Sources of Polymer Information

I am currently working on a paper, trying to outline our informatics strategy for the polymer science and in particular for the polymer pharmaceuticals community. As part of the paper, I am reviewing sources of polymer information and their accessibility in terms of open access. And, it will come as no surprise, that the situation is depressing.

So what are the sources of polymer information? Well, there are mainly three: papers, theses and data compilations. Let’s look at these in turn.

Papers. Well, Peter continues to blog about this extensively. Papers are copyrighted by the publisher – all rights reserved. Open Access publishing is practically not done in the polmer science: papers submitted to the standard canon of polymer journals (including supplementary information where available) are fully copyrighted by the publisher. There is a tiny spark of light: e-polymers. Here’s a journal description copied from the e-Polymers website:

e-Polymers is a peer-reviewed internet journal under the auspices of the European Polymer Federation (EPF). In the area of polymer science and engineering, it makes novel scientific and technological results available both in academia and industry, and basically free of charge.

Furthermore, e-Polymers is a forum dedicated to the free and fast exchange of information. Therefore, it will comprise

  • original publications on basic polymer science and engineering,
  • reviews on trends in science and technology, in academia and industry,
  • reports on educational topics,
  • information about joint programmes, e.g. of the EU,
  • job advertisements and appointments of new chairs etc.,
  • business reports (abstracts),
  • commercial links and advertisements.

Thus, e-Polymers is the answer to the strange situation that many institutions cannot afford to subscribe to journals which – at the same time – they strongly support by submission of high-quality papers, refereeing etc.”

So far so good. Or not, as the matter may be. When first reading this, one could get the impression, that words and phrases such as “free” and “e-Polymers is the answer to the strange situation that many institutions cannot afford to subscribe to journals which – at the same time – they strongly support by submission of high-quality papers, refereeing etc.” would point to an open access publication or at least to the spirit of open culture. However, this is not so. Upon closer inspection of the author instructions one finds, that upon acceptance of a paper submitted to e-Polymers, the author transfers all copyright to the journal. The journal is therefore merely free to view (which is a first step) but NOT open access according to the Budapest Open Access Initiative Declaration. When digging around the website further, one finds even more obstacles: the journal is a priori only free to view for participating institutions and their members. Non-members can gain free access, though this has to be requested via an institutional library. So it is free to view with obstacles, which removes us even further from true open access. Nevertheless, the European Polymer Federation seems to have correctly diagnosed the problem in scientific publishing at the moment and has taken a baby step to address the issue of access. This is encouraging and maybe can be built on to move to full open access in the future.

Theses. The problems associated with theses in the polymer science field are the same as those encountered for theses in general: availability/accessibility and a clear licence. Although the situation is improving, a significant number of institutions only require the submission of one or several paper copies of a doctoral thesis. As such, of course, the contents of the thesis is lost in terms of machine processing and information extraction. But even when available in an institutional repository, there is usually a lack of a clear licence or the contents are again copyrighted by the institution itself and therefore cannot be freely accessed and used in terms of the Budapest Open Access defintion.

Data Compilations. A number of compilations for polymer data exist, which are in extensive use by scientists. The most important ones are the Polymer Handbook (Eds. Brandrup, Immergut), The Wiley Database of Polymer Properties, Polymers – A Property Database and the PoLyInfo database. Let’s look at these in turn:

The Polymer Handbook. Published by Wiley. Non-digital, contents copyrighted and all rights reserved by Wiley, commercial.

The Wiley Database of Polymer Properties. Published by Wiley and essentially a HTML version of the Polymer Handbook. Digital, subscription basis, log-in required, contents copyrighted and all rights reserved by Wiley, commercial.

Polymers – A Property Database. Published by Taylor and Francis. Digital, subscription basis, log-in required, contents copyrighted and all rights reserved by Taylor and Francis, commercial.

PoLyInfo Database. Developed by the National Institute for Materials Science of Japan. Digital, log-in required, contents copyrighted and all rights reserved by NIMS, non-commercial, free to view.

So overall, the situation is even worse than for small molecule chemistry, where open access resources are starting to make a real impact and which is increasingly liberating chemistry data (see, for example, PubChem, CrystalEye). At the moment, there is nothing even remotely comparable for polymers.

So, how could we change the situation? Clearly, there needs to be a multipronged approach:

Community building: There are a number of existing or emerging polymer communities, which might be open to the idea of open data – a collaboration with just one of them could be enough to act as a demonstrator and maybe is catalytic.

Continued advocacy: Open Culture advocates are getting increasingly vocal and efforts such as those of Peter, Peter Suber, the Creative and Science Commons, the Open Knowledge Foundation (Rufus Pollock) and many many others are invaluable. Education must be part of this: where students are not already aware, they ought to be confronted with the idea as undergraduates: nowhere more so than in chemistry.

Continued technology development: The more I understand about the technologies that we are currently developing and that are already changing the face of the internet, the more I am convinced that these technologies in themselves will force a radical change in the business model that is driving scientific publishing. The current one is becoming increasingly untenable and the aggressive behaviour currently shown by some publishers only indicates an attempt to defend a dying business.

Continued pressure from funding bodies: Funding bodies need to be convinced to “vote with their wallets” and require researchers to deposit manuscripts and data in OA archives/repositories as a condition of funding. The Wellcome Trust is exemplary in this context.

Maybe in this way, we will be able to remove the enclosure, that is currently choking “the intangible commons of the mind”[1] that currently impedes scientific progress.

[1] Willinsky, J., The Access Principle – The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, (2006) and references therein. (Available under CC licence from MIT Press webpage)

3 Responses to Sources of Polymer Information

  1. barney grubbs says:

    We have access through the university library to an electronic version of the Polymer Handbook . Individual chapters are posted as pdf files but there a number of the more useful tables are also available in a sortable format.
    It’s still very far from open access and probably not easily indexable either. I don’t know how well designed the tables are because I usually just grab the copy off of my bookshelf on those rare occasions when I need it.

  2. Dr Nico Adams says:

    Hi Barney,

    thanks very much for your comment and your thoughts. Yes, there is an electronic version of the polymer handbook- as a matter of fact there are two. There’s the one you mention with chapters essentiall being available in pdf format and then there is, as mentioned in my blog post, the Wiley Database of Polymer Properties, which is, as I have indicated, a HTML version of the polymer handbook.

    Now from my point of view, there are several problems with a pdf version of the Polymer handbook. First of all and most crucially, the data is not open access. When I talk about open access, I mean open access as defined in the Budapest Open Access Declaration:

    By “open access” to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited. [1]

    As it stands, the polymer handbook or an electronic version thereof is free to read once I have purchased the book, a subscription or if a library has done so for me. The data is not freely available, without expectation of payment. Furthermore, it is highly unclear whether I can scrape the data electronically and use it, redistribute it etc. without requesting permission from the publisher.

    The second problem is equally bad. And that is, that the data is presented in pdf. Peter has blogged extensively about the problems associated with chemical information contained in pdf and has commented, that trying to extract information out of a pdf file by, for example, trying to convert pdf to XML is like turning a hamburger back into a cow.

    The reason for this, that the process of converting text to pdf essentially produces a set of graphical objects without semantics, i.e. well defined well-defined relationships between them. In practice this means that when you want to convert back to text, you effectively loose things like subscripts and superscripts and therefore the information that C2H5OH might have been a chemical formula once (while you can still tell that this is supposed to represent a formula, a machine has no a priori chemistry knowledge…). More seriously, when structure drawings are present, you loose all connectivity information etc.

    So in summary, a polymer handbook in pdf does not help data-driven polymer science because we have no access: we have no access due to murky copyright considerations and we have no access because we have hamburgered polymer information.

    I hope this has helped to clarify matters somewhat.

    [1] http://www.soros.org/openaccess/read.shtml

  3. barney grubbs says:

    Nico,

    I hear and agree–I was just trying to make the comment that there did exist a digital (if largely useless from many perspectives) version of the Polymer Handbook. I have skimmed Peter’s posts on the problems with pdf files and think of them every time I shake my fists and fingers at scanned in pdfs of articles that I would like to search for particular keywords.
    The Polymer Handbook (and perhaps the other resources, too?) seems particularly hamstrung in terms of making it searchable by the fact that a given polymer can be referred to by a number of different names through the text.
    I will be interested to see your paper when it comes out–I have no real expertise in informatics, but through college, grad school, etc., I have seen the transition from hard copies of Chem Abstracts & Beilstein to the current searchable versions. These have gotten pretty good for small molecules, but searches for specific polymers made by specific methods still require some detective work.

    -Barney

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