Adventures in Ethics and Science

Pencils ready? Here’s a quick quiz; circle all that apply*:

1. You’re a scientist and you’ve just published some research in a peer reviewed journal. You want:

a. Scientists in your field to read and discuss your work.
b. Interested non-scientists to get the important bits of what you found and why it matters, whether by powering through the article themselves or by getting a clear explanation of the article from a scientist.
c. No discussion of your article at all — once it’s on the page in the journal, there’s nothing else to say about it.
d. All discussions of your findings to be based on press releases rather than the details in your journal article.

2. You’re a non-scientist who tries to be scientifically literate and to keep up on recent findings — especially since lots of scientific research is funded with your tax dollars. You seek out:

a. Thirty second sound-bites on the evening news.
b. Press releases from the universities or private institutes where the research was performed.
c. Peer reviewed scientific journals — the more technical and densely written, the better!
d. Discussions of peer reviewed scientific articles aimed at an audience of intelligent non-scientists.

3. You’re in charge of acquisitions at a library. In purchasing periodicals, you:

a. Buy every journal being published — cost is no object, and neither is shelf space!
b. Buy the journals your budget allows, knowing that you’ll probably have to opt out of some specialist journals but trusting that the magic of the internets will ensure that really important findings are transmitted and discussed via weblogs, among other modes of communication.

4. You publish a peer reviewed scientific journal. Your main goal is:

a. Providing an organ for the transmission of knowledge within the scientific community.
b. Providing a means for students and lay-people to access new scientific knowledge.
c. Helping scientists get the publications they need to get tenure, promotion, grants, and the like.
d. Giving mass media outlets reliable sources to cite for their science stories.
e. Squeezing every last penny you can out of anyone who wants to publish or access the knowledge contained in your journal.

* * * * *
As you might guess, this quiz was prompted by actual events. ScienceBlogger Shelley Batts was threatened with legal action for using “ONE panel of ONE figure, and a chart” from a paper she discussed in detail in a blog post. As noted by John Wilkins (among others), what Shelley seems a pretty unambiguous case of fair use. As noted by Orac, the research Shelley was discussing in her post seems to have been funded by the USDA — which is to say, public money paid for the research, so the public might reasonably want access to the knowledge this research produced.

The publisher of the journal, John Wiley & Sons, seems set on insisting that they have more rights than a sensible interpretation of “fair use” would give them. WIth a smart legal team, they might even be able to make a convincing case in court. Certainly, with any legal team, they have a reasonable chance of scaring a blogger who’s still a grad student into backing down.

But let’s step back from legalities for a moment and think about ethics. Heck, let’s just think about the point of publishing scientific findings in the first place.

Scientific information is published so that people can benefit from this knowledge — so other scientists can use this knowledge as a starting point to build the next piece of scientific knowledge, so that scientist don’t waste resources trying to answer questions that have already been answered, so that policy-makers and individuals can make decisions in the light of the best available information.

If the public is being tapped to pay for scientific research, the public has an interest in having access to the knowledge this research produces. If you want to keep the knowledge from being publicly accessible, pay to produce it your own damn self.

The knowledge that matters — especially in science — is the knowledge you want transmitted through the community of scientists, and often to people outside the community of science. People outside the community of science frequently do not have easy access to university libraries with large holdings of specialist journals. Communicating scientific findings to them — indeed, inspiring them to care about the scientific research their taxes are funding — may depend on the efforts of people with access to the specialist journals communicating via more freely available media, like weblogs. To be clear, some of that communication may involve citing data from the original scientific reports, or explaining charts or figures.

If the default stance of the publisher of a journal is to clamp down on properly cited discussions of material within that journal, one has to ask whether the journal publisher really has the communication of information as a goal.
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*For goodness sake, don’t actually mark up your monitor! Print out the quiz before circling anything.

Comments

  1. #1 Janne
    April 26, 2007

    “For goodness sake, don’t actually mark up your monitor! Print out the quiz before circling anything.”

    Now you tell me! And the Whiteout just seems to make it worse…

  2. #2 Christina Pikas
    April 26, 2007

    Actually for #3, there are heavily used clauses for libraries. What we do is either get the articles through interlibrary loan or buy them from a document delivery service on our scientists’ behalf. We would probably not give the blog post instead of the original document, but along with the original document. If the author self-archives a copy on his or her own page, a pre-print server, or in an institutional repository, we might see if that would do instead, but sometimes only a copy of the original publication will do. I highly recommend that authors self-archive articles and submit articles with the SPARC Author’s Addendum (http://www.arl.org/sparc/author/addendum.html)

  3. #3 Thomas Robey
    April 26, 2007

    Thanks for this really clever response to an unfortunate incident. The principles involved here (scientific vs. business enterprise among others) seem difficult to reconcile from the point of the publishers’ views. Why does it seem so natural to so many scientists that our papers should be open access?

    You are right to call on science bloggers to help translate our techno-jargon into meaningful ideas. Is that enough? Blogs, Science Cafes and the like appeal to a self-selected audience… How might we scientists more effectively communicate?

  4. #4 potentilla
    April 27, 2007

    It was just an editorial assistant with poor judgement, not a lawyer. I can’t see that John Wiley even knew about it. I have left a comment with Shelley suggesting what she does, if she can be bothered.

  5. #5 Greg Price
    April 30, 2007

    You’ve touched on a really important topic for the future of scientific research. It gets even more basic than allowing bloggers to re-use and discuss bits of an article (which is important already): most people (even bloggers) can’t get access to an article in a Wiley or Elsevier journal in the first place, because they charge sky-high prices. As you say, it makes no sense for authors who want their research read, or the public that (mostly) funds it, to allow the research to be locked away for the benefit of the publishers.

    Academics are beginning to wise to this situation (and have been over the past ten or fifteen years); the counter-movement goes under the name of “open access“. Philosopher Peter Suber, who writes a great deal on the subject, has an introduction, and there was (if I may say so myself) a fine op-ed on open access in the Harvard Crimson last week. For authors, Christina has exactly the right advice: submit articles with the SPARC addendum, which will preserve your right to post freely available copies wherever appropriate.