For anyone outside of academia who has not actually received an invoice from Chemical Abstracts for literature retrieval services, let me assure you that literature searches will cost you real money.

CAS has weighted the basic search operations and defined them in a menu of task equivalents. When you subscribe, you purchase a bundle of tasks. Tasks can be used like a chit- they can be applied for a variety of search operations. Some search operations are assigned a higher value than others. Obviously, a group of big wheels at CAS sat down in a room and hammered out what they perceive the value of a given operation to be.

At this point, it is useful to remind folks that price is not properly based on cost, it is based on what the customer is willing to pay. CAS has an army of clerks punching abstracts into the database, so they do have some real overhead. While CAS honchos are mindful of paying the overhead, they are also trying to find a pricepoint for their information services. On this I do sympathize with them.

However, where I part ways with this organization relates to the monopolistic arrangement they have with information paid for by citizens of this country. The major pipelines of chemical research information seem to plumb directly into CAS and the ACS.  Research that does not get published by the ACS goes to a variety of private publishing houses. The common thread is the transfer of copyright to the publishing house. By turning over the copyright of publically funded research to these organizations, the public relenquishes the right to free access to results it has paid for.

In a very real way, the published results of our university research complex represents national treasure. What do we do with it? We hand it over to publishing organizations who print it in exchange for the copyright. In this way, we can keep paying for access indefinitely.

In fact, lets highlight some of the features of this transfer of wealth and the cost to society of scientific literature-

  1. Citizens and corporations pay taxes to support the various funding agencies like NSF, NIH, DoE, DoT, DoD, etc., as well as provide private grants.
  2. Funding agencies award grants to institutions and researchers to pay for the conduct of research.
  3. Researchers take a combination of funds and pay for stipends, fellowships, materials, and overhead to support the people who do research.
  4. Research is performed and results are communicated as publications.
  5. Researchers sign over the copyright to their work in exchange for publication.
  6. Publishers such as the ACS, Wiley, Elsevier, etc., then hold a copyright on the content in perpetuity.
  7. For the rest of time, the citizenry who paid for the results have to pay a fee to get a copy of the paper, or travel to the nearest University library and hope that the publication isn’t in deep archival storage and unavailable that day.
  8. Thanks to the Bayh-Dole Act, institutions can patent the results of federally funded work. This means that the hopeful citizens of the USA are barred from the practice of the art they paid for. In fact, they have to work out a license agreement which will include a royalty (with audit trail) and probably a hefty upfront, non-refundable, fee to get the ball rolling.
  9. Despite this royalties cash stream that universities have access to, tuition and fees continue to rise well above inflation.
  10. If you are a chemical scholar out of the cover of academic discounting, you face the full brunt of literature search costs yourself. A monograph or book on any given chemistry topic could easily cost $10,000 in non-academic SciFinder charges (ie., $68 per reaction search). A typical technical book may provide an author $3,000 to $10,000 in royalties over 5 years.

Well, you say, the benefit is to society as a whole. The science we pay for goes into society where, like an incoming tide, lifts all boats.

Nonesense! This tide lifts the good ship Elsevier and the USS Chemical Abstracts. It helps large universities get larger. The generation of information has become a cash cow for a handful of organizations who are subject to precious little scrutiny by those who freely supply the scientific content that keeps the system going.