Dylan Stiles makes a tough choice - chemistry or car insurance?

Dylan Stiles makes a tough choice - chemistry or car insurance?

Science journals are expensive. This is not exactly news, I know, and it’s the source of much debate in the libraries that have to foot the bills. But let me try to give you the seldom-heard perspective of the poor graduate student. 

As an avid reader of  Organic Letters, I decided to treat myself to a print subscription at ?74 per year (student rate, mind you) back in 2003. I already had access to Organic Letters  online, but I like having a physical copy of the journal. I can toss it in my backpack and read it while hunched over my sloppy hamburger lunch, or while inclined at funny angles on the couch. These are luxuries you simply don’t get while squinting at a PDF on your Powerbook. 

Come 2004, I was miffed when the American Chemical Society (ACS) jacked up the rates to ?88 per year. I shelled out anyway. Fast-forward to 2005, and the ACS again hiked the rates to ?115 per year. In an unfortunate coincidence, the rates of my car insurance were raised simultaneously, and I had to choose one or the other. Guess which I picked. 

An Organic Letters  subscription is currently ?178 per year, and that’s the cheapest option available only to students living in North America. I don’t know what kind of Kool-Aid they’re drinking over at the ACS, but no student anywhere could possibly afford that. 

Let me pause in the middle of this rant to say kudos to the RSC, where student members are qualified to receive two journal subscriptions for ?20 each per year. This is a realistic acknowledgment of the poor-student phenomenon that I hereby salute. 

My personal experience with Organic Letters  is small potatoes compared to university-wide access to science journals, which can be so expensive that schools with smaller budgets have to make hard choices about what journals to receive. 

Think about it for a minute: scientists do all the work producing high-quality content, which they provide to a journal for free. The journal turns around and sells that content for vast amounts of money[which charities such as the RSC plough back into education, support for student members, and so on - Ed.].  This business might have made sense, back when the cost of distributing media was significant. But now, thanks to the glorious internet, distribution costs relatively little. 

Also consider that most science research is funded by taxpayer-supported government agencies. Don’t ordinary citizens have a right to read about the results that came from their tax dollars? The demise of the amateur scientist is no surprise when the public has no reasonable way to follow current knowledge.  

So what to do about it? Open access (OA) journals seem like a utopian ideal. It’s a business model turned on its head. Authors themselves pay to have their work published, which is then freely available to the public.  

It’s an ongoing experiment. Open access journals are a great idea in principle, but a big title hasn’t emerged in chemistry. I like to think that I do a good job keeping up with important science by following the current literature, and to put it bluntly I’ve never read an article from an OA journal. 

For the time being, top chemists seem content to publish in traditional journals. If you’re seeking a career in academia, publications in journals with a high Impact Factor carry a lot more weight with employers.  

For an OA journal to gain enough prestige to attract the best submissions, it would take a critical mass of leading chemists to jump ship. Still, it’s happened in other disciplines - PLoS Biology is a highly-regarded OA journal in its field. 

It seems like there’s a bubble about to burst, and it will be fascinating to see what happens. There’s an entire generation of young future scientists, at this very moment tappity-tap-tapping away on their iPhones and Blackberries (see ’Surfing Web2O’), and these kids feel a sense of entitlement in getting information for free.  

The Economist  supposedly has a good article summarising all of this: ’The rise of open-access science publishing’ (29 June 2006). I tried to read it. Oh, the bitter irony when my web browser informed me that the article was premium content, and would I please subscribe and log in to gain access. 

Dylan Stiles is a PhD student in California, US