We Need to Rethink Access to Scientific Research

One of humanity’s greatest technological triumphs is today’s potential for widespread and unrestricted access to all of our collected knowledge.

As we march towards this noble goal, there is something crucial we need to talk about. That is, some of the most vital information we have is our scientific research, and much of it is still widely unavailable to the public. At least, without paying prohibitively high costs.

Photo by  Wade M. License: Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Photo by Wade M.
License: Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Take PubMed. It is a truly amazing, completely free index of life science and biomedical research papers. This catalogue, in and of itself, is a staggering accomplishment — but it doesn’t go far enough. Usually, only the ‘abstract’ (a highly condensed summary of the paper’s findings) is available, and it is often devoid of many necessary and useful details.

While incredibly inconvenient, this is actually done for a good reason. Science journals employ editorial staffs, and (if they are worth anything) implement a rigorous ‘peer review’ process, through which applicant articles are vetted by other scientists for accuracy and quality. All of this costs money, and so the journals must charge for access to their full contents.

As an independent blogger, some of the topics I tackle have called for intensive research and reference to the scientific literature, and PubMed has been an amazing resource for me. Inevitably, however, I will encounter papers whose abstracts do not contain enough information for me to make a justified claim about the findings, or how they relate to my article.

Sometimes the full article can be viewed for free, and I can check my facts thoroughly. Unfortunately, though, more often than not, the full text does cost money. Articles are regularly priced as high as $35 -$50 — each! I simply don’t have that kind of spare change. I don’t get paid for this, and some of my articles reference more than 100 scientific papers!

So, I have a choice to make. I can either remove the reference entirely, or I can trust that other researchers — who’ve made similar claims based on that particular reference — have done their due diligence. Either way, the quality and integrity of my research diminishes.

This is unacceptable to me. It’s not that I am unwilling to pay for research — I am. I simply am not able to pay the prices currently being asked. And so the journals get nothing from me. At all.

Thankfully, some journals are already bucking this trend. The reputable online journal PLOS One (and others like it) embrace an ‘open access model’. This means that all papers are published online, for free, under a Creative Commons license. They are funded by charging the authors and organizations who submit papers a fee for publishing their work.

Alternatively, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition still charges readers for full articles, but only for twelve months — after which they publish all articles online for free.

Both of these models have their pros and cons, and both are steps in the right direction; but I have a slightly different suggestion: let’s Netflix-a-tize access to science journals. Instead of charging people $10-$20 to download a single movie, Netflix gives you unlimited access to a large library of titles for 8 bucks a month. I, and (I’m certain) many other scientifically minded bloggers, would be willing to pay a reasonable price — say $15 or $20 per month — for unlimited access to all articles indexed on PubMed.

That may seem like a huge price cut from $50 a paper, but I bet it would actually be a smart business move for the journals. If chewing gum sold for $20 a pack, how many people would ever buy it? The profit margin on each sale would be astronomically higher, but would total profits?

I have to wonder — how many people actually pay $50 to access a single article? As far as I understand it, professional working scientists and academics get free access through their universities, so who does that leave as their customer base? Wealthy science enthusiasts?

Traditional paper journals at the library of the University of the Basque Country. Photo by VmenkovLicense: Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Traditional paper journals at the library of the University of the Basque Country.
Photo by Vmenkov
License: Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

This move would put scientific journal access into a reasonable price range for interested lay people like myself, who I believe make up a large and growing constituent of the population. It would allow us to better inform ourselves, and to help promote public scientific literacy.

In a very real sense — in a shift I will cautiously compare to the Protestant reformation, and Martin Luther’s bold move of making the bible accessible to the general public — it would be a major step towards the democratization of scientific consensus. The controlling grip of established institutional interests would be forcibly loosened.

This is good and bad. On the one hand, I truly believe that more voices will ultimately have a positive impact on the scientific conversation. Despite the idealized view of scientists who egolessly change their minds at the drop of a hat (upon being presented with new evidence), entrenched dogmas and monetary meddling can, and often do, exert undue influence over mainstream scientific consensus. Sometimes this lasts for decades or longer before the correction is finally accepted.

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
-Max Planck

Opening access to our collective scientific knowledge will allow for much more informed, creative dissent, but on the other hand, it also opens the door to a very real and pressing issue.

The idea of the general public ‘doing their own research’ is problematic, it is often argued, because most people don’t have the proper skill-set and knowledge to do so effectively. Therefore, interpreting scientific literature is best left to scientists, and scientists alone.

Unlike the old Catholic view, against which Martin Luther revolted — that the priestly class alone can properly interpret the bible — this modern scientific chauvinism is not without merit. It takes knowledge, practice, and arguably training in order to effectively navigate the scientific literature.

The move to open access would empower people, who are unable to fully understand the research they reference, to make their ignorant and biased opinions known. If they happen to be persuasive or charismatic presenters, they may sway public opinion in the wrong directions. This would, it is argued, dilute the quality of the scientific conversation.

Of course, this kind of charlatanism happens already, all the time — though even professional academics often can’t agree about who to apply that label too. Many professionals would characterize my own articles on nutrition science as just such a misleading representation of the literature. Other scientists would say it’s the low-fat vegan advocates whose nutritional views are entirely unfounded.

The problem of uninformed, unskilled, or biased interpretations is a very real one, and open access may give swindlers and confusionists more fodder for their nonsense. But can we really say that having more accurate, publicly available information is going to negatively impact our collective understanding of the truth? I don’t think that’s reasonable.

I suggest that we combat the problem not through the restriction of information, but through education.

I graduated high school with honors, and in twelve years of schooling, I did not take a single course on critical thinking. I was never taught how to spot logical fallacies and inconsistencies. I was never instructed on how to decipher rhetoric or defuse propaganda . I did not learn how to research scientific claims, gauge consensus, or navigate scientific journals.

In other words, I was given no tools for discerning truth other than ‘ask your teacher’ and ‘read the textbook’.

Classroom with students and teachers. License: Public Domain

Classroom with students and teachers.
License: Public Domain

This is a major failing of the educational system. Some, like John Taylor Gatto, believe that this failing is not incidental, but by design. That our schools, which were conceived during the industrial revolution, were never meant to foster creative, intelligent, and discerning individuals. Instead, they function to produce useful factory workers and inculcate subservience to authority. Whether intentional or unintentional, the results of the system speak for themselves.

More and more, however, factories are using machine labor to do these kinds of mindless, repetitive tasks. The useful skills of the future are not rote memorization, repetition, and conformity; they are insight, inventiveness, and perspicacity. To bring these skills out in the next generations, we don’t just need a few classes on logic, critical thinking, and creativity — we need to revamp our entire approach to pedagogy!

That, however, is a topic for another article.

For now, I’d just like you to imagine a world in which all scientific information was disseminated as widely as possible, to a population who is educated enough to interpret it intelligently. Where substantive, respectful discussions and debates move from the ivory towers of academia to office water coolers, online communities, and local meet-up groups. Beautiful, right?

Sparks of this shift are already appearing, spontaneously, across the internet, as people take to educating themselves and growing their knowledge. I feel grateful to be alive, today, right at the cusp of this shift, as the possibilities discussed above crystallize into reality.

A society which is saturated with independent and creative critical thinkers has yet to happen in human history.

It could (it will!) be revolutionary.

Aaron Moritz

Aaron is a Srsly Wrong podcast host, writer, and decent human being. He thinks you are swell.

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