Steal this blog post

Wait, scratch that. Don’t steal it. But if you do, at least link to it for pete’s sake.

Anyway, while biologists were busy stealing the nobel prize¹, I was busy stealing books and software. Thus, I’ve had piracy on the brain lately. Something something something, Somalia joke.

But on the real, what’s the moral concensus on stealing things in the name of science? (And weird that only the music industry really seems to care about pirated goods. But that’s for another blog post. Perhaps even another blog…)

Aside from tuition, food, and housing, I reckon that books/software make up a significant chunk of student expenses. Frankly, the only reason I buy required textbooks is because nobody has invented a convenient way to access books digitally. Paper > PDFs any day, especially when it comes to several-hundred-page textbooks. But, when it comes to non-required books, references, or “fun” reads, all bets are off.

Take, for example, the plethora (and expense) of reference books offered by John Wiley & Sons. Many of these books are easily available through illegitimate means, simply though a quick google search. Of course, stealing is wrong and I’d never ever condone such actions: downloading these books, redistributing them, referencing them without citation would probably fall into the “stealing is wrong category.” But, what about downloading the book for use as a quick reference? What if that reference is already available on wikipedia? What if I could walk into my bookstore, pick up the book, flip through it, find exactly what I need, then set it down and walk out without buying it? What if my library has a copy of it, and I’m just saving myself a trip there? What if I’m not even denying any money to public transit to facilitate my trip to the library because I would have biked anyway?

For all intents and purposes, each of these scenarios still probably falls within the domain of “stealing is wrong.” However, when the magnitude of the “wrongness” gets smaller and smaller, attempting to classify the stealing as right or wrong kind of becomes trivial. If your library doesn’t have some critical reference you were looking for, then what do you do? Run to the bookstore to have a look at it, shell out the cash to buy it, illegally download it, or keep looking until you (hopefully) find the information elsewhere?

Similarly, let’s have a look at software. In particular, ChemDraw and MestRe Nova. I’ve use both, I enjoy working with both, both are fairly expensive. (Academic pricing: $150 for a perpetual license on standard ChemDraw, and no updates. 305€ for MestRe Nova. Nearly $450 USD, and only includes 1 year of updates/support.)  Luckily, I have a license to both through my university. If I didn’t, I’d be in a real pickle. Of course, there are free options, but realistically, it makes little sense to familiarize yourself with obscure software that’s not widely used out in the real world, and furthermore, they’re frankly not as good. Reason? I don’t care if free software can do everything that the big name software can do if it can’t do it efficiently/with an intuitive user interface. Unfortunately, that comes at a price.

While other forms of piracy (music/movies/gaming software) are generally for entertainment, the piracy reference books and scientific software can greatly impact the work of a chemist. Maybe they won’t make one’s work better, but I’m damn sure that “proper” references and software can make work easier, more efficient, less aggravating, and less time consuming. So if your school does not offer the resources you need, you’re roped into a pretty dismal cost-benefit analysis. Same goes for the workplace, but that’s (hopefully) less of in issue, given that you’d (hopefully) be making big boy money, and not be scraping by on a grad student stipend or even paying for your undergrad education. In either case, you can: pony up for the goods, waste time dealing with subpar resources, or find an illegitimate source. What do you do?

1) For the non scientists out there, or for the scientists out there who have been living in a hole the past week, it’s been blogged about everywhere


6 Responses to Steal this blog post

  1. mitch says:

    There are a lot of good free drawing software. I think your generalization is grossly unfair. It does take sometime to familiarize yourself with them, but probably the same amount it took you to familiarize yourself with chemdraw.

  2. excimer says:

    Free software is only as good as the creators want it to be, just like professional software. Professional chemistry software was never meant to be sold to individuals- they make their killing from institutional licensing. So just use what you can get for free.

    The only thing ChemDraw really excels at compared to the free drawing software (like MarvinSketch) is making publication-quality structures. For general chemical manipulation, the free versions are fine. Actually, MarvinSketch is pretty much superior for everything else. (I wish it wasn’t Java-based, but whatever.)

    Avogadro (for computational chem) is pretty good, but in my experience the Mac version is unacceptably unstable.

    Most of the good (bio)molecular rendering programs are the free ones- PyMOL is fucking awesome, as is VMD.

    My advice: use whatever makes you most productive. Bitching about free software being superior or inferior is unproductive. Well, from a “getting shit done” perspective.

  3. chiraljones says:

    to consolidate:
    @mitch: ok ok. you got me there. To clarify, I have not used all of the free drawing software out there, but of what I have come across, I still like using chemdraw more. Not that there isn’t good free software, but I prefer chemdraw.

    @excimer: Ok, haven’t used Avogadro, PyMOL nor VMD yet. I checked out the online Java version of MarvinSketch, and it looks decent, but I noticed that there’s no support of .cdx files. At least, not that they’ve advertised. So, if working with anyone who uses chemdraw, you’d need to let them know to make sure to save it in a compatible file format.

    I know it’s nit-picky, but it can still be a hassle. Like trying to deal with MS word docs between PCs and Macs…

    I’m not trying to start the done-to-death argument of freeware/opensource vs paid for software…

    What I am saying is that, as a chemistry student, my job is to study chemistry (ideally). My job is not to have to deal with software imperfections so that I can study chemistry (ideally). Perhaps using drawing software wasn’t the best example, but in general, of course I want to use what I like best/feel most productive with, whether or not its free.
    But what if you’re most productive with software you don’t have access to? Of course, you can adapt to your next preferred software available (free or not), but again, if you’re less productive with the software you’re using, it’s just another hurdle between “you” and “doing chemistry”.

    You catchin’ my drift, or am I all alone on this one?

    And Excimer, please. It’s a day off! Unproductivity is the name of the game…

  4. I can empathize when the software is REQUIRED – say, you NEED to use ChemDraw in order to swap files back and forth with the boss and write publications. You NEED microsoft word to seamlessly transfer from your PC to boss’s Mac. Does your institution provide access to them? No. Will your boss pay for them? No. Both the institution and the boss only bought the Mac versions and don’t see it necessary to purchase the PC counterparts because the investments were already made for the majority. What do you do then? That’s when it’s an issue – when you can’t access the specific software you need. (I realize OpenOffice and other drawing programs can integrate, but I’ve found not so seamlessly despite people claiming that they are acceptable substitutes for file swapping.)

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