Science21 Highlights: Open Access and Public Accessibility

I have never been a huge proponent of the Open Access and Open Data movements in science publishing, because they’ve always struck me as wasted effort. I’ve never really seen what value is supposed to be added by either project.

When I think about the experiments that I’ve been involved with (see, for example, the Metastable Xenon Project blogging), and what the data for those experiments looked like, I doubt that anybody not directly associated with the experiments could do anything useful with the data. It’s not just that many of the analysis steps required tacit knowledge of the set-up, but the sheer amount of processing needed to turn the raw data into the final figures would be enough to prevent anyone with a day job from duplicating the analysis.

Similarly, I’ve never been all that fired up about the idea of Open Access publishing, for the simple reason that I’ve seen the physics arxiv. I have a Ph.D. in physics, and I can’t make heads or tails of 80% (or more) of what’s on there. I think it’s wonderfully convenient to have the arxiv when I need something from that other 20%, but I don’t really think that the free access to preprints will have any hugely transformative effect on the general public, because the knowledge base required to read any of those papers is so large and specialized.

The issue in both cases is not access but accessibility. I don’t have any principled philosophical objection to putting stuff out there for people to use freely, but I think as a practical matter, it doesn’t do much good if nobody can read it. It’s a little like having a library in a foreign language– public libraries are wonderful, empowering things, but a public library full of books in a language nobody can read is little better than a collection of kindling. I’d rather see the energy people expend on fighting over open access spent on making science more accessible to the public.

That said, I was very pleasantly surprised by John Willinsky’s talk (video, microblogging) last week, titled “Open Access Is Public Access” (as I said in the summary discussion). I was particularly impressed by his description of the Public Knowledge Project.

The Public Knowledge Project describes itself thusly:

The Public Knowledge Project is dedicated to improving the scholarly and public quality of research. It operates through a partnership among the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia, the Simon Fraser University Library, the School of Education at Stanford University, and the Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing at Simon Fraser University. The partnership brings together faculty members, librarians, and graduate students dedicated to exploring whether and how new technologies can be used to improve the professional and public value of scholarly research. Its research program is investigating the social, economic, and technical issues entailed in the use of online infrastructure and knowledge management strategies to improve both the scholarly quality and public accessibility and coherence of this body of knowledge in a sustainable and globally accessible form. It continues to be an active player in the open access movement, as it provides the leading open source software for journal and conference management and publishing.

The practical aspect that I found appealing is on display in their demonstration journal, where they provide a large number of tools in the right sidebar to make the papers more readable. There are handy search tools for searching the author’s past work on the Web and in various open-access databases. There are links to external resources on similar subjects. There’s even a tool that lets you double-click a word and get definitions from online references.

These tools do a lot to help with the problem of accessibility, by making it easier for a reader who is not familiar with a field to place a given article in context, and pick up some of the background needed to decipher it. It’s an outstanding example of how to use web technology to improve communications, and I’d love to see more journals adopt these practices (the Physical Review could use similar tools to enable searches within the arxiv and their own archives, for example).

I’d still like to see a larger number of scientists writing papers that are more accessible in the first place. Or, failing that, more people making the effort to translate research papers for a broader audience. In the meantime, though, the stuff that the Public Knowledge Project is offering is a good first step.

2 thoughts on “Science21 Highlights: Open Access and Public Accessibility

  1. I guess accessibility of papers depends on the subject. A lot of the medical literature might be more accessible – case studies, epidemiology etc.

    I think a lot of the open data movement is aimed at other scientists. Jean-Claude Bradley talked about his work at Science Blogging 2008, and was saying that he wants to encourage people to work on the same area.

    One point Ben Goldacre has been making is that there are a lot of people who are interested in science and have science qualifications but aren’t being catered for my the mainstream press. He’s been arguing that science blogs fulfil their needs, but it could also be argued that providing the raw material does this too. And it is also helpful when combating bad science.

  2. The most compelling case for open publishing is to put an end to the exorbitant annual subscription fees from for-profit publishers like Elsevier. Journal subscriptions are the most expensive thing in a library’s budget–much more than the books. Maybe more than salaries. Institutional subscriptions for many of the titles could run in the neighborhood of $10000/year. (For example, Thin Solid Films costs $13,817 per year.)

    Elsevier, and others like them, have quite a racket going: set up journals that publish damn near anything (with no author page charges but with a high subscription price), and therefore develop, amongst the producers of low-grade research that finds a home in these journals, a cadre of supporters who would wail any time a budget-conscious librarian suggests canceling the subscriptions. Most scientists seem to think that an awful lot of poor research gets published (never their own of course) and the real scandal is how much Universities have to spend to keep reading it. (That, and each new issue is counted as a new volume, so after a dozen years or so the volume numbers make it look like they’ve been around for centuries.)

    Of course, some Elsevier journals are good. I’ve published in them for conference proceedings. But I think a lower cost way to disseminate conference proceedings and lower-tier research results would be a good thing.

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