes...

Not that I'm a fan of the status quo, but I've never bought the argument that "The public pays for the research, so it has the right to see it." There's plenty that the public pays for without the expectation that it will therefore be open. You can't waltz into your various government agencies and demand to poke around the back rooms.

Besides, is it an issue? Is the general public clamoring to read research articles?

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14. Patrick on April 24, 2012 5:26 PM writes...

@13 paperclip

I am clamoring, and that is enough. Everyone takes responsibility for their own voice.

As for government agencies, unless there is some overriding reason for secrecy, the freedom of information act ensures the requisite openness.

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15. Sisyphus on April 24, 2012 6:36 PM writes...

@ 11 marklar

Right on, brother. The 1% need to pay their fair share!!!

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16. dave w on April 24, 2012 7:00 PM writes...

Seems like the main thing unique value that the journals are offering anymore
is the prestige of "formal Publication in a Recognized Journal" - if not for
that, I think more folks would just do their papers up in PDF files and pass
them around on the internet anymore.

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17. hor4pubs on April 24, 2012 9:22 PM writes...

It was a hard habit to break, but the combination of a Quosa license, Google Scholar, and Pubmed has made the editorial boards at SC&N irrelevant to me. I have decades of lab experience and exposure to tens of thousands of peer reviewed publications to tell me whether what I'm reading is tripe. Immediate access to information, good or bad, is what I want. I don't need some Bostonian prick at CSH press to tell me what's important.

The next generation of scientists will have to learn a whole new set of BS-detecting skills, and my bet is that the current "elite" journals will be a rather small part of the equation for them.

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18. My 0.02 on April 24, 2012 10:19 PM writes...


General public maybe not. But as someone running a small company, access to literature is very important and yet very expensive. As a tax payer (mind you, both corporate and personal), I find that the argument "The public pays for the research, so it has the right to see it." is very compelling and long overdue.

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19. itamar on April 24, 2012 10:32 PM writes...

Harvard (and other institutes) should declare that only open access journals will count for tenure and promotion

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