Opinion: When all publications are public speech, all scientists are public speakers

Noah Haber
The following is the opinion of the author, and does not necessarily reflect scientific findings or theory.

Yesterday, a large group of national science funders across Europe announced that they were making open access mandatory for their funding recipients. That effectively bans nearly a continent’s worth of researchers and their co-authors from publication in traditional paywalled journals, and rapidly hastens movement towards open access models of scientific publishing.

Open access is simply the idea that all people, regardless of who you are, should be able to easily access scientific publications without having to pay fees or jump through hoops. Giving everyone access to scientific publications has the potential to vastly increase collaborative efforts, spread scientific findings, and improve science education. Open access is also inevitable given the power of communications technology. Arguably, we’ve already had open access for years, albeit through a questionably legal science equivalent of Napster. That doesn’t in any way take away from the impact of this announcement, which in many ways forces others to hasten their moves to open access.

Before I move on, I need to be absolutely, all-caps-in-bold, clear about one thing: I AM IN FIRMLY FAVOR OF FULL OPEN ACCESS OF SCIENTIFIC PUBLICATIONS AND DATA, with some generally agreed-on ethical and logistical constraints. However, open access also comes with a few caveats. While some would point to how open access impacts  publication funding incentives, the biggest issues may be institutional and cultural. They may even be serious enough to do harm if we in the scientific, media, and popular communities don’t adapt and embrace this change. To understand why, we need to dive a bit into a (slightly fictitious) model of how publication works.

Back in the day, publication was very limited. Scientists scienced, and publishers published. Publications were on physical paper, and almost entirely read and debated within the scientific community. That information would make its way into professional organizations and scientific societies, where it was debated and rehashed, and eventually consensus was synthesized and passed to practitioners. A layperson would almost never come in direct contact with research.

While slow and tedious, this old (and, again, slightly fictitious) model had one feature often taken for granted: consensus was built slowly among a community of experts. That, by no means, made those scientific communities immune to popular whim and often deeply flawed conclusions, but it did provide some insulation, which in turn  provided some breathing room for debate and consensus-building. A study isn’t the absolute truth; it’s an argument with data, one which can be overturned, backed up, revised, or rejected. It’s made explicitly to be read by “peers,” by which we mean other scientists in the same field, who are more likely to treat studies with skeptical debate. The traditional “peer review” is really only the first step. The real peer review happens through other people doing their own studies and debating, comparing, rejecting, and sharing them.

Jump cut to today: if someone publishes an article about the “link” between chocolate and Alzheimer’s, that goes almost straight to Twitter, where all opinions are roughly equal, for everyone to see. While I, and hopefully readers of this blog, understand why chocolate studies rarely if ever have any bearing on our lives, most people aren’t privileged to be equipped with the kind of time and education it takes to understand these issues. Science involves complicated theory with conflicting data, and jargon that’s hardly understandable or means something totally different to people on the outside. Science is hard, and it’s a privilege to have the resources and time to understand it. Most do not have that privilege.

Scientific research is increasingly discussed, consumed, used, and abused outside of gated scientific communities, but our institutions and culture are made for a time when they weren’t. That comes with some danger if we fail to adapt. There have always been paths by which popular preference has impacted science, both positively and negatively, and modern communication accelerates tends to both catalyze these processes and bypass some of the checks and balances.

When all publications are public speech, all scientists are public speakers. Public discussion is, and should be a major part of scientist’s jobs, and one which we should embrace. That means adapting scientific culture as well as as institutions to meet these needs, and avoiding some of its pitfalls. We run real risks if we cannot adapt to this environment. Research which is poorly communicated, easily mistranslated, or otherwise misleading can cause real harm, both directly or indirectly. The results of the CLAIMS study are at least partially a result of this new open scientific environment.

If it sounds like I am being vague about what that means in practical terms, it’s because I don’t know. We have ideas on what new models might look like for performing and communicating science, but we won’t know what does and doesn’t work unless we try. And with announcements like this one, it looks like we need to try harder, faster.

Thoughts and comments welcome