Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Open access science

Far from being an ivory tower, nowadays science looks more like a battered citadel besieged by an army of Orcs.  It doesn't help that scientists don't seem to understand that the public has a right to have access to the results of the research work performed with their tax money. We need to make science more open if we want to be ablet to act on the knowledge that science is producing (image credit "crossbow and catapults")

In the 1990s, when the Internet was young, I had the idea of an "open access journal" in what was my scientific field at the time: surface science. The idea was that scientific research is paid by the public and that, therefore, the results of scientific research have to be freely accessible to the public. So, together with a few colleagues, we started an Internet site called "The Surface Science Forum" which made research papers in surface science freely available on the Web.

It was not a success. The "Surface science forum" survived for a few years, but it never had a real impact. In 2000, I was moving to a different field and I decided to close the forum. If you are curious, you can still find it here.

But the problems with scientific publishing that the Surface Science Forum had tried to address are still there and, with time, are becoming more and more serious. Not long ago, George Monbiot gave a good description of these problems in an article on "The Guardian" He says:

Distrust [in science] has been multiplied by the publishers of scientific journals, whose monopolistic practices make the supermarkets look like angels, and which are long overdue for a referral to the Competition Commission. They pay nothing for most of the material they publish, yet, unless you are attached to an academic institute, they'll charge you £20 or more for access to a single article. In some cases they charge libraries tens of thousands for an annual subscription. If scientists want people at least to try to understand their work, they should raise a full-scale revolt against the journals that publish them. It is no longer acceptable for the guardians of knowledge to behave like 19th-century gamekeepers, chasing the proles out of the grand estates.

What Monbiot says is true: in giving the results of their work to publishers for free, scientists are exploited as if they were seasonal fruit pickers. Of course, there would be nothing wrong in this practice if the money paid for accessing scientific papers were to go to finance research or to pay for services useful for research. But that's not the case. Commercial publishers don't finance research and they face very modest costs for their activity. Peer reviewing, for instance, is performed by scientists for free (again!).

Scientists are not supposed to be dumb and, normally, they aren't. This behavior of theirs is the result of a specific factor: the fact that scientific papers are a sort of "currency" in the world of science. Money, as well known, is nothing but credit and, for scientists, each paper is a form of credit that can be later redeemed in terms of career advancement, grants, academic positions and the like. It is "money", in short.

Scientific publishers have managed to act as "banks" for this scientific currency. As banks, they guarantee the value of the currency they manage; actually they create it in the form of published papers that they stamp with their seal of quality, just as Roman Emperors stamped their denarius coins with their face.

So, it is understandable that scientists don't want to see their currency debased. For them, publishing outside the system is the equivalent of printing counterfeited money. It is not only valueless, it may actually have a negative value, damaging the scientist's reputation. for instance, in some quarters, keeping a blog is considered as a blot on a scientist's reputation. That was the attitude that had doomed the "Surface Science Forum" and which is still the prevalent one in science.

But times are rapidly changing. Once, science might have been seen as an ivory tower, able to keep its own currency.  Now, it looks more and more like a battered citadel besieged by an army of orcs with catapults. The situation is especially bad with climate science, object of political spin campaigns designed to destroy the reputation of individual scientists as well as of the whole field. The public tends to ask science for miracle solutions to our problems and people are disappointed when told that there is none. Disappointed people tend to become aggressive, as you can see, as an example, in some comments on the recent case of the E-Cat scam. In this situation, the traditional methods of scientific publishing are not going to enhance the prestige of science.

Fortunately, scientists seem to be discovering that they can't stick to the old ways any longer. After all, the quality of a paper doesn't reside on the seal of a commercial editor, it is guaranteed by the peer reviewing process. And scientists are doing peer reviewing, not editors. So, scientists tend to publish more and more in "open access journals", which just didn't exist up to not long ago. There is now an "open science movement", and a movement to boycott Elsevier, singled out among the many scientific editors as an especially bad one.

Is all that enough? Surely, these are positive developments, but we must do more. Science is not an ivory tower and not even a besieged citadel. It is an enterprise designed to produce knowledge and we badly need this knowledge in this difficult moment. It is not enough to make this knowledge available to those who paid for it, we must also strive to make it understandable to those who can act on it. How to do it? Well, there are many ways. For a start, if you are a scientist, why don't you keep a blog?

On the question of open access, see also this article on the New York Times (h/t Bart Anderson)


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)