Tuesday, May 24, 2005

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 company does 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: www.free-culture.cc/freeculture.pd

Originally posted to the SPARC Open Access Forum & other lists on May 24, 2005, in the context of the fight for PubChem against efforts by the American Chemical Society to close it down.

This post reflects my personal opinion only and does not represent the opinions or policy of the BC Electronic Library Network or the Simon Fraser University Library.