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Dreaming of a world where science is free

by Rebecca Nesbit

I wanted to share some thoughts from the Science Online conference in London, which was eye opening on a far wider range of topics that I had imagined. The internet has changed not just the way we can communicate science but also ways we do science.

Open science is a hot topic at the moment – i.e. making both data and results available to everyone. Open data means that information collected by one group of scientists can be used to its full potential because other scientists can analyse it in new ways. The ideal of open science is to have journal articles freely available too.

There is a move in this direction; journals which don’t charge for articles, such as BioMed and PLoS, have become well respected. But, while we were talking about how publishers are changing their business models to make journals free online, Ben Goldacre was blogging about a fellow at Harvard’s Centre for Ethics who has just been arrested for downloading 4.8 million papers with the intention of making them freely available.

I’m up for anything that will advance our understanding science, and data sharing is definitely in that category. I also believe that making journal articles available is at least as important, not just because I no longer have a university log in to get them free myself (sob). Knowledge shouldn’t be elitist, and to researchers in developing countries free access to journals can be invaluable. So open science is a great aim, but there are barriers.

I admit I’m a capitalist as well as a scientist. Journals need to make their money somehow. In the past they have charged for their articles, but to make articles free they need money from grants or advertising, or from charging authors.

In some cases it wouldn’t be financially viable to collect data if it was going to be freely available. If pharmaceutical developers had to let their competitors access their data it wouldn’t be worth their while collecting it – so that’s a situation where open access doesn’t advance our scientific understanding. In fact, it stops science being done.

There are confidentiality barriers too. For example, I read last week about a tobacco company wanting to get its hands on data from surveys about teenagers’ smoking habits. Open access in this situation doesn’t seem to be the ethical choice…

We’re on a long and difficult path to making the most of the opportunities technology offers us. The conference sparked interesting discussions about the cultural changes we need to make open science work. For example, changing the way we judge a scientist’s success. It’s a cut-throat fight for funding at the moment so anyone who wants to stay in the game can only dedicate resources to activities they will be rewarded for.

In case you were wondering what this has to do with birds, bees or feeding the world, it’s because science is fundamental to conservation and food security. If open science helps advance our understanding of science and social science then it helps tackle these issues.

Also, making journals freely available to anyone with the internet doesn’t make the science available. Papers can be time-consuming to read, complicated, and written in inaccessible language. The conference made me realise that open science is what I’m blogging for – to help more research escape from the academic world and into the real world. Thanks for reading it!

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