Research and Publication

Two recent pieces in the New York Times – an article and an op-ed – address the issue of the publication of scientific research, and access to that research. The op-ed, “Research Bought, Then Paid For” by Michael Eisen, the founder of the non-profit, open-access Public Library of Science (PLoS), argues that research that was funded or subsidized by taxpayers ought to be available to those taxpayers free of charge. In a nutshell, “if taxpayers paid for it, they own it.” Eisen encourages scientists to publish their work in open-access journals instead of journals like Science, Nature, and Cell, which charge steep subscription fees – often to the same universities whose researchers submitted the papers and provided peer-review services for free.

The January 16 article “Cracking Open the Scientific Process” explains the issue in a slightly more balanced way (and reveals that some open-access journals, PLoS included, charge authors publication fees to authors). However, though of course the issue is more complicated than it appears at first glance, Eisen has a point about the principle of the thing: publicly funded research should be available to the public. Additionally, as the Jan. 16 article illustrates, many sites allow and encourage collaboration and networking, enhancing the scientific community and helping solve research questions more quickly.

I am reminded of the TED Talk on Open-source cancer research, wherein researcher Jay Bradner published and shared research instead of patenting it – the opposite, he pointed out, of what a pharmaceutical company would do – based on the principles of open-source and crowdsourcing.

A January 20 article in The Atlantic (“Locked in the Ivory Tower: Why JSTOR imprisons academic research”) also addresses the issue of the “broken economics of academic publishing.” The author summarizes, “Step back and think about this picture. Universities that created this academic content for free must pay to read it. Step back even further. The public – which has indirectly funded this research with federal and state taxes that support our higher education system – has virtually no access to this material, since neighborhood libraries cannot afford to pay those subscription costs.” She suggests circumventing the publishers, eliminating the print journal, and putting the content online.

Whether or not that’s the solution that enough people, organizations, and institutions eventually coalesce around, it’s clear that something must be done about the current state of academic research and publication – and it will probably happen sooner rather than later.

Edited to add (2/4/12): Some researchers, inspired by open-access champion Peter Suber and British mathematician and Fields medalist Tim Gowers, are boycotting the journal publisher Elsevier.

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