Web Opens Science To All

The Internet is opening up new ways of sharing information on a mass scale all the time. This means scientists can share with others in many ways unthought of before, from blogging and personal web pages about their work, to contributing their findings to large aggregates of information available to their colleagues and to the public free of charge. A slew of activists and nonprofits have dedicated themselves to making free sharing of such information the norm rather than the exception — arguing that the details and results of scientific inquiry should be made free and accessible to the general public.

Proponents of open access have made great strides towards making open access a reality, considering how young the movement is. Arguably the most important event in making open access a mainstream issue took place a decade ago, at a small gathering known as the Budapest Open Access Initiative. It was then that a groups of scholars and activists declared that the “old tradition” of publishing research in for-profit scholarly journals must give way to a new commitment to open access.

However ambitious this aim may seem, it is nonetheless changing how many scientists publish their data. A handful of new open-access journals serve as sources of peer-reviewed research that are available free of charge. In lieu of charging for access to their articles, journals like the Public Library of Science (PLOS) rely on donors and fees paid by the authors themselves to cover their costs. However, the costs of publishing in these fee-based journals are often covered by the scientist’s funding agency, and the money is included in the scientist’s grant. These journals have also been known to waive this publishing fee in cases where the scientist cannot cover the cost of publishing. Other open-access journals may not charge any fee to the authors, and instead rely on other sources of revenue, such as subsidies from a research institution or revenue from non-open source publications.

Scientists have also used a different route to make their data and findings open to all, one that is free and makes even more information available to the public. I’m talking about scientists who self-archive on the web — posting their own articles and information on the web on either a personal website or on a website set up by their institution. Again, it may sound unlikely that scientists all around the country would post their research information on-line without the incentives that come along with publication. However, this kind of information sharing has thrived in the computer science community since the 1980s. A recent survey of scientists across disciplines showed that 20-40% of scientific authors were already self-archiving.

Scientists running big, expensive projects have been the most willing to participate in granting information to the public. These often are either so expensive that they must propose to share their data in order to get funding, or they gather so much data that it would be impractical and slow scientific progress were only one lab to have access to the information. For instance, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey has been utilizing one of the major multi-filter imaging cameras in the world for over a decade in order to produce detailed maps of the night sky. In just eight years, the project covered a quarter of the night sky and created 3-dimensional maps of  more than 930,000 galaxies. All findings from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey are immediately posted on the internet, and have led so far to discoveries in a wide range of topics — the properties of galaxies, the evolution of quasars (distant objects that emit huge amounts of electromagnetic radiation), and the structure of our own Milky Way, just to name a few.

The benefits to making a project like this open access are innumerable. Projects such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey benefit the scientific community by enabling the data to be processed as efficiently as possible by many research teams and by ensuring that precious research money is not spent duplicating data. The scientists involved benefit from collaborating with more universities that can contribute to funding the project. Similar projects have been used in fields like genomics, chemistry, geospacial, and others (this is not limited to the sciences either — large online databases and archives have tremendous value in the social sciences and humanities as well).

The rapid spread of open access for scientific data and publications has not been without its critics, and a few critiques have been especially used as arguments against the spread of data. One is that scientific data is dangerous when in the wrong hands. Just last year, for instance, a Dutch research team created a version of the flu virus that could spread especially rapidly in mammals and planned to publish their findings in the journal Science. Their findings began a debate about whether it would be appropriate for the group to publish how they created the viral strain, as some feared it could pose a biosecurity threat if terrorist groups could mimic their methods to create a biological weapon.

Another critique is that too much data available to scientists will make scientists less efficient in making discoveries. Scientific data can lead to many insights about the world, but is not always telling as confounding variables or poor scientific design can sometimes give the wrong result. Data can also be difficult to interpret, especially when dealing with large amounts of data taken on a broad scale. Some argue that for these reasons, scientists are best at what they do when they are able to ask their own questions and create their own protocols to find the answers, rather than trying to draw conclusions from sorting through copious amounts of someone else’s data.

However, these complaints are small compared with the overwhelming power of a scientific community that pools its information and can produce more publications from running fewer tests or research projects. This information-sharing also gives article access to more people who need it — students, teachers, scientists in developing countries, etc. And what is astounding is the scientific community’s embrace of these practices: there are to date almost 1,000 open access journals, and 80% of scientific journals allow their authors to archive their data on the World Wide Web. Over the next few decades, scientists have the ability to change the culture of science for good — using the internet to make science more accessible and more productive than it has ever been before — using the power of the internet and the ideals of the open access movement.

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