Science publishers don't care about the public

Over at Pharyngula, PZ mentions a media criticism paper in the journal Public Understanding of Science. The paper shows that media outlets frequently make scientific claims that are dubious at best. I suppose this isn't very surprising, but PZ makes another great point:

It isn't open access, though, so apparently the Public is not allowed to read about the Public Understanding of Science unless they cough up $25 per article. They can read about "science" for cheap in their local tabloid, though. Isn't this part of the problem, too? Let's also put part of the blame on a science publishing industry that puts up barriers to reading the real stuff.

I made almost the exact same point a year ago when the journal Nature published an editorial praising scientists who blog and make their research available to the public. Back then, I wrote:

This stance seems disingenuous, however, for a publication that locks the vast majority of it's material behind a pay-wall.

I also left a comment on the editorial page at Nature saying:

It's all well and good to talk about public accessibility of science, but how do you expect the public to get engaged when almost all primary literature is locked behind a pay-wall? I have access through my university, but when I want to blog about new research for friends and family, I'm stuck linking to abstracts and then summarizing everything in the paper.

About 3 months later, Nature removed my comment as spam, and when I e-mailed to contest the removal, I received a response telling me they'd look into it. As of this writing, the comment has not been restored. It's pretty clear to me that the major publishers don't care much about public access to science. That's why I'm cheering for PLoS - everything they publish is open access, the way it should be. It's your taxes that fund the research, you should have access to the results without me or anyone else being a mediator.

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That's why I'm cheering for PLoS - everything they publish is open access, the way it should be. It's your taxes that fund the research, you should have access to the results

exactly. That cannot be said often enough!

This discussion reminds me vaguely of the whole spirit behind the movement/book, "Biopunk." Basically, the notion is that for the betterment of mankind, and in the interest of scientific knowledge, info, knowledge, research sharing and open channels of communication are best. This all sounds good. But, it assumes that info in and of itself is power. It also assumes that all people are basically good. Consider that frequently, the personality type of scientists is one that seeks knowledge, seeks info for its own sake and assumes the best of motives in others. This personality ultimately confronts itself with another personality with a pocket full of dollars and very attractive sexual partners. Know how is traded on the open market for access to attractive partners, but know how is also guarded stringently by those who have power and can grant access to attractive sexual partners: Rich men are gorillas...Desperate/poor men are bonobos. Both admire what the other has due entirely to unfamiliarity. Both see the other as the ultimate in sexual prowess. The cultural majority possesses the ultimate in sexual desire. The cultural minority is seen as possessing the ultimate in sexual prowess...The rich got what you want...the poor got what you need....want to please that blue eyed blond headed trust fund babe? Take a visit to the darkest of ghettos, the seediest of corners, where things are blacker than black, and deadlier than the sharpest fang....and find that trust fund honey isn't all you wanted nor are you all she dreamed...

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 18 Jun 2011 #permalink

In the humanities it's bad, too. As a layperson. I do Egyptology research in my spare time. I have to pay dearly for access to university libraries and that doesn't include the ability to borrow. As a layperson, my other option is to buy academic literature...which has a limited run and is priced for institutions.
And don't get me started on my record of being blown off by museums when I write to ask them about materials in their archives.

By Tamakazura (not verified) on 18 Jun 2011 #permalink

I could not agree more. I'm an emeritus retired professsor from Wayne State University and a lifetime alumnus of the University of Texas (which entitles me to library privileges), but I still cannot get full electronic access to journals unless I'm physically present at a university's library computer.
In an attempt to assure access, I subscribed to Nature only to find out that I can only access articles published since 1997.

PLoS is definitely the way to go.

By Bernard Ortiz … (not verified) on 19 Jun 2011 #permalink

Not being that au fait with the academic journal ranking process; if academics started to boycott publications such as Nature or Science in favour of PloS would it's impact fact or start to eclipse the former?

If that is the case then perhaps the move needs to start from the researchers. (Of course I guess research scores like the RAE would preclude people daring to try and start this).

By Richard D (not verified) on 19 Jun 2011 #permalink

Yes yes... I agree! My only thought is whether journals could continue to function profitably if they gavevaway all research results??

Perhaps they could also start fining tabloids every time they write wholly misleading articles (only a joke in part)!

I've been frustrated by this issue for some time and wanted to do something to help inform the public about science affairs & research. I have recently launched a free digital magazine called Guru which aims to do just that (shameless self promotion alert) http://guru

I am interested in a project that I foudn out a few months ago through called Open source ecology, that is trying to open-source some important technologies. Including some types of batteries, for instance. And this lack of access to the primary literature is painfully obvious.
Not only are the latest and greatest articles behind paywalls and forever locked down and unshareable due to copyright, so is the vast majority *of existing scientific knowledge* as all the back articles are also behind the paywall.
This is a fundamental peice of civilization, and it is inexcusable that it is locked away and held for ransom like this by private corporations. And it's not like they need to charge this much - I have read an an article in The Economist that says their profit margins are 36%.
And guess what, if that's their profit *on paper* is , the real profit is way higher. When a company makes a large profit they increase executive compensation, outsource to other companies etc. and that profit is still there by any reasonable definition, but is now hidden under the "costs" column. If you have entity A that sells a service to company B at 36% and B then sells it again at 36% then you have a net profit of 100*(1.36*1.36-1)= 84% !. And it goes on. I would not be surprised if the REAL profit was in the thousand percent range.

@ tamakazura - I never even considered people might do that sort of thing in their spare time, let alone after confronting all those obstacles. Good on you for sticking it out, and sorry it's such a damn hassle.

@ Bernard - Harvard's institutional subscription for Nature only goes back to 1997 too. Thankfully, my field is only about 20 years old, so there's not much that I need earlier than that.

@ Richard D - I don't know for sure, but I get the sense that there's a pretty large institutional bias against that kind of effort. If I could publish a paper in Nature, my boss wouldn't let me publish in PLoS, I can almost guarantee it. And when I have a lab of my own, I could make the decision to publish in a lower tier journal on principal, but then my post docs and grad students would suffer, and my grant prospects would suffer, and the vast majority of scientists would continue.

@ Stuart - Well, I think that scientific journals should not be run for profit, but that's a whole different discussion.

@ Bob - I think there might be something a little wonky in your math, but the overall point that they make far more profit than they "need" is a good one. As I said above, I think they should be run as non-profits, but I think the only way to affect change is at the source of funding. The federal government pays for the vast majority of research, if they implemented rules on open access, that would turn things around pretty fast.

"I don't know for sure, but I get the sense that there's a pretty large institutional bias against that kind of effort. If I could publish a paper in Nature, my boss wouldn't let me publish in PLoS, I can almost guarantee it. And when I have a lab of my own, I could make the decision to publish in a lower tier journal on principal, but then my post docs and grad students would suffer, and my grant prospects would suffer, and the vast majority of scientists would continue."

It depends on the field. In physics or math, (A) it has become common to submit manuscripts to the arXiv prior to publication so that they can be accessed by anyone and (B) there is not as strong emphasis to publish your papers in glamor journals as in biology.

I found a list of 50 most-cited papers in high-energy physics in 2009:…
Most of these papers are available in the arXiv and only three were published in Nature. I'd guess that Nature would have gladly accepted some of these papers, but they were published in Astrophys. J., etc.

There is an incentive to publish in Nature instead of PLoS because a lot of other scientists, including people who decide hiring and funding value Nature papers. But in other fields where Nature papers don't matter as much, people don't get as crazy about trying to publish their papers in Nature.

I do think it's better to judge the content of a paper rather than where it was published. If enough number of biologists change their attitudes, things can change. But it may be difficult.

I find the pay walls extremely frustrating. Nearly 45 years ago I came up with an unconventional approach to electronic information processing â basically blue sky research into a new paradigm that suggested that if you started from first principals, but working with sets rather than numbers, you could build an information processing system which was inherently user friendly and would handle open-ended tasks. I struggled with the idea for years â with significant opposition from some quarters because it conceptually crossed swords with the stored program computer paradigm (which everyone knows is the best thing since sliced bread). Finally, after having produced a powerful demonstration package which ran on small school computers, I threw in the towel and left academic life in disgust, too exhausted to continue.

Recently I decided to explore the web to see what had happened in the last 20 years or so â and have come to the conclusion that what I was doing is very relevant to several areas which I had not had time to explore when I was, for my sins, a âcomputer scientistâ, These area cover human evolution, the development of languages, several different areas of brain research including neural networks and possibly animal intelligence! First reactions are exciting â as the paradigm translates very easily into a comparatively simple neural net framework â while providing significant information processing capability, and a possible foundation for natural language development. Working from a bedroom office, with no access to university library facilities, I am totally dependant on what is available on the web â and pay-walls mean there are areas I cannot easily explore. However so far I have found no work which uses anything like my paradigm to explore the gap between the brain's neurons and natural language. When I post more details on my blog in the next few weeks I will not be surprised if someone puts me firmly in my place by saying â haven't you seen the paper by XXXXX.

Aren't you afraid to criticize Nature on an open forum with your name attached? I would be :/

@ Bernard Ortiz de Montellano:

Don't buy suscriptions, get a VPN client from your university, that way you can access your university's network and suscriptions.

@ HI - Fair enough, my only experience with publishing is in the biological sciences. I've heard about arXiv (and actually mentioned it in that post I linked to above), but there's absolutely nothing like that in bio. For instance, I've toyed with the idea of making my current data public via my blog - I think it would be great info for my field but it's not quite ready as a manuscript. But if I did that, someone else could see it, do the experiments and get it published, and I would never get any credit.

@ HertfordshireChris - I don't know if there's a pubmed-like database for your field, but if you find an abstract that looks interesting and you need a copy, you can usually find someone that would be willing to use their subscription to get you a copy. Of course, that presumes you're even able to find it without access.

@ mo - No, because a) I don't think what I've said is overly caustic/inflammatory, and b) I don't think there's a top-down infrastructure where the web people coordinate with the editors and would put me on a black list (at least I hope not). And in the very unlikely event that folks from Nature are reading this blog (Hi!), I think it would be great if they got involved in a dialogue.

"It's your taxes that fund the research, you should have access to the results without me or anyone else being a mediator."

This is a poor argument for open access.

It ignores all the funding from non-tax sources, including industry, private foundations (e.g., HHMI), and researchers paying for research out of their own pocket.

It ignores that research is carried out in many different countries. By this logic, citizens of the nation sponsoring the research should have a right to the results of the research freely, but nobody else. Why should a researcher from outside the United States share results with Americans?

Scientific results should not be viewed as a commodity that people are entitled to because they have "paid for them" in some sense. Scientific results are a common good that create the greatest benefit when they are shared.

That's a better argument for open access.

@ Zen - From an editorial in Science in the 90's:

After World War II, federal agencies assumed the dominant role in funding scientific research. By the mid-1980s, total funding for research had ballooned to $14.8 billion. Foundations, the private academic sector, and voluntary health associations such as the American Heart Association contributed only 5% of that total.

I couldn't find more recent numbers (I didn't look that hard), but I doubt that's substantially different now. Maybe my point ignores that 5% a bit, but even in labs that have grants from private foundations, I would be shocked if they didn't have some government support.

Look, I think the "public good" argument is a good one, and there's no reason not to push that angle at the same time. But since government pays for the vast majority of scientific research, they could probably have the largest impact in making that case.