Monday, April 23, 2007

Prototaxites a fungus? Who can tell without Open Access?

Prototaxites is believed to have been the largest land organism in the Devonian period, leaving behind tree-trunk sized fossils that have stumped geologists for the 150 years since their discovery. What exactly was it? Traditionally, it was assumed to be an ancient brown algae, largely from analogy with modern giant aquatic brown algae. However, according to a recent news article Francis Hueber and colleagues have just published a paper that gives convincing evidence that it was in fact a giant fungus. An interesting idea -- but unless your institution subscribes to the journal "Geology", you can't read the actual paper to decide for yourself. It's particularly sad that this is the case because the journal isn't published by a commercial company that would be expected to put profit before science, but by a non-profit society that supposedly stands for "Fostering the human quest for understanding Earth, planets, and life". Limiting access to papers seems to be in direct conflict with their stated mission.


Jonathan Eisen said...

I would say, I might be able to get the PDF through Davis, but that would be cheating. I think this is a great point that many may not realize as they sit in their Universities with access to everything. Publish in a non OA journal and your work be less read.

Steven Salzberg said...

I'm not surprised that a journal published by a scientific society wouldn't allow open access. In fact, the scientific societies have (in many cases) been among the worst offenders in opposing open access. This is because some (many?) of them make most of their revenue from journal subscription fees. Sometimes they include these fees in their membership fee, but many members wouldn't join if not for the journal. So they are afraid to make the journals free. But "they" in this case means a small group of people who work for the society, not the members themselves.

A recent example is the American Chemical Society, which lobbied vigorously to have PubChem, a new, free database at NCBI, shut down. The ACS has a fee-based service called the Chemical Abstracts Service, and they saw PubChem as a threat (which it isn't, by the way). They went straight to the Ohio congressional delegation (CAS is based in Ohio) and almost got a bill introduced to shut down PubChem. It would have happened if not for the energetic and vigorous action of a number of chemists who got wind of this just in time. Meanwhile the ACS pays its officers outrageously high salaries, and the members are generally unaware that all this is going on.

Jonathan Badger said...

Yes, unfortunately it's not that surprising if you think about it.
Thanks for bringing up the ACS -- I remember a couple of years ago when the news broke of how their former director John Crum had been making $750,000/year (plus perks like a chauffeured limousine, like he was a rock star or something), but I somehow missed the whole PubChem business, which is worse.

I just did a search on the subject and came across an (unintentionally) funny quote from the ACS:

"By collecting, organizing and disseminating small-molecule information whose creation it has not funded and which duplicates CAS services, NIH has started, rather ominously, down the path to unfettered scientific publishing.”

I mean, isn't "unfettered" good? You'd think that they would at least name it "communist scientific publishing" or some other negatively loaded term...