“Do your own research” and open-access publication

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…

 

 

15 thoughts on ““Do your own research” and open-access publication

  1. Chris Mebane

    Shoutin’ at the clouds again? Your use of the image from Wikipedia led me to look up “open acccess” on Wikipedia. The Wikipedia OA article is a total advocacy screed that extolls the benefits of OA with the pitfalls downplayed. I saw none of the usual Wikipedia editing flags on citation needed, tone, or non advocacy, which suggests to me that the advocates shouted down argument. For instance, under “Effects on scholarly publishing” it has an original graph titled “Article impact” purporting to show a 2X increase in citations of OA articles over non-OA articles. First, that’s a blatant Wikipedia violation to post original research; second, the graph is impossible because ratios cannot be less than zero; and third, biased because the source referenced for the citation advantage was from a Commentary in eLife by fellow OA advocates. I’ve not seen anything so slanted on Wikipedia. (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_access)

    Like

    Reply
  2. Jeff Houlahan

    Hot take indeed, Steve. Problem ‘Science being misused by the public’. Solution ‘Don’t let public see the science’. Sure, you need to be trained as a scientist to do science; you need to be trained as a doctor to do medicine; you need to be trained as a mechanic to fix vehicles. But the average person can’t understand a clinical trial assessing the efficacy of a covid-19 vaccine? Or the efficacy of Ivermectin as a treatment for covid? Or a legal decision in a lawsuit? Or an explanation for the repair that was done on their car so it would start again?
    So what’s a regular person to do – just accept the word of Tony Fauci (on whether the virus originated in a Wuhan lab or not), Steve Heard (on predator-prey dynamics) or Jeff Houlahan (on ?)? Because we’re “experts”? If regular folks can’t understand the unfiltered science that’s relevant to public policy then how will democracy work?

    Like

    Reply
    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      “So the average person can’t understand a clinical trial assessing the efficacy of a covid-19 vaccine? Or the efficacy of Ivermectin as a treatment for covid? Or a legal decision in a lawsuit? Or an explanation for the repair that was done on their car so it would start again?”

      Yes, that’s pretty much what I said, because it’s pretty much what I think. That is: not when it’s written in a way that’s useful for other professionals. As I also said: knowledge TRANSLATION, which is something else entirely, is very important for precisely this reason!

      “So what’s a regular person to do – just accept the word of Tony Fauci (on whether the virus originated in a Wuhan lab or not”

      Yes, exactly. I don’t think you meant this as a rhetorical question to be answered in this direction… but it’s hard to see what other possible answer there could be. Do you REALLY think the “regular” person is equipped to figure that out? And if so – why on earth is UNB paying your salary, and my salary, and the salaries of a whole lot of our colleagues, to train people to be experts to figure stuff out?

      Jeff, you’re probably just trolling me. We should do this over beer some time; it’s more fun that way!

      Like

      Reply
  3. Jeff Houlahan

    Steve, then we disagree on something fundamental and given our worldviews both our positions make sense – I absolutely think regular folks can understand unfiltered science, law etc. and you don’t. I expect that our starting positions on this question don’t leave much room for common ground.

    Like

    Reply
  4. Jonathan Klassen (@KlassenLab)

    I’d like to suggest what is possibly a middle-of-the-road interpretation, which is that open-access publishing is less about allowing the general public to read research papers and more about signalling that they could if they wanted to. Most people will still require translation (as you explain), but having the papers available is a form of “receipts” that builds trust and shows that there’s nothing that scientists are trying to hide.

    I think that posting supplementary data and code for a paper works in a similar way. I rarely (never?) rerun someone’s analysis, but seeing the public code and data are a way that the authors signal to me that their study is robust enough to withstand such reanalysis. As a result, I tend to trust their work more than others that are less transparent.

    Thanks for making me think more deeply about this than I would have otherwise.

    Like

    Reply
    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      That’s a reasonable and interesting position. And it raises at least two questions. First, does the public actually trust science more as a result of open access? A question for sociologists, and perhaps it’s been studied? And second, if the answer to #1 is ‘yes’, then is the magnitude of the effect such that it’s a significant driver of the case for open access? (I can speculate on how to answer the first question, but don’t have much idea knowing where to start answering the second!)

      Like

      Reply
  5. Pingback: Our impenetrable literature: partly a feature, partly a bug | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  6. Pavel Dodonov

    Perhaps what I will say is only marginally related to the topic, but… I think that comparisons between “scientists” and “general public” are not so useful in this case, because there is the large and important middle ground made of practitioners, with knowledge to understand the science papers but with no access to them because their institutions don’t pay for the papers. A person with no training in Ecology may not be able to really undestand an Ecology paper, but a biologist working at an environmental protection agency will be able to understand it. Just as a health professional working at a hospital will be able to read and understand a paper about a disease. But these institutions often do not subscribe to academic journals, so access to knowledge by the people who are supposed to use this knowledge (after all, results of applied sciences are to be applied, are they not?) is very limited.

    So, am I in favor of open access? Totally. Am I willing to pay the exorbitant amounts of money open access publication often requires? Not when with the same money I could fund a student for a year or acquire a computer for the lab 🙂 Solution? My goal is to try to submit to open access journals funded which have funding, so that authors don’t have to pay (there are some of these, although with relatively low impact factors).

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Good point, Pavel, about practitioners. I will say: many of those work at for-profit organizations (US hospitals, which don’t get me started on how weird THAT is), envrionmental consulting companies, etc. Isn’t it odd that I’d be expected to subsidize these profit-seeking corporations by paying for open access out of my tax-funded research grants? Ah, this gets complicated 🙂

      But: you are certainly right, there are sets of scientifically informed people who often lack access. That is a problem open access can indeed solve!

      Like

      Reply
      1. Pavel Dodonov

        Oh, yes, I wasn’t thinking about pratitioners in profit-seeking corporations. Yeah, let the employers pay for their access. But I was thinking more of public environmental protection agencies (such as IBAMA and ICMBio in Brazil). So, this issue is getting more and more complex 🙂

        Like

        Reply
  7. Pingback: A society in need of Feynmans – Regular Jeff

  8. egd11

    I agree with Pavel here; the distinction between ‘scientists’ and ‘ordinary people’ is more a continuum, including practicioners working for NGOs
    and municipalities and a whole range of well informed people. Sometimes, these people having access to up-to-date scientific information can make a real difference to practical decisions – I’m thinking mostly in ecology, about conservation, agriculture, forestry, urban greenspace management etc… Of course, it could be even better if scientists write practical summaries of their work, and translate them to local languages…

    Like

    Reply
  9. Jason Bosch

    I strongly disagree with the position here. I know that not everyone will necessarily be able to use/understand all the science but I think, in principle, that it should be available.

    I don’t think I’d characterise the disagreement as anything elitist but certainly a disagreement on how society should be structured. To move away from science, you mention that “legal decisions are written to be understood by judges and lawyers.” That is something that I am firmly against, to me that is a massive flaw in the system. Everyone should know and understand the laws and rules that apply to them. If it’s required to go to law school to understand what we can do then there is a problem. We cannot have a society where people are running blind, not even knowing what is and isn’t legal and then having other people tell them after the fact. I think that’s a fundamental difference with how we think society should be structured.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I’m fine with disagreement! And there is, in fact, a movement in the legal community in support of plainer-language writing. Not much evidence that movement is succeeding, mind you. But then, if you can figure out a way to codify what’s legal and not in the insider trading of derivatives, making it precise enough to be enforceable but also simple enough that I can understand it with no legal or financial backgound, then I will doff my hat to you!

      Like

      Reply
  10. Pingback: Introductions in scientific papers can give warped and inflated perspectives – Brushing Up Science

Comment on this post:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.