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To blow open the doors of science, or not?


by Sarah Scoles

The concept of “open science,” which has been getting a lot of press lately, seems like a topic appropriate for this blog—a blog in which the goal is to take peer-reviewed journal articles and transform them into language more accessible and interesting to a general, scientifically literate audience. We want to expose both the questions being asked in science right now and the answers people are finding. You don’t have to have expensive institutional subscriptions to Nature and Science and ApJ and Cell to read about the results we cover here, but you do if you don’t trust our interpretations, or if you want to choose what results to read about rather than have those weird cartoon characters at the top of the page choose for you.


In the age of the internet (that means now), when you can share not only emoticons but data and analysis with someone five time zones from you, and when you can just wake up one day and decide to make a website and, once you figure out all that DNS stuff, post PDFs of every paper you’ve ever written, including that report about tornadoes from third grade—in this age, why is science still relatively locked up, and will it continue to be?

First off, I’ll address the question, “Is science actually locked up?

Have you guys ever seen this show?
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A recent Science Friday interview called “Can Science be Done without Secrecy,” which was also covered by Talk of the Nation, featured the author of a book called Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science. In this interview, Michael Neilsen expresses his surprise and concern that scientists aren’t using the collaborative power of the information era as much as they could. He states that scientists keep their results close and their data closer (for as long as it’s proprietarily possible), lest they be scooped. If they are not scooped, their results are published in proprietary scientific journals.

Some may argue that publicly funded science is accountable to the funding organizations and must provide reports on results, and that anyone can access scientific journals (for $$), and that almost all articles have multiple (sometimes dozens) of authors, and that the peer review process means, as the name implies, that one’s peers do see one’s work and can give helpful feedback. But I think Neilsen is talking more about general openness, with more than just people specifically invited into official collaborations. It is true that lots of science/scientists must be transparent about what they plan to do and how they've been successful. But I think part of the point that the author is trying to make has to do with whether or not those plans and results reach people who are not working in a scientist’s specific subfield and who aren't funding their work.

Neilsen brings up how the publication of scientific results primarily in peer-reviewed journals (while the process exists to make sure science is science and not quackery) delays results and limits who gets the information, who takes a second look at your data, and who responds to your work. I don't think that the author would advocate taking away peer review (as he brings up the Higgs boson blog debacle). His main point seems to be that there are many virtual avenues for delivering and discussing scientific data and discoveries, with more than just the kinds of peers who would be selected for a peer review panel, and that those avenues aren't being used as interestingly or productively as they could be.

A common "but, but if we let anyone do science" counter-argument.

His arguments beg the question, “What more could be achieved or discovered if science were more accessible?”

Another recent article about both the reasons science is sometimes inaccessible, both in terms of where and how it’s presented, is “The Other Academic Freedom Movement,” by Konstantin Kakaes on Slate. The biggest reason presented is that “in a world where academics could just post a paper up on their own websites, the primary purpose of a journal article is its professional validation.”

Putting it in print doesn't make it true.

If you put your PDF on your website, a reader won’t know how seriously to take your work. Did anyone check your methods? Did anyone make sure your dataset wasn’t biased? Did anyway make sure your conclusion was actually supported by all those figures and tables? A reader would have to answer those questions herself, and that’s a lot of work, and work you might not be great at doing if you’re not an expert in the subfield. But if you find an article in a journal, you can trust (hypothetically) that you can trust the results and analysis.

And somebody who wants to hire you for a job or ask you to give a colloquium to a room full of people holding coffee and cookies—they want to know how many times you’ve been published in journals, not how many times you’ve uploaded some files to your website.

Journals also centralize results. If an astronomer wants to know about the hottest discoveries, she only has to check a few specific websites (as long as her institution has a subscription, as long as she has an institution), and she can be confident that she’s up-to-date.

One of the most logical arguments for more scientific openness relates to everybody’s favorite spring topic: taxes. Billions of dollars of scientific research is funded by you and your grandma. As Kakaes puts it, “Taxpayers, having paid once for the research, shouldn’t have to pay again to read what was done.”

To address that valid point, a bipartisan group of politicians introduced the Federal Research Public Access Act, introduced a few days ago, which would provide access to almost all federally funded research (except, you know, the research on secret spy plane technology). This act is a response to the Research Works Act, introduced in December, which is meant to strengthen and uphold the current publishing system.

So we have the problem of research not getting to “the people,” and we have the problem of researchers not always working together in the ways that we could, and if those things don’t change, there’s no way to how science could change, either for the better or for the worse.

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