A few days ago I was asked what my role is in science. It’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately*. So, who am I and what is my role? I am a publicly funded scientist with a passion for nasty microbes and things that glow in the dark. I am also a blogger and podcaster and have struck up a relationship with a great team of graphic artists to make a series of short YouTube animations about glowing creatures and science. Until recently I would have said my role in science was to do research, but with a side-line in communicating science in an effort to generate public interest and excitement.
The fact that communication is seen almost as an optional extra in a career in science is quite astonishing, I think. Why else in this digital age of multidisciplinary science would we write papers incomprehensible to almost all but those scientists in our own narrow field? Why else would we publish in journals only accessible to those institutions with budgets big enough to afford the subscription charges? In case you were thinking that it is only small, non-research or polytechnic institutions that are affected by this, last year for example, the University of California (UC) threatened to cancel their subscription to all Nature Publishing Group (NPG) journals after NPG wanted to increase the price of UC’s licence by 400%. This is also a problem in New Zealand universities. Both as a scientist and a blogger, I’ve often wanted to read a paper that wasn’t available through my institutional subscription. With time at a premium, I find that I don’t bother going through the hoops of trying to get hold of the paper by other means. Are my peers doing the same with my papers? If they are, presumably, this will affect how widely my research is cited.
It wasn’t until I started my own research group a few years ago, and had to take responsibility for deciding which journal to submit papers to, that I realised just how ridiculous the traditional model of science publishing is. In essence the tax payer funds my research, pays for me to publish it (in the form of colour page charges as a lot of my data is presented using colour figures) and then every institution, be it university or Crown Research Institute, in New Zealand has to pay subscription charges so that other scientists here can read what I’ve discovered. This strikes me as a terrible waste of resources – resources which could be used to fund more research, rather than provide obscene profits for giant publishing houses. This is why I support the Open Access model offered by the likes of the Public Library of Science (PLOS) and BioMed Central (BMC). These platforms charge a fee to publish but then the material is freely available to all under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence where the authors retain copyright for their article.
But the Open Access ‘movement’ has the potential to do more than just improve my citations and allow more money to be spent on doing science. Opening up the fruits of scientific research to anyone with access to the internet changes everything. It gives people access to the science they fund. The importance of this was brought home to me recently when I attended a talk by University of Otago archaeologist, Prof. Richard Walter. Prof. Walter was discussing the dubious evidence for alternative theories of how humans came to colonise New Zealand. What frustrated him most, he said, was the ease with which such ‘evidence’ perpetuated on the internet, while the real science behind New Zealand’s colonisation is only available in scientific journals behind a pay wall. The same can be said for alternative views on the safety of vaccination and other health issues.
But herein lies the challenge. For Open Access to really be useful for the public at large, we scientists need to change the way we write about our work. At the very least, every paper published under an Open Access banner should have a summary of the main findings that can be understood by a general audience. Even better would be for whole articles to be written in this way, so that scientists from diverse fields can read each other’s work without needing Wikipedia and a dictionary.
So how do I see my role in science now? Well, the doing science bit hasn’t changed. But I now see that a desire to get the public excited about science isn’t enough. I live in a country bucking international trends with increasing rates of infectious diseases (1**), where sexually transmitted diseases are a growing cause of infertility, and where misinformation on vaccination and health endanger lives. Science can empower people to make informed choices that shape their future for the better. This is the message I want to communicate and why I believe unrestricted access to the science we fund is in everyone’s best interest.
* Partly as a result of numerous chats with the wonderful Jacquie Bay, director of the Liggins Education Network for Science at the University of Auckland, a fantastic initiative that promotes connections between schools and scientists. Partly because I was lucky enough to attend the late Sir Paul Callaghan’s Transit of Venus Forum in Gisborne earlier this year.
**Alas to access this work, funded by the New Zealand Ministry of Health and the Health Research Council of New Zealand, without a subscription to the Lancet, costs US$31.50 (almost NZ$40). The Lancet is published by Elsevier who, according to Wikipedia, reported a profit margin of 36% on revenues of $3.2 billion in 2010. Elsevier is currently being boycotted by 12,797 academics in protest over their business practices.
1. Baker MG, Telfar Barnard L, Kvalsvig A, Verrall A, Zhang J, Keall M, Wilson N, Wall T, Howden-Chapman P (2012). Increasing incidence of serious infectious diseases and inequalities in New Zealand: a national epidemiological study. The Lancet 379(9821): 1112-1119. DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(11)61780-7
Conflict of interest statement:
I am currently a Sir Charles Hercus Fellow, funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand. I am also an associate editor for BMC Biotechnology and on the editorial board of PeerJ, both Open Access journals, and am taking part in the Elsevier boycott.