If you’re an American taxpayer, you are funding the research of scientists around the country. In return, you’re getting cures for your illnesses, more accurate weather reports, and tons of other stuff that comes about as a result of the US research endeavor. This is nothing new.
What is new is the fact that you, sitting there at your computer, can get access to a lot of this science. Some of it, you can read for free by accessing it from an open access content source like PubMed Central or Public Library of Science (PLoS). More often, though, this work is published in a scientific journal that costs a lot. You can buy access to these articles for usually around $30 a pop, which is more than I usually pay for a book, much less a single article. Probably most people aren’t going to pay that. The bigger question is, should people even be asked to pay that? If I’ve already paid for this research with my tax dollars, am I not entitled to read the results of that research?
This is the question that drives the concept of open access. Large federal funders like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation require that you do make your work open access if you’re getting funding from them. As a librarian, I’m very much in favor of open access. I think that making knowledge freely available betters society and creates more opportunities for researchers to collaborate on projects that will further the greater good. Also, because I’m perhaps a bit idealistic, I have a little bit of problem with publishers making millions off of articles that were entirely funded by my tax money, but that’s for another post.
(By the way, lest you think that open access is going to put publishers out of business, you don’t have to worry for them. If I’m an author whose NIH grant funding means that my article has to be made freely available online, the publisher is just going to charge me, the author, to publish my work in their journal. These open access fees often come to several thousands of dollars, so the publishers are still making a pretty penny.)
I assume if you’re here it’s because you like reading and learning and perhaps you’d like to read and learn more about this, so with that in mind, here is a list of articles that I have found of interest lately on the concept of open science. The federal funding issue is one part of this; as you will see, these links deal with the concept of openness in science more broadly. Enjoy!
- Shrimp on treadmills, laundry-folding robots, and the problem of ridiculing research
You’ve proabably heard of the Ig Nobel Awards, which, um, “honor” scientists doing “improbable” research. In other words, they make fun of people who are working on what sound like really stupid research projects, like making a bra that converts into a gas mask or figuring out the minimum air density of wasabi necessary to wake a sleeping person, thereby facilitating the invention of a wasabi-spraying fire alarm (I know I’d rather be wakened by being doused in wasabi than having to hear some shrill alarm, right?). It’s easy to laugh at these projects, except as Liz Borkowski points out in this article, even experiments that sound absurd can have practical applications. When Congress people start mocking scientific studies that they don’t understand under the guise of protecting the taxpayers from silly spending, we risk losing out on important government funding that supports a great deal of the very important research that goes on in the US today.
- U.S. Says Details Of Flu Experiments Should Stay Secret (or opt for the official NIH Press Statement on the NSABB Review of H5N1 Research)
As we all know from watching movies like Contagion, bird flu is the terrifying pandemic that will eventually kill us all. Some researchers have done some research into the likelihood of this situation by studying what sorts of genetic changes to the virus would make it easier for the illness to pass between humans (right now, you’ve got to get it from a bird). Now, the US government would like the researchers to kindly keep quiet about their research because of fears that bioterrorists could use this knowledge to weaponize the virus. I can see the point of their concerns, but the scientific community argues that this knowledge needs to be shared so that others can build upon this initial research, hopefully getting us closer to finding a cure or learning how to prevent the spread of the disease. I can see both sides, but at least for now, the researchers are respecting the request, although the journal Science seems to be considering moving forward with publishing one of the articles.
- Acceptance of CC-NC has sold readers and authors seriously short
Open science expert Peter Murray-Rust discusses why licensing open access articles in PubMed Central as CC-NC rather than CC-BY is “a disaster.” CC stands for Creative Commons, which is an organization dedicated to creating the legal and technical infrastructure necessary to facilitate sharing and openness on the Internet. There are a number of different CC licenses one may apply to their work that specify what others can and cannot do with that work. I won’t get into the technical details of what all of these different licenses do, but Murray-Rust nicely explains why the difference is important. With authors paying thousands of dollars for their work to be “open access,” it’s important that the access is really as open as we might expect.
Image info: Deutsche Fotothek [CC-BY-SA-3.0-de (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons