Open Access – A Challenge

By Siouxsie Wiles 28/10/2012

This post originally appeared on the Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand website as part of Open Access Week.

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.

0 Responses to “Open Access – A Challenge”

  • “The fact that communication is seen almost as an optional extra in a career in science is quite astonishing”

    “doesn’t quite understand how anyone can do science without wanting to tell the world about it ” – David Winter.

    The Lenscience people do good work and long term will hopefully benefit us all, with a population wanting and able to be more informed. The open access is a necessary part of communicating science and a summary understandable by a general audience is an idea that I’ve seen popping up more and more often (a good one I suspect).

    The bit that always leaves me mystified is the how to reach those who can’t be bothered engaging with the science – the ones that need to be moved so as to combat the inertia on topics like vaccines etc.

  • Nice post Siouxsie. Interesting that people need to ask what your “role” is. It feels like science communicators are all actors, just pretending to be scientists, sometimes.

  • Hi Jean

    It was Kathryn Ryan on Radio NZ National that asked me what my role was. She had been talking to an economist about the value of science earlier in the morning, which prompted her question. It completely threw me though, I had been ready to justify my work, which is a rather different thing!

  • Jean,

    Maybe I’m just slow tonight, but I have to admit I’m still trying to work out your precise meaning when you write “It feels like science communicators are all actors, just pretending to be scientists, sometimes.”

    No offence intended, it’s just I’m finding many ways of reading it – typical of me, perhaps…??! Are you saying that science communicators are not scientists and are pretending to be scientists. Or, perhaps, are you saying that science communicators come across as acting, pretending to be scientists. Or a bunch of other permutations!

    I’d give what I think my role is, but I don’t want to be guilty of side-tracking the conversation! (I could just write a blog post about it… one for another time, maybe.)

  • I certainly don’t feel like I’m pretending to do science! Saying that, what I do find mildly amusing is that while I am struggling to raise money to do science, it’s been fairly easy to raise money to communicate it!