Criticism of the ACS and C&EN

Why don’t scientists complain to the source when invited to do so? Today, we discuss a call from C&EN News Editor-in-Chief, Rudy Baum, actively soliciting criticism of the ACS magazine – a post that in two weeks has netted a whopping five comments.  It’s not blogophobia – chemists seem willing to comment at In the Pipeline (18 Apr, 11 Aug, 20 Aug) and Chemjobber (8 Sept). Baum routinely and freely publishes letters to the editor in C&EN that are highly critical of the mag and larger organization. But why won’t chemists and other critics provide feedback directly on his blog?

Before I was offered the slot here at PLoS, I had made arrangement for my long-time blog, Terra Sigillata, to move to CENtral Science. CEN stands for Chemical & Engineering News, the member publication of the world’s largest scientific society, the American Chemical Society (ACS).  When I was an undergrad, most of us paid the then-$10/year student ACS membership fee to get what we then called “C-and-E News” because it made us feel like real scientists, tapped into the big world of all the great opportunities chemistry-related education would bring us. This influence was central to my lifelong collaborations and friendships with chemists despite my turning to the dark side of biology.

When blogger friends learned I’d be writing at both CENtral Science and PLoS, many looked at me askance – or as much as one could online. So, uh, er, you’re associating yourself with the evangelical open-access movement while also working with one of the most longstanding and traditional science publishers.

Uh, yeah.  Call me Marv Thorneberry, the New York Mets not-so-great who became one of Miller Lite beer’s earliest spokesperson. During a television commercial where bar patrons were fighting over the “tastes great” and “less filling” sentiments, Marv said, “I feel strongly both ways.”

This will be a topic for another day but I am absolutely supportive of open-access journals and have begun publishing in some but society journals, whether I like their access policies or not, still carry great weight with grant reviewers and promotion and tenure committees.

And for all the open-access pontificating that all information should be free, I think that we all had to take a moment to reflect a couple of weeks ago when Mr. Open Access, Bora Zivkovic, left PLoS to join Scientific American, the oldest continuously published magazine of any kind in the US (and now owned by Nature Publishing Group), as Blog and Community Editor.

This all brings me to a case I’ve been following at C&EN since even before I joined CENtral Science: criticism of C&EN and the larger American Chemical Society by chemists who feel their needs are not being served. Chemist Derek Lowe, one of THE top science bloggers and one of the earliest, also joined the C&EN Advisory Board this past April.

In preparing for his meeting, he put up a post asking his 10-15K daily readers, “What do you think that C&E News does well, and what do you think it does poorly?” That post netted 116 comments, with most complaining that C&EN presents too rosy of a picture of a discipline that is bleeding jobs in the US or too beholden to industry, too US-centric, too esoteric, too much information, too little information, etc.

Of course, a lot of the tone is your typical blog snark – pithy whining but lacking in real substance or suggestion. Derek posted on behalf of Susan Ainsworth, a senior C&EN editor in Dallas, calling for stories of chemists who have retooled for other careers and the first commenter here stated, “It took your Blog post to get them to take notice?” I know the snark was meant to be critical of C&EN but Derek’s blog very closely has the pulse of the working chemist, especially in the pharmaceutical industry. Why would an editor not seize on a topic that a prominent blogger brought forward and demonstrated would have a larger audience? (Commenter Curt F. tended to agree as well.).

In fact, why do you think C&EN thought to invite Derek to their advisory board? I consider this all very forward-thinking. In fact, some of Derek’s commenters viewed his invitation as a chance for a real chemist to infiltrate C&EN (although Jean-Claude Bradley is on the board) while another thought he would lose credibility for associating with ACS and C&EN.

But why don’t writers complain directly to C&EN? And I’m not just talking about practicing chemists. I know that library information scientists have very strong views on the publication access policies of ACS.  Let’s hear them.

X-process chemist wrote at Derek’s in April:

Permit anonymous letters to the editor for those many of us who fear their jobs, but need a voice.

Well, you have a chance – go directly to the Editor’s blog.

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7 Responses to Criticism of the ACS and C&EN

  1. *my* problem with CEN and ACS is not about the content. It’s about the licensing and the cost and the overinflated salaries of the employees. Incidentally, I brought this up to the president (whoever the head member is) when he was at my place of work last year some time.
    Likewise, I am disappointed in Bora for working for Scientific American, which has done a real number on institutional subscribers.
    I’m not a chemist, so even though ACS has asked me to join a bunch of times, my opinion doesn’t really count.

  2. Pingback: On Criticism of ACS and C&EN | Terra Sigillata

  3. David Kroll says:

    Christina, to the contrary, your opinion *does* count since you and your colleagues fight budgetary and licensing battles for all of us in academia, whether profs recognize it or not.

    If you have a chance, could you elaborate more on the licensing issues? I know that I don’t like the fact that even legacy content is closed whereas my org, AACR, makes papers for society journals accessible after 12 months. The argument can be made that hosting legacy content costs money but there’s got to be a middle ground between free and $32/paper.

  4. Gaythia says:

    I believe that Christina Pikas’ library is part of a publicly supported institution, and that David Kroll is employed by public universities also. Collectively, how is that supposed to be supported if others don’t have jobs? Christina actually has a good post up elsewhere about the hidden but essential function of research librarians. So I know that at some level, you can realize that your position could be seen by others as overinflated in salary and possibly unnecessary. The benefit that one segment of society gets out of some other segment providing services at low wages or for free ultimately catches up with the ability of all of society to function.

    Here in Colorado we are facing an anti-tax experiment on this fall’s ballot that could lead to even less jobs, and certainly less public access to libraries and higher education: http://www.donthurtcolorado.com/

  5. Coturnix says:

    Just a note that in my position as Blog Editor I will have essentially zero input into business and pricing policies of Scientific American as organization and publisher (or Nature, or McMillan). I can chat about it with new colleagues and hope my opinion influences them, but these kinds of decisions are made much higher up in the organizational hierarchy than I will ever meet in person.

  6. Gaythia says:

    A dialogue is a conversation between two or more persons. This implies a considerable amount of interaction back and forth. As I said in a longer comment on the editors blog (to which you link above), it seems to me that if the ACS editor wants to promote dialogue it is going to take more than one post and much more interaction on that post and also directly with other blogs.

  7. David Kroll says:

    Agreed, Gaythia – and others have asked at my CENtral Science blog as to why the editors didn’t feel compelled to comment at Derek Lowe’s blog. Perhaps there will be more dialogue forthcoming.