The American Chemical Society appears to be in a rather unusual position among scholarly and professional societies in the United States.
On the one hand, it is a well-respected publisher of high-quality chemistry journals and of Chemical Abstracts, which is generally recognized as the core research database in the field.
On the other hand, ACS also provides a formal approval program for undergraduate academic chemistry departments. Programs that adhere satisfactorily to the Guidelines for Undergraduate Professional Education in Chemistry are “ACS-approved,” and ACS will supply department chairs with “free certificates for graduating chemistry majors” to certify that those students are the products of ACS-approved programs. ACS approval is not technically the same thing as accreditation; however, it seems pretty clearly to function very much like accreditation does, and chemistry programs and their students obviously place a very high premium on ACS approval. A Google search on the phrase “ACS-approved” brings up thousands of results for academic department pages and personal resumes on which that phrase features prominently. ACS itself promotes approval as a tool for “attract(ing) top high school talent” and for “leverag(ing) support from . . . institutions and external agencies.” (I contacted several chemistry department chairs, asking if they would comment on the importance of ACS approval in terms of faculty and student recruitment. None responded.)
There are other societies that perform a similar function: the American Psychological Association is the accrediting body for doctoral, postdoctoral, and internship program in psychology; ABET (formerly known as the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) is “the recognized U.S. accreditor of college and university programs in applied science, computing, engineering, and technology,” and accredits roughly “3,100 programs . . . distributed over more than 600 universities and colleges in 21 countries.”
An important difference between these and ACS, apart from the difference that separates “approval” from formal accreditation, is that ACS provides its approval candidates with a list of journals, at least 14 of which must be available to students in the program. The list consists of 98 titles, divided into three sections: General Content (10 titles, three of which are ACS publications); Topical—Highly Recommended (24 titles, 15 of which are ACS publications), and Topical—Also Recommended (54 titles, six of which are ACS publications).
The requirements in relation to these products are set by the ACS Committee on Professional Training, and are as follows (my comments in square brackets):
An approved program must provide access to no fewer than 14 current journals chosen from the CPT recommended journal list . . . in either print or electronic form. At least three must come from the general content list [three of them are ACS titles], and at least one must come from each area of analytical chemistry [Analytical Chemistry is an ACS title], biochemistry [Biochemistry is an ACS title], inorganic chemistry [Inorganic Chemistry is an ACS title], organic chemistry, physical chemistry [the three Journals of Physical Chemistry are all ACS titles], and chemistry education [Journal of Chemical Education is the only title in this category, and is an ACS publication].
In addition, “students must have print or electronic access to Chemical Abstracts, including the ability to search and access full abstracts [Chemical Abstracts is an ACS publication].”
What this means is that no undergraduate chemistry program can gain ACS approval unless its students have access, at a bare minimum, to the ACS publications Chemical Abstracts and Journal of Chemical Education. And while it would be theoretically possible to gain ACS approval without subscribing to any other ACS journals, it would require concerted effort, since a majority of the titles on the “Highly Recommended” list are ACS publications.
Does this arrangement constitute a conflict of interest? Quite clearly it does. ACS is simultaneously in the position of defining the conditions of approval and of realizing direct financial benefit from the specifics of those conditions. To be clear, the question is not whether any chemistry department worth its salt could fail to offer access to, for example, Chemical Abstracts. The question is whether the publisher of Chemical Abstracts should act simultaneously as an “approver” of chemistry programs, where approval is predicated on access to Chemical Abstracts.
What if another publisher were to develop a product that competes directly with Chemical Abstracts? What if the quality and performance of Chemical Abstracts were to drop?
As things stand, ACS seems to be acting simultaneously as player and referee.
ACS characterizes its Committee on Professional Training as “independent,” and it is true that the committee’s members are unpaid by ACS; however, that committee is not an independent body. It is an ACS body.
How big a deal is this? The conflict of interest is blatant in the case of Chemical Abstracts and Journal of Chemical Education, and it is somewhat subtler in regard to the “Highly Recommended” journal list, 63% of which is comprised of ACS titles. But in both cases the conflict is real, and seems to have gone largely (though not entirely) without public comment up until now.
It may be that ACS is handling these conflicts honorably, but how can we know for certain?
At the very least, this issue seems to bear more and wider discussion.