Monday, February 12, 2007

Pit Bulls, Barbie Blending and Science!

Boy was I surprised to read in the Sunday newspaper about a relatively obscure movement in scientific publishing: public access to scientific journals. Even I may have passed by this page 6 story had not the title been, "Research-Result Battle Now Pits PR 'Pit Bull' Against Barbie Blenders."

The basic argument presented in this article is that some people (mostly patient advocacy groups) want all government-funded research (uhhh- that's just about all of it...) to be available to the public 6-12 months after it is published, but the publishers want that information to remain only available to their subscribers. This is a hard argument to settle, but there are two items that seem to always be overlooked.

  1. This research is already available to the public, albeit in a limited manner. Any major city with a university or academic medical center has a library with all of these journals. If you really want access to this information, you can look it up the same way that we scientists do: photocopies and .pdfs.
  2. Scholarly work presented in scientific journals is hard to understand outside of the field in which it is published. The amount that is freely available - the abstracts - is all that patient advocacy groups and the press use anyway.

My main point here is that even if this information is freely accessible, it will still be intellectually inaccessible. This is not some sort of Ivory Tower pronouncement. The truth of the matter is that the scientific article is not the same as an encyclopedia entry or lay press article.


Jonathan said...

Yes, abstracts are available for free. But unlike the full article they also lack any evidence for the claims. I'd say having only abstracts available to all is the most dangerous situation. The validity of the conclusions presented is completely inaccessible.

The proposed solution, public domain after a fixed period of time, is the same basic framework as in the Constitution of the United States for copyrighted works in general.

The final question is: what do journals *really* provide to justify their claim to exclusive rights to this bit of knowledge? They didn't do the experiments, nor review the validity of what is presented (done voluntarily by other scientists), fund the research or present the data in an understandable manner. All they provide is some hosting and aesthetic layouts.

thomas said...

I do not want to play down the intelligence of the general public, but... I would argue that excepting the most informed individuals from patient advocay groups, testing the validitiy of comments made in abstracts already inaccessible to the general public!

thomas said...

Those journals provide the vehicle for scientific communication. They provide a printing press (paper or electronic) and the infrastructure to manage peer review.

What irks me is that many journals are (through the exhorbitant subscription fees) fundraisers for professional societies.

Another reason subscription to these journals is so expensive (and why Science magazine is so cheap) is that there is little if any advertising.

Now the legitimacy of the journals keeping copyright... I don't know about that. Look at PLoS (an open access 'free' journal): it's doing quite well with a model that charges the submitting scientists, not the readers!

golob said...

I disagree on your concerns about the general public being able to appreciate the scientific literature.

There is a long and honored tradition in American science of the self-taught going on to become leaders in their field. Richard Feynman is a classic example.

thomas said...

But are those among us that are not geniouses patient enough to sit down and figure out the jargon and science-specific language? I do not doubt that many can understand the content, but the language employed in scientific papers confuses even the most scientific of us!