September 5, 2018 | David F. Coppedge

Who Owns Science, Anyway?

Journal editors are freaking out over the rise of Open Science initiatives, worried their reign over the perception of science is doomed.

Who owns science? In the old days, scientists were self-funded or supported by patrons. Nowadays, much of science is funded by governments. And yet the results of the research remain largely behind paywalls: journals that require subscription fees often beyond the reach of the common man. Universities and labs can afford site licenses that allow all or most employees of the institutions instant access to the latest published research. But again, citizens outside of those institutions stay outside the paywall. They only get open access to internet-based science news services (EurekAlert, Science Daily, Phys.org) which dish out predigested summaries of findings – and then, only after embargo dates expire. Often, however, those summaries are tainted with bias to make the researcher’s institution look good.

The thinking behind Open Science is that people who fund the research ought to be able to see the results. Some journals compromise by making all their publications publicly-accessible after a time period. Sometimes that is a year or more. Journals worry not just about their bottom line, and big hits to their operating expenses of peer review, illustration and publication, but to the process of science itself. Doesn’t peer review require adequate time to complete, and offer protection to both reviewers and authors? In the meantime, open-science journals (where the researcher pays to get printed), and online services like arXiv and bioXiv have made pre-publication research available for comment before peer review.

It’s a scientific revolution, and Big Media is running scared.

Radical open-access plan could spell end to journal subscriptions (Nature News). A graph in this piece by Holly Else shows the steady rise of open-access publishing. Her use of the word “radical open-access” underscores the fear: “Eleven research funders in Europe announce ‘Plan S’ to make all scientific works free to read as soon as they are published.” There goes the hefty subscription price to Nature, Science, and other big-name journals that have comfortably ruled peer-reviewed publications for decades.

Major research-funding agencies from across Europe have unveiled a radical open-access initiative that could change the face of science publishing in two years. The ‘Plan S’ pledge requires that scientists make papers free to read immediately upon publication, under an open licence. Publishers were immediately up in arms about the plan: Springer Nature said it “potentially undermines the whole research publishing system”. The initiative is spearheaded by Robert-Jan Smits, the European Commission’s special envoy on open access, who says the ‘S’ in Plan S can stand for “science, speed, solution, shock”.

Proponents of open science argue that “Paywalls are not only hindering the scientific enterprise itself but also they are an obstacle [to] the uptake of research results by the wider public.”

Every solution creates new problems. While the public might welcome the new transparency and access, free-world governments might worry about theft of intellectual property, or release of findings with dual-use potential (civilian and military). The situation might be compared to debates about free-speech rights to publish steps to making a gun with a 3-D printer. And what about free markets? But does the free market apply to dissemination of information paid for by OPM? (other people’s money). Subscription-paid access has dropped from 49.2% to 37.7% between 2012 and 2016, a graph in the article shows. Whatever happens, the Europeans are pushing a “bold access plan” that “could overturn science publishing as we know it” (Nature Briefing).

Pirate paper website Sci-Hub dealt another blow by US courts (Nature News, Nov 2017). Last fall, Nature gloated that the courts prevented Sci-Hub from reprinting unauthorized papers from the American Chemical Society. ACS won a lawsuit, but the defendant Sci-Hub operates outside the United States. It may have been a pyrrhic victory. Nature acknowledges that thieves have workarounds to get past the paywalls on the internet.

The smart trendmakers are trying to look more open and less selfish. Hoary old journals like Nature have initiated their own open-access journals (Nature Communications, Scientific Reports), and Science, published by the AAAS, has its open-access contender, Science Advances. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) offers some of its papers in open-access form. They’re all trying to join the bandwagon; they just don’t want to let go of their cash cows.

Science without publication paywalls: Coalition S for the realisation of full and immediate Open Access (PLoS Biology). Here are the arguments by the crafters of Plan S for the “radical” open-access plan. And for anyone wishing to read it, the plan itself is published in one of the most successful open-access journals, Public Library of Science.

Nobody knows what will happen, and we are not taking sides. People have a right to protect their intellectual property, and businesses have a right to compete in the free market, but there are gray areas here. Does the researcher own it, if it was taxpayer funded? Does the journal own it, because they provide a service to readers, including dressing up text for print and adding commentaries? Does the public own it, when they may have paid for the research, but not the work of formatting and dissemination? While we agree that “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” sunlight can also kill some beneficial things.

The only clear lesson from this wild-west rampage is that scientific practices are not set in stone. Peer review, publication, and scientific methods must be adapted to changing circumstances. The internet is a huge recent circumstance. Raise your hand if you remember sitting in the library walking through stacks of journals after consulting the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. Are we better off now? Well, in some ways. Loss of control over intellectual property, particular information with dual-use potential, may have globally nefarious consequences. Navigating these rapids will require the best in human intelligent design.

 

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