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Technology

Feb 11, 2013

Why science doesn't belong to everyone (yet)

Publications are the key to science -- but it's an expensive exercise. And it puts a price on research that the public can't afford to pay, argue science writers Upulie Divisekera and Adam G Dunn.

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There’s an unspoken pact scientists make with the public. In the same way that doctors and police are held by law and by honour to tell the truth and protect, a scientist is entrusted with performing research with integrity and transparency. The research is carried out, the process painstakingly recorded in laboratory books. The results are scrutinised by peers, often repeatedly, until the work is published in a journal, where readers trust that the work is done accurately and without disguise.

Publications are the key to science: they are a public acknowledgement and record of what has been done and how it can be repeated by other scientists. This ability to replicate is the key to truth and integrity: if the results can be replicated, they are valid. A new fact, a new discovery, has been made.

Given the importance of validation and publication, you would think access to this vital, new information would be relatively easy.  Scientists ought to be shouting their discoveries from the rooftops.  And they are — but they’re also often paying to publish their own work behind a paywall.

In practice, the information in peer-reviewed publications is not freely available to the public. It’s not even freely available to other scientists. Journals have been around for hundreds of years but in the last quarter of the 20th century, academic publishing increased exponentially. The costs used to come from the physical processes of typesetting, printing and binding but access is now primarily electronic. Our largest databases are now closing in on 50 million articles and a library like that isn’t just a wealth of knowledge — it’s a wealthy profit source, too.

Elsevier, one of the largest publishers of science and medicine, is an obscenely profitable enterprise, having booked an operating profit of US$1.1 billion in 2010. Indeed, scientific publishing is one of the lesser-known scandals of history.

Research, largely funded by the taxpayer, is published in journals that charge up to five figures for a yearly institutional subscription. Even worse, scientists are often forced to cover the costs of publication. It’s a nice way for a publisher to turn a profit: the authors are funded by the public to write your articles. Their peers also help to review, edit and compile the work into your journals’ issues. Then you charge the authors’ peers — and the public who funded the work — an exorbitant sum to access the final product. There’s little wonder scientific publishing is one of the most profitable industries on the planet.

How can they do this? Prestige.

“We need to go back to the efficiency of open and free sharing that was necessary when resources were limited …”

Along with the exponential rise in the number of journals over the years we got a ranking system — measures of the impact journals have on research and the wider world. Journals like Nature and Science have come to be the science community’s standards for prestige, and not simply because they are old. Their prestige is rooted in the fact they have published some of the most important discoveries of the past century, because of the impact their pages have had on the rest of science. To be published in Nature or Science has become the currency of tenure, akin to a secret handshake for access to an elite group and continued funding.

The dawn of the information age, coupled with static research funding has seen a change in perception and expectation. Information sources, whether they be newspapers, magazines or professional journals, are moving closer and closer to full digitisation as competition establishes itself in the online world (example: you’re reading this on Crikey right now instead of on a Sunday morning in a monthly that was delivered to your household mailbox). Even more crucial, perhaps, is people have become accustomed to this and are now demanding faster access to more knowledge.

The open access era is fast approaching.

This movement reached a critical mass in recent times as hackers, activists and scientists began campaigning to increase access to publicly-funded knowledge. As universities tightened their belts, they started to cancel library subscriptions to journals at an increasing rate. What’s more, they began to talk about it and the absurdity of the situation began to move into mainstream academic conversations.

This led to a strong push to make all new knowledge publicly available. The ascension of the internet age has given scientists the tools to make information available in a spirit of openness and accessibility. It’s part of a cultural shift towards greater access to everything, a move towards greater transparency in both access and communication within the scientific community and scientists and the public who funds them.

Funding agencies are beginning to mandate open access to any publications produced through their grants process. Institutions have introduced, where possible, “green open access” policies, requiring any publications produced under their auspices be placed in a publicly available database.

Now, academics are posting their work online in tribute to the death of Aaron Swartz, the young developer and activist who recently committed suicide after intense pressure from those who sought to prosecute him for downloading published articles. Even Big Pharma company GlaxoSmithKline has moved to release the data from all published clinical trials to prove the safety and efficacy of the drugs they produce.

Academics around the world are only now catching up to the strong moral stance that was borne of the 1960s computer hackers — that all information should be free. Academics are beginning to think more about how the system often forces their work behind a paywall in the name of prestige, and to look at the obligations they have to those who fund their work.

Producing good science is hard enough. Telling the world about that good science is expensive and wasteful. We need to go back to the efficiency of open and free sharing that was necessary when resources were limited, to make sure we get the most out of the static public funding for science. We can no longer afford to pay for it twice.

*Upulie Divisekera is a scientist, science writer and communicator (tweeting at @upulie); Adam G Dunn is a research fellow at the Australian Institute of Health Innovation and the Centre for Health Informatics at the University of NSW, working on applying network science to problems in evidence-based medicine

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