Taking Back The Power of Science

I read an article on Ars Technica [via /.]the other day that made me very worried about the future of scientific discovery in the US. With our currently failing economy, I don’t understand how we can still be making such idiotic decisions about the future of some of our most innovative industries.

The scientific research industry is fueled by governmentally funded programs like the NIH and NSF. As a taxpayer and citizen, I cannot believe the idiocy of some of statments against open access in Congress. There is a particularly poignant response on the /. article demonstrating how the greed of publishing companies in a dying industry are attempting to use their financial power and influence over government to squelch dissenters that oppose their bottom line. Let’s face it. With electronic distribution of written material available, the publishing industry as we know it is dying. There’s no way to stop it aside from them increasing their hold of copyrights and copyright law. There is no reason that publishing companies should be taking any sort of “ownership” of research that they publish. With the minuscule cost of publishing something online today, the publishers truly have almost no overhead to publish a scientific article. This was not the case 20 years ago when they had to print and ship their journals across the globe, but today they simply have to put it online. Their work is practically done for them by PubMed, the Google of biomedical science research. Sure, they need to find peer reviewers (one of the cornerstones of research), but do you think that publishing companies actually pay these reviewers? (No.) If that’s the case, why are they still charging thousands of dollars to researchers in order to publish an article? I think it’s because they used to have a reason to, and now that they don’t, it just means bigger profit margins. People don’t like it? They’ll pay the government to make them like it.

This article and the /. post made me start to wonder if an open access journal had already been started. A quick Google search showed me that it had: the Public Library of Science (PLoS). The PLoS is an open access journal published in the United States that guarantees that all of it’s material is available free of charge online. Not only that, but everything is released under a liberal Creative Commons Attribution license, the researchers retain their own copyright, and most importantly, the article is fully available on the day of publication. People don’t have to wait until tomorrow to learn about the discoveries of today. They can just dive right in. This is in stark contrast to the practices of current publishing conglomerates, who take over copyright and make non-subscribers wait a year or more (if at all) to access the material. Now, surely this is good for the publisher’s bottom-line, but you have to stop an ask yourself: Is this good for science?

Since most government-funded scientific research is done at large institutions with many faculty researchers, the scientists might not fully understand the problem. Their institutional affiliation gives them the ability to join together and pay the large fees for a subscription to the most popular journals. But some smaller institutions do not enjoy the luxury of being able to subscribe to anything. And even the largest institutions can’t subscribe to everything. There are simply too many journals. There are also many individuals, like students, and private researchers who wish to learn about what innovations our tax dollars are leading to and where these innovations might lead. Open access would likely generate a renewed interest in basic science and discovery, helping to fuel growth of the field. So should this even be an issue in today’s society? I mean scientists are generally trying to help us better understand the world we live in, the diseases we fight, and the things that affect us. The fact that a project has received a sliver of the ever dwindling government funding demonstrates that it’s a worthwhile project that will very likely yield extraordinary results for the world. Shouldn’t those results be available to anyone?

The PLoS has grown stronger since its inception, but it’s still generally small potatoes compared to the likes of Nature Publishing Group and even JACS. The PLoS now has separate journals in many of the biomedical sciences like biology, genetics, and medicine, and they even have a fast-track publication called PLoS ONE for those high priority articles.

So how is it that this journal, with its inherent ability to accelerate scientific discovery, has managed to stay beneath so many radars? The answer to that is two-fold. The scientific community does not currently seem to recognize both the underlying problem with current publishing companies and the innate ability of a publisher like PLoS to solve this problem once and for all. At the heart of this issue is the notoriety of publication. In order to be successful as a researcher, scientists want to be published in big name journals. Every one of them would love to have a publication in Nature or the NEJM. It’s extraordinarily competitive, and thus only the best of the best research makes it there. But scientists have lost sight of the fact that this notoriety is man-made. Nature is only as famous as it is because everyone wants to publish there. They get the best articles because of it. So if they want to break free of the hold that publishers have over their research, they need to set their own standards. If they want PLoS or any open access journal to be able to defeat the giants, or even get them to start listening, they have to remind the publishers that without their research, the publishers have no industry. Scientists do the work, and they should get to say what happens to it. In all likelihood, any attempt to dictate terms to a publisher is going to fail (at least at this point). But the scientific community needs to remember that they hold the power. They are the ones doing the research, and they are the ones volunteering to peer review. If the publishers won’t meet their demands, they need to meet their own demands. So listen up scientists: In this age of the Internet, you do not need them anymore. Take your research and your peer reviewers and make your own, new notoriety. Once they see you doing that, they’ll either follow suit or not. At that point, it won’t really matter.

But the reason that this has not happened and probably will not happen in near future is that scientists don’t see the dire need for open access because most of them are given most of the access they need. The sooner they realize that they need to demand open access to their work so that other scientists and the public can benefit from it, the better. Once they get past the encumbrance of permissions and red tape laid out by the publishers, they can get on with their life’s work in a much more open, collaborative environment. Otherwise, the publishing industry is going to keep tying researchers’ hands behind their backs, making it harder for them to exchange ideas, just so that they can continue to squeeze every possible dollar out of this industry. This is not good for the scientists, and it’s especially not good for science.

3 thoughts on “Taking Back The Power of Science

  1. You ignore an important point: PLoS Biology asks $2850 from authors for publication. Nature gets its revenue from those interested in buying the magazine, PLoS gets its revenues from those interested in being published.

    The open access journals are not going to address the issues you point out. You are proposing to replace “some smaller institutions do not enjoy the luxury of being able to subscribe to anything” with “some smaller institutions do not enjoy the luxury of being able to publish anything”. In other words, you’re proposing to reduce the supply of science.

    Moreover, on the market, the *customer* is supposed to pay not the producer. You’re proposing having everybody pay for the right to be published, in order for customers to get the product for free. This sounds like communism for the publishing industry and I guess it would fail (i.e. destroy the quality of published research) for the same reasons that communism failed.

    • I’m not ignoring that issue. I understand that researchers have to pay in order to publish in an open access journal. What you might be ignoring is that I’m talking about governmentally funded research from the NIH and NSF. However, it’s not like I’m asking the researcher to pay out of pocket. When a science researcher submits a proposal for an NIH grant, they request funding for all aspects of their work. This includes everything from the stipends for the grad students to do the experiments to the pens and paper that they write with. The government will give funding to cover the $2850 fee associated with publishing in an open access journal. You might wonder whether the government should be paying that. It’s my assertion that if they’re paying for the rest of it, they should pay for the ability to publish in open access journals so that everyone can immediately benefit from their governmentally funded research.

      Part of the issue here is that you likely think that $2850 is too much money. I’d tend to agree with you. At least part of the reason for this is likely that the supply of people wishing to publish in open access journals is fairly small compared to larger journals. As the number of researchers choose to publish in open access journals increases, I’d expect that price to drop dramatically. Also, since PLoS is a lesser-known journal that started online, it’s unlikely that their print subscriptions are very profitable. Many people and institutions want print copies of journals available, and this would be another form of revenue that would allow the publisher to decrease the publication fee.

      You also compare this model to communism. As I pointed out above, the publisher should definitely still charge for a print copy of the publication. This is a tangible good, and it should prove to be a profitable part of their business model. Electronic publication should cost essentially nothing if done right. The information essentially disseminates itself. Should customers pay for that? No. You just have to think like a dandelion.

      I highly doubt that the quality of research would be destroyed or even lessened under this system. In fact, my guess is that it would improve over the next few years. In the online age, it’s really a poor business model to lock your content up so that only certain people can see it. Providing any barriers to access will significantly reduce its spread. Even requiring a sign-up form will prevent a significant percentage of people from seeing it. Your best bet is just to put it out there and let it fly. As a potential customer, seeing your high quality work consistently come up in my quest for information might promote me to purchase a print subscription to your journal so that I can share it with others in our lab. Not to mention that extensive reading online is uncomfortable and it’s difficult to make notes. Maybe I don’t want to just print out the PDFs of the one or two articles I know about. Maybe I’d like to see what others are doing that’s a little bit further from my area of expertise and have it delivered in a nice, neat package. Dissemination breeds interest.

      The easier it is for someone interested in your research to get at it, the more useful it will be. It will promote better cooperation between the researchers themselves, and it will help bring new faces into the arena. Currently most high school students, those at small colleges, and those trying to access information from off-campus (to name a few) are denied access. There are people out there who are interested in science that will never achieve their full potential because they couldn’t get to an interesting article. That’s wrong. And if the government is footing the bill, they should be fighting against that by promoting open access.

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