Free Access to ACS Publications and Why You Can't Have It (Yet)

April 17, 2013

Although not widely-known, the American Chemical Society permits unlimited, free article downloads across its vast journal lineup without a subscription thanks to the Articles on Request program (AoR). Of course there is a catch, explained below, but the official ACS Publications policy is that a significant portion of its collection can in principle be downloaded by anyone for free.

The only problem is that despite the longstanding official position of ACS Publications, its network hasn't been granting access to content eligible for free download under the AoR program. Read on for more about my ongoing efforts to get to the bottom of this issue.

That's Right - Free Access to ACS Publications

As early as 2008, ACS Publications has had a policy in place of allowing unlimited free access to certain journal content. As reported by ACS LiveWire in 2008:

For example, ACS Articles on Request enables authors to freely distribute their articles in the forum of their choosing. Dana Roth, Chemistry Librarian at Caltech, describes the program in a nutshell: “In a sense, the ACS is providing 'open access' by providing authors with a unique URL that allows a specific number of (free) downloads during the first year after publication and an unlimited number of downloads after the first year.” Authors receive this unique link once their article is accepted for publication. They are free to post it where they like (personal homepages, institutional websites, etc.), and distribute it via e-mail as broadly as they wish. The first 50 downloads from users at non-subscribing institutions, made within 12 months of the article's publication, can be accessed at no charge. After 12 months, ALL downloads via that link are free. [emphasis added]

Here's the Catch

Two requirements must be met to download articles through AoR:

  1. A special AoR link needs to have been published by the corresponding author. An example of such a link is: http://pubs.acs.org/articlesonrequest/AOR-MhutKByEQwq6x9Ih7w52. Notice how this link differs from the normal link format (http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jp2047085). Also notice how it's not possible to guess the AoR link from the normal link.
  2. The article must have been published 12 months ago or more. The offical cap during the first 12 months is 50 downloads, although it's not clear whether this limit is actually enforced. In other words, depending on the number of remaining downloads in the initial 12-month period, it may be possible to download any ACS paper at any time, provided that an AoR link is known.

First Problem: Lack of AoR Documentation for Authors

Although ACS does provide a mechanism to download publications for free, the need for special AoR links makes the feature exceedingly difficult to test in practice. Two months ago a reader reminded me about the unlimited download feature, so I decided to test it.

Remembering that I had served as the corresponding author on a J. Med. Chem. paper in 2003, I wanted to locate the corresponding AoR link to test it. My write-up describes the remarkable lack of author-focused documentation I ran into. I'm still not sure if it's even possible for me to recover the AoR link to my papers. However, based on some newer information, I will be making another attempt and describing what I find here.

Whatever else may have been neglected in implementing AoR, better clarity around exactly how corresponding authors obtain AoR links to older papers is desperately needed.

Second Problem: AoR Links are Broken

Although I was unable to locate the AoR link to my own paper, Geoff Hutchison was kind enough to supply a few of his own as was Daniel Lowe. More recently, Alain Borel posted one of his AoR links as well.

A previous post summarized the AoR links I had at the time and my failure in each case to retrieve the promised article. This is a complete list of the AoR links to articles more than 12 months old that I have so far collected:

Following any of these link at the time of writing resulted in the same problem described previously: no article can be downloaded. The one exception is the last; I currently have a subscription to the journal it appears in and so am not able to verify whether the AoR feature works with it or not.

ACS members may have an option to download an AoR paper using the "Universal Access Benefit". This kind of access is to my knowledge not "unlimited" because each member is only allotted 25 such accesses in one year. ACS documentation clearly states the "value" of this benefit ($875), so it's unreasonable to consider access to AoR content through this route as "free".

ACS Publications Response

In response to my last post about the ongoing issues surrounding AoR access, Jonathan Morgan, Director of Digital Strategy & Platform Development at ACS Publications commented:

We have determined that access to ACS Journals content via these unique URLs (which as you may know are distributed to all Corresponding Authors at the time of web publication and made available thereafter on each author’s profile page in the ACS Paragon Plus manuscript submission and peer review system) were affected by a routine software upgrade to our journals delivery platform that was performed in mid-March. While the configuration of the links themselves were not altered, a software code bug in that recent upgrade has been impacting our platform system's ability to deliver content via those links. A code fix has been identified and is currently being validated by our IT staff. Restoring the linking functionality is a high priority for us, and our estimate for completion is on or before next Friday, April 5.

My tests of the AoR links showed no change on April 6. Given that last week was the national ACS Meeting, I postponed following up with ACS Publications until April 15, at which point I emailed Jonathan Morgan and some other contacts I had made at ACS Publications in trying to find a solution to the problem.

I received a response from Brian Crawford, President of the ACS Publications Division on the same day:

I am sorry that it has taken longer than we anticipated to fully resolve this situation. We are working together with our software vendor to address the problem, which is indeed related to the upgrade that was implemented in March. When the fix is in place, we will confirm to you, and will plan also to make a broader announcement to inform other of our readers who might have experienced similar difficulties.

ACS has confirmed that the broken AoR links issue discussed here is in fact the result of an ACS software problem. The cause and solution were identified quickly and prompt resolution was estimated. Several days after that date, ACS stated that the problem is ongoing with no estimate of when it will be resolved.

Other Attempts

In the last few posts about AoR I've encouraged readers to try the service and let me know what they found. A few have graciously obliged.

One confirmation came from @onesleepynerd:

As stated previously, download via Universal Access is not the behavior that should be seen, so onesleepynerd's observation would appear to be confirmation.

Another confirmation came from Daniel Lowe, who unfortunately used a link to a paper in a journal to which I subscribe. For this reason I can't test the link:

I just tried the AoR link on my site ( http://pubs.acs.org/articleson... ) and it also didn't work when I tested it with a colleague's ACS account. Looks like it's broken.

However, more recently Alain Borel reported successfully viewing an AoR link for which he was corresponding author. My attempts to reproduce this observation using the same browser and operating system Alain used were unsuccessful. It should also be noted that the ACS has confirmed the issue I reported now twice. The reason for Alain's differing results aren't yet clear.

The Elephant in the Room

Given everything discussed on the topic to date, a reasonable question might be: Did the AoR unlimited download feature for content older than 12 months ever work in the first place?

It's a little surprising that an issue first described on March 6 was attributed to a software update that occurred in "mid-March". Having written a bit of software myself, I know that it can be frustratingly difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of a bug - and that initial diagnoses are sometimes incorrect. This state of affairs can continue for some time until the rabbit hole has been fully mapped - stretching the completion time beyond all initial expectations.

The scarcity of good author-focused documentation on AoR coupled with the need to use specially-coded, non-guessable links to actually test the feature leads me to wonder how many people have taken advantage of the AoR unlimited download feature in the last five years and whether or not it actually worked.

This is where you can help.

If you've served as the corresponding author for an ACS Publication and have published or given an AoR link to a colleague, were you able to get the AoR unlimited free download feature to work and if so, when?