There’s a fascinating shift going on in scientific publishing, as our fundamental model for who pays for the necessary apparatus of journals shifts from subscribers to authors. The shift is slow (because the way science is funded isn’t set up very well to facilitate such a shift), and bits of it spark outrage (just last week, Nature Neuroscience announced that publishing open-access there will cost €9500, and the combination of ridicule and outrage was exactly what it should have been). But I think it’s fair to say that if we can get there, an open-access literature offers major advantages for the communication of science.
But not for science communication – the distinction being that by “science communication”, we generally mean communication of what we do to non-scientists. You see, the pandemic has demonstrated in spades why the last thing we need is to make it easier for the general public to access scientific papers. I know, that’s a bit of a hot take, but hear me out.
You hear folks offer lots of different reasons why scientific research papers should be available for anyone to read for free.* One of those is an argument that “anyone” should include the general public, because their taxes (directly or indirectly) pay for the research and the results should belong to humanity, not to a publishing company. Sounds compelling, right? At least, as long as you don’t think about it very hard.
You’ve probably noticed that we’re (still) in the midst of a global pandemic. We’re having a major problem with what we politely call “vaccine hesitancy”**, and we’ve seen “Do your own research” become a slogan thrown around by (now I’ll use the less polite term) anti-vaxxers. It’s tied to a rejection of expertise and authority, and an assertion that each of us, regardless of our qualifications, should read up on evidence and decide for ourselves about vaccine safety (among many other things). And where does that lead? To ivermectin, and ICUs full of unvaccinated people who did their own research.
Here’s the thing: in a very real sense, you can’t do your own research. Maybe you could 400 years ago, when modern science was in its infancy and a reasonably educated layperson could read the literature on pretty much any topic. You can’t do that now. Our literature is, mostly, impenetrable to the general public; it’s even, mostly, impenetrable to scientists in different fields. That’s by design, of course.*** Every document is (or should be) written with an audience of readers in mind, and the readers we have in mind for our scientific literature are our colleagues. Depending on the journal, we may consider “colleagues” more broadly or more narrowly, but it’s always at least other scientists, with whom we share background and technical knowledge that lets us write compactly and lets us deal with the complexity of the universe. As a result of this writing decision, the general public can’t usefully read our literature; at most, they may be able to cherrypick nuggets that seem to support a position, even if (or perhaps because) they don’t fully understand them. Is that elitist? Maybe – if you also consider it elitist that legal decisions are written to be understood by judges and lawyers, or that car repair manuals are written to be understood by trained mechanics.**** I can’t do my own legal research (or at least, I shouldn’t), I didn’t do my own medical research so I could take out my own gallbladder, and when I wrote about the physics of star formation for The Scientist’s Guide to Writing I leaned heavily on friends in the field.
So it’s a design feature, not a problem, that the general public can’t understand our technical literature. And as a result, giving the public access to the literature just isn’t something I see value in. (We should, of course, translate our knowledge for the public, but that’s a whole different thing requiring entirely different communication skills and techniques.) Giving the public access to the literature may even hold negative value: it may feed the delusion of those who think they should, and can, do their own research (although that’s a more extreme position and I’m not sure I quite want to go there).
Bottom line: open access publishing may be a great thing for science. But let’s stop pretending that it’s a great thing for the general public. If careful thought about the function of writing doesn’t get you there, the antivax response to the pandemic surely will.
© Stephen Heard January 18, 2022
Image: “Benefits of open access”, © Danny Kingsley & Sarah Brown via Wikipedia.org CC BY 4.0. Yup, there it is, at 9 o’clock and again at 6 o’clock: publish open access for the general public. Nope, nope, nope.
*^In passing, I’ll note that this is often a good sign of cult thinking – folks have decided that open-access is good, and having made that decision, they’ll decide that every possible reason for it makes sense. If you’re decided you really like hammers, then every problem seems like a nail. Now, I don’t think we’re wrong that open-access publishing will be better, overall; but it won’t be a panacea. If anyone tries to tell you some new system – any new system – will fix every problem immediately, you can pretty much diagnose a failure of critical thinking.
**^As you can tell by the scare quotes, I’m not a fan of the term. There are folks who are “vaccine hesitant”, at least for a while, for understandable reasons. But we’re over a year into the availability of safe, effective vaccines for a highly transmissible and dangerous disease. At this point, the numbers of the understandably vaccine hesitant are dwindling, and they’re massively outnumbered by the nutbar fringe. A single term that suggests they’re the same, and that “hesitant” is the word that best describes them, seems really, really unhelpful.
***^Well, it’s partly be design. It’s also partly because we write so poorly: we pour steaming ladlefuls of acronyms over every complex sentence as if they were delicious gravy, we fetishize the passive voice, we avoid contractions and any sign of authorial voice – and that’s just a start.
****^Cue someone’s nostalgic memories of owning the manual and doing their own repairs on their 1972 Volkswagen camper-van. Try doing it with your Tesla…