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Interview by David Bradley ISSUE #67
July-August 2007
Reactive Profile—Bryan Vickery, Chemistry Central

Bryan Vickery did his BSc in chemistry at Liverpool University, and then studied electrochemistry there for his PhD. He has never regretted his choice of university or city, but having ruined too many pairs of jeans and a laboratory fume cupboard opted for a desk instead of a bench job. He is currently Publisher at BioMed Central with special interest in Chemistry Central.

What's your chemistry background?

They say you always remember a good teacher. And I do. My chemistry GCSE/A-level teacher, Mr. Metcalfe, was a complete inspiration to me. His love of the subject was infectious; several of my class went on to do chemistry degrees.

I chose Liverpool University, and was there for 7 years taking BSc Chemistry and then studying Electrochemistry for a PhD. I've never regretted my choice of university or city, but I couldn't stay at the bench—I ruined too many pairs of jeans, and a fume cupboard!

How did you make the sideways step online?

Bryan VickeryDuring my PhD studies I was one of dozens of students in about nine European locations working on an EU funded project. Some were synthesizing crown ethers and porphyrins, we were using the complexation behavior of these molecules in an attempt to transfer metal ions across immiscible interfaces; others were developing micro-interfaces with photoablation techniques or membrane technologies. It was complex!

It was at this point I heard about email and the World-wide Web. I started to communicate with my peers this way, and we shared information faster and faster, and built web pages displaying our work. I was really excited about this, and concentrated more on the Internet side and less on the chemistry. At Liverpool we created WWW Links for Chemists as one of the first ways to catalogue the chemistry web, and Michael Barker did a phenomenal job of keeping that going. I decided a career in online development was where I wanted to be, but my dad would have throttled me if I'd not used my training. At that point I saw a job ad for ChemWeb.com, and the fit was perfect. My first role there was in managing a more sophisticated version of Mark Winter's ChemDex.

ChemWeb pioneered a lot of the things chemists now take for granted, such as online chemistry news, preprints, literature database searching; what were the highlights for you?

That's a very difficult question to answer because, looking back, we were so far ahead of our time—possibly too far. The biggest highlight for me has to be the friends I made, and the opportunity to work with some talented people in ChemWeb, MDL and Elsevier. It was a creative environment for us to gain publishing experience, a lot like it is here at BioMed Central.

The most exciting projects for me were:

Virtual Conferences/Virtual Lectures. This was truly groundbreaking stuff! We started in 1999, streaming audio and video, with slides and transcripts and 300 delegates. You'd think we were mad. In fact, on occasion the technology did creek and the bandwidth issues could get quite tricky, but we managed to broadcast real conferences LIVE and use a whiteboard for presenters to show molecules and software demos! The archive was very popular, and a lot less prone to traffic issues. My favorite was Breakfast with Wendy—we created a small studio in a hotel room at an ACS National Meeting, and Wendy Warr was our anchor. We broadcast news from the previous day's conference/expo and carried out interviews with important figures in the chemical information world. We also streamed the IgNobel awards ceremony live twice, which was huge fun.

The Alchemist. This was ChemWeb.com's magazine, and I loved the style of the articles we published, and pace of work when we moved to daily news. It was good to give Chemical & Engineering News a run for its money— even if the ACS did ban us from the press room at its conferences!

And that leads me on to "simply being controversial"! In that, I mean challenging the status quo and also the perceptions of Elsevier. Building services like free abstract searching, and the Chemistry Preprint Server didn't go down very well with all publishing houses! We were a community-driven service, and had over 400,000 members, but without the support of large amounts of advertising revenue, our lack of commerciality told.

It's a shame that Web 2.0 and the surge in advertising dollars came a little too late for ChemWeb, because it would have been well placed to benefit from all that is happening now—who knows, given its community drive it could even have been an open access publishing option for Elsevier. The site still exists now, and is run by ChemIndustry.com, but I haven't heard how things are going under its new ownership.

How is the chemistry wing of BioMedCentral fulfilling the promise of a chemical web?

It isn't down to us to fulfill that promise alone, but to facilitate it. Groups of motivated researchers around the world are already demonstrating what can be done with today's technology. Our job is to make the literature and data available freely, for datamining, etc., in a useful and meaningful way, and to employ linking technologies to make finding your way seamless. One of the main benefits of open access is that anyone can download the article, figures, schemes and data for reuse. We're looking at much more in the way of improved tools for authoring manuscripts, how articles are displayed and where data is deposited.

When, if ever, will we reach the crossing point, as traditional journals fade and open journals succeed?

Estimates suggest that 10% of journals and the same amount of research articles are now open access. That's a significant number! Open access is starting to enter the mainstream. What we need to do now is create a level playing field for authors, and there's an important role for libraries, research managers and funders to play here. Some question the sustainability of open access journals, but there are no new costs introduced by this model and traditional subscription-based journals do not make their revenues or cover their costs from thin air. Subscription journals are supported by vast library budgets.

We're seeing movement on this issue. Funders, such as the UK PubMed Central partners are mandating open access for research output they fund, and are providing funds for open access publication charges. The University of Nottingham recently announced a central fund to cover open access publishing charges. The tipping point is certainly coming, and it will accelerate as funders offer the money to cover publishing charges, institutions put in place mechanisms to centralize these funds, and authors continue to see the benefits of free access and reuse of the literature.

Why is it taking so long for researchers to fully engage with open journals?

Researchers have, for too long, been kept in the dark when it comes to the cost of publishing their research. It's strange to think that "publications" are a "library thing", especially as research output is increasing and library budgets are static. Researchers also put up with terrible customer service and delays in publication, sometimes to fit a particular journal's volume/issue structure. Authors generally think "but why should I pay?" but never consider that the librarian is being held to ransom, and paying huge sums on their behalf. In fact, library budgets are, in part, funded through the indirect costs from research grants so researchers are paying without knowing it.

We strongly believe that publication is part of the research process, and should be funded as such. By making our costs visible and transparent we want authors to know how much it costs. As more and more publishers move to open access, we can fix this dysfunctional market and authors and their institutions can choose where to publish based on quality, service, prestige and price.

In what areas of chemistry does Chemistry Central accept papers? What submission trends if any are emerging?

Chemistry Central is a publishing platform the same way that BioMed Central is. It will launch further chemistry related journals in the coming months and years, some we will run ourselves and some will be run by communities. Chemistry Central Journal, our first Chemistry Central launch (though not BMC's first chemistry journal), is broad ranging and covers all of chemistry and related/outlying disciplines. We've deliberately built it as that because of the huge overlap in current research areas.

There are 3 areas where we are understandably seeing good levels of submissions: Computational & Theoretical Chemistry/Chemical Information, as these groups of researchers are leading the charge to open access and open data; Biochemistry/biotech, because of our already strong reach into these communities; and Physical chemistry/chemical physics, because of the history of preprinting and use of arXiv.

Can anyone mirror freely the archive of Chemistry Central papers?

Absolutely, anyone can set up their own mirror and we encourage this. We take this part of our role very seriously, and are working with 2 new mirrors in China right now. BioMed Central deposits the open access articles that it publishes in multiple digital archives around the world to guarantee long-term digital preservation. These archives include: INIST (France), Koninklijke Bibliotheek (The Netherlands), Potsdam University (Germany), PubMed Central (United States), UK PubMed Central (UK). BioMed Central is also participating in the British Library's e-journals pilot project, and plans to deposit copies of all articles with the British Library.

We make article metadata available in compliance with Open Archives Initiative protocols, enabling automated 'harvesting' of our research articles for inclusion in any other digital archives. We support non-exclusive digital archiving of research articles by as many international archives as possible, to ensure the security and permanent accessibility of that research. BioMed Central is a participant in the LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe) initiative. LOCKSS will enable any library to maintain their own archive of content from BioMed Central and other publishers, with minimal technical effort and using cheaply available hardware. To facilitate datamining research, the fulltext XML of all BioMed Central open access research articles is available for FTP download as a ZIP archive. See our datamining research pages.

In the wake of Nature Precedings, which in turn simply reinvented the ChemWeb Preprints wheel, might we see Chemistry Central papers "published" as preprints to be reviewed live?

We'll be doing just that with PhysMath Central in fact. Our new launch into physics, mathematics and computer science allows authors to upload their files directly from arXiv, and upon acceptance PhysMath Central will deposit, immediately, the final version back into arXiv. What is more, any article submitted directly to us will also be deposited in arXiv. Having worked closely with him at ChemWeb and at Elsevier, I'm delighted that Chris Leonard has joined us in this venture.

Time is running short for traditional peer review, what new models might take its place?

There is still a lot of value in peer review, as it stands today, but you are right in that people are starting to experiment. Our medical journals offer open peer review, making the full prepublication history available to readers for example. Biology Direct is already providing a unique service to authors and readers of research articles, with a novel system of peer review, making the author responsible for obtaining three reviewers' reports, via the journal's Editorial Board. The process of peer review is open, rather than anonymous, eliminating the principal source of abuse in the refereeing process and increasing the responsibility of the referees. The reviewer can prepare comments for the author but also, if they wish, to prepare 'public' comments, however critical, that will appear alongside the final version of the article when it is published.

PLoS has also launched PLoS One, which leaves the community to decide on the quality of the work published and offers excellent comment/annotation facilities. There's a lot happening right now, certainly in the social networking and collaborative authoring areas—Wikipedia has certainly demonstrated what can be done with living documents offering version control, and this is where PLoS One is headed.

Why does Chemistry Central offer groups the opportunity to start their own Open journal?

There are several reasons why people might want to launch or transfer a journal to us. There are still niche/multidisciplinary/emerging areas which are not covered by a journal and we can quickly give the research output from these areas a home. Also, groups of researchers may want to create an open access journal to compete with expensive subscription based titles. More and more we are seeing societies come to us to transfer the journal(s) to an open access model whilst retaining editorial control, and we provide the platform to enable them to do this.

What limitations do you foresee in the open approach that must be addressed before it is more fully adopted?

Right now, the most important thing is making the funds available to smooth the transition. Once the funds are in the right place we will see a quick realignment of the market. The second most important thing is a move away from the reliance on Impact Factors for journals. The rules governing how and when an Impact Factor is given to a journal is a minefield for publishers, and the IF itself can, obviously, be distorted. Many open journals are relatively new, and a three-year wait for an IF can be very limiting. We have the technology to be able to use better metrics for judging the value of an article or an author; isn't it about time we started to use them?