This week’s “Ask a Scienceblogger question” is:
Since they’re funded by taxpayer dollars (through the NIH, NSF, and so on), should scientists have to justify their research agendas to the public, rather than just grant-making bodies?
The public isn’t qualified to determine whether research is worthwhile. Why do you think researchers spend nine-plus years studying their specialties?
I do think that research paid for by public money should be freely available to the public. That means that the journal publishing industry would have to be turned upside down. Today subscribing to a journal can cost hundreds — even thousands — of dollars. Greta and I just had to cancel our subscription to Visual Cognition because they doubled their subscription rate to $558! Who can afford that? Not Davidson College’s library: the institutional subscription rate is over $1000 per year for the same journal. And this is considered an “inexpensive” journal.
The only people who can afford these rates are the researchers with giant grants. Most grants include large allowances for journal subscriptions. So public support of research pays for for-profit companies to publish research that the public can’t afford to see.
I’d prefer to see all publicly funded research distributed on the model of the Public Library of Science. There, the journals are available for free to anyone who has internet access. Publishing is paid for by the researchers who write the articles. Granting agencies are happy to pay the fee: they want the research they paid for to be publicly available.
In the end, the same money would go to the same people: granting agencies would pay for publication (but instead of subscribing, they’d pay for it at the time of publication), and publishers could still make money. But instead of an elite few seeing the results of the research, everyone would have free access to it.
Some publishers already offer scholars the choice of paying for publication or publishing for free under the old, copyright-based model. This might be a good compromise between the two models — since many scientists who do good work (like Greta) are not supported by grants.