Open Access: Chemistry and the Public Interest

It is great to hear that there actually is a Chemists Without Borders group! Best of luck to all of you. Elmo has already mentioned my query to the SPARC Open Access Forum about Chemists Without Borders. For anyone not familiar with the topic, I highly recommend Peter Suber’s A Very Brief Introduction to Open Access, at

Really briefly, researchers are making their scholarly peer reviewed articles – the ones they give away anyways – freely available over the world wide web. OA is a global phenomenon, happening all over the world, in every discipline.

If chemists are wondering how they shape up in the OA movement: I hate to have to say this, but your discipline is a wee bit behind here. The physicists began archiving their preprints in the early ’90s, in arXiv. Some areas of physics have almost 100% OA; in chemistry, it’s a little closer to O%. But never mind that – you chemists can not only catch up, you can forge ahead by being the first on the gold road! For my theory on this, see Chemistry, Alchemy and the Gold Road at

On a more serious note, please be sure to advocate for PubChem, which ACS is trying to eliminate – for more info, see

Following is another piece of my writing that might be of interest to Chemists Without Borders. Any comments about this post, or about Open Access, are most welcome.

Chemistry and the Public Interest

The public interest in chemistry might not, at first glance, be as obvious as is the case with medicine. After all, a fair bit of chemical information is used by industries for primarily economic reasons.

More in depth analysis will reveal the public interest not only in the minute fraction of chemical information that is relevant to medicine – the realm of PubChem – but rather in all matters chemical, in my opinion.

Aside from medicine, an area of pressing concern throughout the world is fixing our damaged environment and warming climate. Even the chemical information developed exclusively for the for profit, commercial sector is now needed by peoples and governments at all levels throughout the world, to understand what we are dealing with.

A municipal government somewhere in the developing world is, or will be, left with the task of cleaning up some of these chemicals and their byproducts, left behind by industry. They need to be have access to information about the chemicals. They need to be able to hire experts, at rates they can afford. This means that they need to be able to afford to
provide educational programs in chemistry; to do this, they need access to the chemical literature.

This scenario is not limited to the developing world, of course; it it playing out in our own backyards as well, and in the backyards of the poorer states and provinces, not just the backyards of the wealthiest areas with the research libraries that can afford to purchase the largest portion of the chemical literature.

There are answers within chemistry to clean up our environment, and find new and more sustainable forms of energy. The need is urgent; the most efficient means of progress is open sharing of our information; in other words, open access.

Public funding goes into chemistry research, just as it does in medicine. There is funding through granting agencies, and the indirect funding that comes through support of academic institutions and their authors.

Even in the corporate sector, corporations get tax breaks for research and development, right? (This is a complex topic I’ll talk about another day. For now, suffice it to say that in this case, delayed publication might be justified, IMHO. Note: even this is not restricted publication; a companydoes not wish its competitors to pay subscription fees; rather, they wish to
keep their secrets for as long as necessary to gain competitive advantage).

The taxpayer has a right not only to view the results of publicly funded research, but also to expect the most effective use of tax dollars.

If people in a faraway land can make use of our taxpayer funded chemical research to eliminate local pollution and restore ecosystems, we, our children and grandchildren will all quite literally breathe easier.

Advocating for PubChem is extremely reasonable. PubChem is outside the core of the chemistry publishing industry; it gives this industry plenty of time to address the more fundamental change that needs to happen.

That is, ultimately all of chemistry needs to be open access. There was a time when publishing in print and distributing to the research libraries that could afford subscriptions was the best means of distributing chemical information. This is no longer true. Electronic, open access is now the best means. The industry needs to adjust to serve the needs of the creators
of chemical information, the researchers, readers and the public alike; not the other way around.


Heather G. Morrison

Flash: no one every died from copyright circumvention. Lawrence Lessig,
Free Culture, 2004.
Open Access version:

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial
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0 thoughts on “Open Access: Chemistry and the Public Interest”

  1. Heather-

    You make some very good points here. I would be interested in hearing more about corporate breaks for research and development.

    As an academic, I am somewhat insulated from the profit motive of the chemical industry, as well as the publishing industry. I did swear that, as a chemist, I would rather be poor and contribute to a cleaner and healthier world, than rich and dead… The hesitation I have, and hopefully you can totally shatter this idea so I can explain to others is that publications-in respected journals- are our ticket upward. I would imagine that in industry this is not so, but I could be mistaken.

    If publishers didn’t make money publishing our work, they just wouldn’t do it (as the pharmaceutical cos won’t bother if the vaccine is not profitable enough).

    Anyways, I spoke with Jeff this last week (nice guy), and the possibilities for the repository are exciting. I plan to ask my research director if he is willing to be one of the first contributors to the repository here at Wayne State (I guess the license just came through). Please give me some feedback, so I can convince my boss that OA is really the way to go. He is quite big in my field, and I have the feeling that if he comes aboard, many will follow.


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