June 27, 2012 | David F. Coppedge

Who Owns Science? Publication Revolution Underway

A revolution in scientific publishing may fundamentally alter the power structure over science and result in openness for all.

The traditional method of publishing scientific results has been the peer-reviewed journal paper.  Nature, Science, and countless other journals are for-profit enterprises that justify their existence by adding value to research and providing editorial review.  Printing a journal is costly; no question, but it is also a powerful position: the editors make the call on what gets published.  Traditional journals took early advantage of the internet by providing online subscriptions.  Universities and research institutions have to buy costly site licenses; individuals have to pay hundreds of dollars and are forced to get the print edition with the online access.

A new method is pulling the rug out from journal editors: open access publishing.  These “author pays” systems allow everyone to read the paper without a subscription.  The success of arXiv, Public Library of Science and other open-access sites is putting pressure on the traditional print journals to join the bandwagon or get left behind.  Why pay when readers can get good science for free?  Who owns research, anyway?  Much research is government-funded.  Why should readers pay a for-profit company to read what their tax dollars have paid for?  Even if an individual author has to pay for the privilege of publication, he or she can do it, or can get the institution to do it.  Government funding can still foot the bill.  But now, everyone in the world can read it.

Nature addressed this situation in its editorial today (Nature, 486, 28 June 2012, p. 439, doi:10.1038/486439a).  Surprisingly, the editors are in favor of open access.  Maybe they realize trends are leaving them no other option.  They are starting to look like those evil, self-seeking corporations everyone demonizes because they appear greedy for profit:

Publishers in such an environment will need all the more to demonstrate that they add value to the research process. This sits alongside their need to deliver a reasonable profit — whether to fund learned-society activities or to reduce their publishing charges (the aim of the Public Library of Science) or, like many suppliers of services and equipment to researchers, to deliver a return to their investors. The perception of publishers as profiteers is strong, and understanding of the value they add is weak. Not noted for their transparency, publishers will have to work hard to develop trust amid a fundamental shift in their customer base.

In the same issue, Nature published the opinion of Geoffrey Boulton, who is also strongly in favor of open access (“Open your minds and share your results,” Nature News, Jan 27, 2012).  He not only wants open access publishing; he wants open data, and openness to the public:

We also need to be open towards fellow citizens. The massive impact of science on our collective and individual lives has decreased the willingness of many to accept the pronouncements of scientists unless they can verify the strength of the underlying evidence for themselves. The furore surrounding ‘Climategate’ — rooted in the resistance of climate scientists to accede to requests from members of the public for data underlying some of the claims of climate science — was in part a motivation for the Royal Society’s current report. It is vital that science is not seen to hide behind closed laboratory doors, but engages seriously with the public.

He continued, “Everyone will benefit from a more open approach.”  There are challenges, for sure; how to make abstruse data intelligible to the public, and how to solve issues about confidentiality, costs, and discoverer’s priority.  Judging from scientist comments, though, there’s a strong feeling that it’s about time.  One researcher who benefited from open access to the arXiv database said, “it remains an important venue for exploration of alternatives to that quaint atavism pre-publication peer review – a bottleneck whose justification would be further reduced if the supporting data were itself freely available.

It’s the transparency issue that holds the greatest potential for a sea change in science publishing.  How did journal editors decide what research merits publication?  How were reviewers picked?  That lack of transparency, that perpetuation of status-quo science has long been the complaint of many “maverick” scientists who felt stymied by consensus.  Open access may change that dramatically.  Now, they may have a solution in open-access publication, where the reviewers are the public, the research is public, and scientists around the world can engage in the critique.

With every revolution will come new challenges, though.  Does this mean crackpot theories will have easier paths to fame?  That problem already exists.  Traditional journals publish wild ideas all the time, and some crackpot theories turn out to be mainstream (e.g., fractal geometry, plate tectonics, expanding universe).  The right question is, who determines what is crackpot or not?  What standards will determine scientific merit?  How will they be maintained?  Who owns science, anyway?  It’s going to be an interesting sea that scientists set sail on.

Intelligent design is considered crackpot by Nature, Science and many other mainstream journal editors, but ID advocates (most with legitimate PhDs who feel stymied by the consensus and power structure) consider the Darwinian trash that gets published weekly to be crackpot.  Whether open access publishing opens the doors of the Darwin Dark Castle and lets in some fresh air remains to be seen.

“Every solution breeds new problems,” Peer’s Law says.  We’ve seen this with Wikipedia.  It sounded great.  No more bookshelves with heavy tomes; just search on a keyword and presto! instant encyclopedia material online, peer reviewed by everyone!  Problem: certain elements in society make it their mission in life to undo any changes to their opinions (see Evolution News & Views description of the problem).  ID advocates cannot fix outright lies before online censors immediately change them back.  As a result, falsehoods endure with no way to correct them.  In essence, the anti-ID censorship just shifted from journal editors to unemployed, self-proclaimed guardians wearing pajamas.  Open access journals may face similar obstructions.

It’s worth a try anyway.  It doesn’t seem like it can be any worse than the status quo.  There’s always book publishing, another tried and true method that gave the world some of the greatest science of all time (e.g., Newton’s Principia).  The free market allows for entrepreneurs to offer a better service than Wikipedia and sap its power, just like Facebook put MySpace out to pasture (now Google’s market dominance needs some competition, but people use it because they like what it provides).  Big Music was horrified at the prospect of music downloads, but online access to music has revolutionized the way we buy entertainment, and most users are happy with all the new options.  It has also brought great new talent to the surface that never would have seen the light of day by powerful corporations.  Traditional journals are for-profit businesses.   They can’t pretend some kind of divine right to do things the old way; they need to go with the flow, to adjust to changing markets.  Protectionism rarely works.

What do you think?  Will open access publishing improve science?  Will it open doors long closed to politically-incorrect views like intelligent design?    How will the public recognize quality science and reject crackpot ideas?  Will new power structures emerge?  Will new problems with censorship outweigh the benefits, making us wish for the good old days?  Can the open marketplace of ideas work in today’s highly-polarized world?  Join the conversation; add your comments.

Exercise:  (1) Describe how you think Climategate might have gone differently (if at all) with open access to data.  (2) Describe new challenges ethicists will face in the open-access world: e.g., top secret military research, dual-use research that could have military applications falling into the hands of terrorists, control of human cloning, etc.  (3) How will evolutionary theory fare if skeptics become free to critique papers that the journals published uncritically?


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  • Jon Saboe says:

    Reminded of how Noam Chomsky looked forward to the day that the “citizen journalist” would finally rise up to expose and bring down the establishment. Sadly, for him, the “establishment” is predominantly Statist, Secularist, and Darwinist . Chomsky’s grand day is here – but yielding results there are quite opposite from those he would have imagined.

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