Chemistry is core to science

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Brian Crawford started his career as a biochemist so it made sense that, having gone into scholarly publishing, he eventually found his way to the American Chemical Society. We asked him about his role as
president of ACS Publications

What is the role of peer-reviewed literature in chemistry?

As in all the sciences, peer review is really the standard that researchers expect. As electronic access has expanded, scientists and the public have more access to information but they still need to know the quality of that information. Peer review sets the bar.

Peer review also reinforces the evaluation that funding bodies use by providing a sort of independent system of checks for funding. Chemists use the literature itself in many ways. Synthetic chemists rely on experimental details to reproduce the syntheses of novel compounds. Chemists also need literature to help characterise materials and in discovering practical applications.

What is your current publication strategy?

I think of chemistry as a core part of the sciences. It is very much an interface discipline and our strategy of late has been to look at how chemistry supports other fields. For example, we have launched journals in areas such as chemical biology, which looks at chemical approaches to solving biology; nanotechnology; and protein chemistry.

Chemical imaging and grand challenges such as chemistry of brain and all the -omics (such as proteomics and metabolomics) are other hot areas and there has been a resurgent interest in environmental chemistry and toxicology.

There also continues to be strong interest in fundamental areas such as materials and interface science. And there is always an interest in the core journals too. Established titles can also attract papers from interface areas.

How has electronic access changed chemical information?

Electronic access has aided the integration of primary and secondary literature. The integration of property information and patent data in databases is important. That is why ACS is very proud of Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS). For example, in the pharmaceutical industry there is a heavy focus on scouring patent information to find prior art. However, the bench chemists doing R&D need the primary literature too.

Primary literature and secondary literature such as patent databases and property information are complementary. There is now a level of personalisation in tracking literature. In the old days researchers had to make regular visits to libraries and take journals off the shelves or search volumes of printed indexes. Now users can predefine what information they want to be alerted about as it is published.

This can reduce the serendipity element of research and I think this is why researchers like to read Chemical and Engineering News [ACS’s membership magazine]. We also have links to ‘most accessed’ and ‘most cited’ papers on our website, which we do at both a journal level and a programme level.

Semantic tagging is really in its infancy in chemistry and automatic tools to data and text mine are still quite error-prone. A combination of automatic and manual approaches is the best way of harvesting information. Semantic tagging only goes so far but it does start to provide a common language. The Royal Society of Chemistry has a semantic tagging project, Project Prospect, and we are starting to look into this sort of thing too.

What are your views on open access?

We are in favour of various access models and think authors should have the right to choose. We don’t think that governments or others should mandate what authors do and require them to pay.

Immediately on publication each of our authors is given a link that they can put on their websites or funding body’s site free of charge. There is a limit of 50 downloads of their paper in the first year.

If the author wants to place the whole article on their website or funding body’s site then we have our ‘AuthorChoice’ model where authors pay to make their articles open access. Most of our revenue comes from subscriptions, with a bit from advertising. We don’t see many authors choosing the AuthorChoice option. We’ve had this model out for about a year and less than one per cent of papers are published this way. Not all authors have access to funds that they could use to pay to publish and most of our authors are pleased with the access that others have to their papers anyway.

We enable authors to submit their raw data too. We put this outside our firewall so it is open to non-subscribers too but we do not tag this information.

We left the matter of putting preprints in repositories to editorial discretion on the individual journals and the editors have chosen not to allow this. After publication there is the option to have the free authordirected link or to pay for open access. The society feels it is better to have the published version available.

Interview by Sian Harris