The Academic Spring… and what it means for Joe Public

In the scientific world, peer-reviewed publishing is the gold standard. When some too-good-to-be-true research is reported on the BBC website or a vaccine sceptic makes a seemingly questionable claim, the first question of every scientifically-minded-person’s lips is: Where is the paper? No matter how strong or persuasive the argument, we want to see the data. We want to scrutinise the methods. We want to know that even if we’re not 100% clear on how the experiment was carried out, the scientific community as a whole has given the research its golden seal of approval. Christians have priests, and Jews have rabbis: Scientists have Nature, Science and Cell.

Show me the money

Accessing these journals costs money. Big money. A recent memo from Harvard recounted how their annual cost for journal access was $3.75M. Individual journals may cost as much as forty thousand dollars per year, and many of the big publishing houses like Elsevier will only allow libraries to purchase journals in bundles, not individually. Access has always been expensive, but as print sales dramatically drop, the cost of accessing journals as pdfs has sky-rocketed. This is bad news for universities with dwindling budgets, and inevitably leads to the discontinuation of subscriptions to journals seen as less important. That in turn can be disastrous for academic relying on access to those journals. (Buying an individual article can easily cost you $30, so it’s just not feasible to individually buy everything you need to read).

Researchers’ Reactions

The most visible reaction has been a boycott of publishing in journals owned by Elsevier by 12 000 academics as prompted by a blog post by Tim Gowers. Increasingly academics are pushing for a move towards open access publishing, where rather than publish for free and pay for access, authors pay (e.g. $1000) to have their work published, and it can then be seen by anyone. In the UK, the government has already come out and said that all tax-payer funded research should be open access, and a White House petition with over 25 000 signatures hopes to achieve the same thing in the US.

I’m a fan of Open Access publishing, especially in systems that retain the well respected journals, but allow academics to re-publish their work elsewhere for free after a short embargo. The peer review system stays in tact, but access is not denied to anyone.  Journal subscriptions are frankly ridiculous and while I’m lucky enough to be a postgraduate at a well funded university, it seems ridiculous that if I were less fortunate I wouldn’t be able to find out about science that other people have done. Of course there are still problems, just different ones. Under pay-up-front systems, rather than being unable to access journals, scientists might be unable to publish in them.

What does this mean for Joe Public? 

However, what has jumped out at me several times in the past few weeks is the claim that all tax-payer funded research should be open access so that the general public can read it and thereby engage with research. I can see why this is being repeated. For one thing, the more people who get behind the open access movement, the more likely it is that it will actually happen. And the general public are numerous, if nothing else.

But I think advertising Open Access as the pill to cure scientific illiteracy, or even a good way to engage with Joe Public is misguided at best and dishonest at worst. We as a scientific community are mediocre at science communication. We spend our lives trying to understand complicated systems, and often fail miserably at explaining those in layman’s terms, even when we’re trying for a press release or public lecture. Scientific papers are not written with a lay audience in mind – nor should they be – and it feels somewhat disingenuous to imply that by making research open access we would be making it more accessible to the general public.

Let me give you an example. A few weeks ago the following appeared on my Facebook News Feed (yes, I’m sufficient of a geek that I have journals on my news feed. So sue me.)

I am a molecular plant biologist. I know what ever word of the abstract of that paper means, thanks to my undergraduate biology education. I understand what promoters and repressors are in a genomic context and what a MADS-box transcription factor is. But I cannot read that paper and understand all that it contains without going back and forth to a few other papers and the odd bit of Wikipedia.  I don’t mean to sound dismissive of the general public, but if a postgraduate student in molecular biology needs 10 minutes and some additional materials to understand the research, how is Joe Public supposed to?

If we want to engage the general public with science, it’s going to take more than easy access to our papers to do it. It’s going to take a full on revolution in the way we report research.

2 responses to “The Academic Spring… and what it means for Joe Public

  1. I agree with your argument that improved communication is critical if we are to make full use of open access but I think you’re making a common logical error in dismissing the immediate value of open access to the public as is. The question is not whether the average paper is useful to the average member of the public, but how many papers there are of some real value to some members of the public. If this is greater than zero we get immediate benefits to some specific people via just making the current stuff open. We’ve got lots of stories, largely focussed on people interested in their own or their families health where there is a real need for people to access the literature and where they are actively using it. So these benefits are real, both for people, for medical research, and for the economy through better access to entrepreneurs and technology companies.

    That said, and Alice Bell has made the same point, we could do so much better if papers were better written, methods better described, data properly marked up, and we enabled many more people to do the interpretation and communication part than we do at the moment. So I think both are true but its critical to realise that there are lots of people out there who are perfectly capable of reading, using, utilising, and exploiting the current literature and for whom access is a real benefit. We get this benefit “for nothing” and we can then build on our gains to really provide better means of engagement.

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