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June 20, 2006

Chemistry Professor Writes to Support Federal Research Public Access Act

Rudy M. Baum, editor-in-chief of the American Chemical Society's Chemical and Engineering News, writing in the June 5 issue of Chem. Eng. News, urged the members of the American Chemical Society to oppose Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA; S.2695). He urged the membership to send a "letter to Sen. Susan M. Collins (R-Maine), who chairs the Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs, the committee to which S. 2695 has been referred, urging her "to oppose S. 2695 and to prevent any attempts to advance this legislation.""

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Chemistry Professor Alex Scheeline wrote to Senator Collins, but urged her to support FRPAA's passage. With Professor Scheeline's permission, his letter to Senator Collins is provided, below.

June 7, 2006

Sen. Susan M. Collins
461 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington DC 20510

Dear Senator Collins:

Re: S.2695 Federal Research Public Access Act

You doubtless will get many responses to an editorial by Rudy M. Baum, editor of the American Chemical Society's Chemical and Engineering News, opposing S.2695. While I will not comment on legislative specifics, I do believe that something like S.2695 is in the public interest, that the fears of publishers are only valid to the extent that they are defending turf, prerogatives, and a pre-internet view of the world, and that a Federal push for openness could help scholarly communications significantly.

It is true that publishers have invested in vast systems to allow rapid, peer-reviewed publication. It is also true that there are now open-access, freeware solutions to the manuscript submission and processing problem. The costs of peer review are in clerical staff to nag reviewers to do their jobs, in transforming manuscripts from rough form to uniformly edited and typeset articles, in metacoding and markup. As an editor of an NSF-supported open access publication (Online Articles, Analytical Sciences Digital Library,, I administer a similar process, except we do little metacoding (letting Google find the appropriate codes after we publish), don't typeset the manuscripts (authors must do their own copy editing), and don't have anyone other than the editor to nag reviewers. Once articles are accepted, anyone, anywhere, can read them for free. No one would claim that our production values equal those of commercial publishers. There is doubt how the Library will be supported once NSF support terminates (as it inevitably must). But our costs are negligible – we figure we could manage review and publishing of articles at about $100 apiece vs. a more typical $2,000 each for normal publishing. The catch? Without nagging, the peer reviewers are very slow off the mark. Thus, part of the benefit of the current system is to speed up publication. Would a policy of releasing publications in 6 months destroy the cash flow that allows the current system to work? We can't know. But there's yet a third alternative.

Websites can easily be configured to include post-publication discussion of posted material. does it, we now do it with our Online Articles, and one can imagine universities doing the same with their institutional repositories. Were such post-publication review to become common, one can imagine a world where everything, good, bad, and indifferent, gets published, and then scholarly societies and commercial publishers "adopt" good material, publishing same by simply posting hyperlinks to work they think is good enough to endorse. The Institute for Scientific Information's "Faculty of 1000" is a model for this approach. The point is, the whole publishing world is in tremendous flux. For the taxpayers to be able to see what they've paid for is commendable. The technical means to ensure this happens are rapidly evolving, so any technical "lock-in" at this point is premature. I thus encourage you to keep the publishers scared to encourage them to keep cutting costs and (one hopes) capping subscription expense, while encouraging inventive ways to publish quality material. The threat of S.2695 may be more useful than passing the bill.

Alexander Scheeline
Professor of Chemistry

Read our previous entries on FRPAA:

Posted by Katie Newman at June 20, 2006 4:45 PM