Liberating Science

There is some really encouraging news in the Guardian today concerning the highly annoying pay-walls that lock a lot of very interesting things away.

In a pre-internet era it all made sense. Various publishers took responsibility for the printing and distribution of credible peer-reviewed journals. That obviously involved costs, so they charge, and of course they would have a profit margin … I get it. But the world has changed. In an age in which publicly funded research is submitted and then peer-reviewed by volunteers who generally don’t get paid to peer-review, the changes being levied are excessive, it’s a billion dollar industry.

To illustrate, lets pop on over to learn all about the tool use in Brown Bears, a topic of scientific interest, but also of interest to many others as well.

But to read the full article I get this …

Yes, that really is a demand for 35 Euros just to read online one single article. Does the author get a cut of that? Heck no, Mr Deeche wrote it while on holiday, this is a totally excessive and outrageous pay-wall that is locking away some very interesting information.

As you might imagine, many are quite upset about all this and so a rebellion is underway.  Mr Jha wrote yesterday in the Guardian

It began with a frustrated blogpost by a distinguished mathematician. Tim Gowers and his colleagues had been grumbling among themselves for several years about the rising costs of academic journals.

They, like many other academics, were upset that the work produced by their peers, and funded largely by taxpayers, sat behind the paywalls of private publishing houses that charged UK universities hundreds of millions of pounds a year for the privilege of access.

… So, in January this year, Gowers wrote an article on his blog declaring that he would henceforth decline to submit to or review papers for any academic journal published by Elsevier, the largest publisher of scientific journals in the world.

He was not expecting what happened next. Thousands of people read the post and hundreds left supportive comments. Within a day, one of his readers had set up a website, The Cost of Knowledge, which allowed academics to register their protest against Elsevier.

The site now has almost 9,000 signatories, all of whom have committed themselves to refuse to either peer review, submit to or undertake editorial work for Elsevier journals. “I wasn’t expecting it to make such a splash,” says Gowers. “At first I was taken aback by how quickly this thing blew up.”

Gowers, a mathematician at Cambridge University and winner of the prestigious Fields Medal, had hit a nerve with academics who were increasingly fed up with the stranglehold that a few publishing companies have gained over the publication and distribution of the world’s scientific research.

The current publishing model for science is broken, argue an ever-increasing number of supporters of open access publishing, a model whereby all scientific research funded by taxpayers would be made available on the web for free.

Expensive paywalls not only waste university funds, they say, but slow down future scientific discovery and put up barriers for interested members of the public, politicians and patients’ groups who need access to primary research in order to exercise their democratic rights.

Now for the really really good news

One of the world’s largest funders of science is to throw its weight behind a growing campaign to break the stranglehold of academic journals and allow all research papers to be shared online.

Sir Mark Walport, the director of Wellcome Trust, said that his organisation is in the final stages of launching a high calibre scientific journal called eLife that would compete directly with top-tier publications such as Nature and Science, seen by scientists as the premier locations for publishing. Unlike traditional journals, however, which cost British universities hundreds of millions of pounds a year to access, articles in eLife will be free to view on the web as soon as they are published.

He also said that the Wellcome Trust, which spends more than £600m on scientific research a year, would soon adopt a more robust approach with the scientists it funds, to ensure that results are freely available to the public within six months of first publication.

Researchers who do not make their work open access in line with the Trust’s policy could be sanctioned in future grant applications to the charity.

Walport, who is a fellow of the Royal Society, Britain’s premier scientific academy, said the results of public and charity-funded scientific research should be freely available to anyone who wants to read it, for whatever purpose they need it. His comments echo growing concerns from scientists who baulk at the rising costs of academic journals, particularly in a time of shrinking university budgets.

Breaking the stranglehold that the self-appointed keepers of knowledge currently have truly matters, as observed by Mr Jha

This has profound implications for the ability of scientists to use modern techniques to get the most out of published research, which grows at the rate of more than 1.5m new research articles every year.

Text mining, for example, is a relatively new research method where computer programmes hunt through databases of plain-text research articles, looking for associations and connections – between drugs and side effects, for example, or between genes and disease – that a person scouring through papers one by one may never notice.

In March, JISC, a government-funded agency that champions the use of digital technology in UK universities for research and teaching, published a report. This said that if text mining enabled just a 2% increase in productivity for scientists, it would be worth £123m-£157m in working time per year.

Indeed yes, as illustrated by human history, when the flow of information increases. and ideas flow more freely, the results can be quite astonishing. Now is indeed the time to leave the Victorian approach behind, our dependency upon the dissemination of information in flat-dead-tree format has now gone.


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