Open Access Science

One of the reasons I started this blog was because I think it’s important for scientific research to be accessible to everyone. This sounds simple, but actually requires several things:

  1. Research results need to be easily accessed by the public.
  2. How the research was conducted needs to be accessible.
  3. The public needs to be able to understand it.

Now to talk a bit about each of these:

  1. With modern technology, that means it needs to be online and it needs to not be behind a pay wall. For those who aren’t familiar with the term “pay wall,” it’s basically when a publisher requires you pay some amount of money (often as much as $50) to read an article. In practice, nobody gets single articles, and instead universities and large research groups will buy subscriptions to databases that have access to articles from a variety of publishers, but these can cost thousands of dollars a year and so are only available to people affiliated with universities and research groups.
  2. Research is only as good as the way in which it was done. Due to publications requiring increasingly extensive data to be considered acceptable but simultaneously placing increased restrictions on article length, “materials and methods” sections (which is where this information is located) is increasingly being reduced or relegated to “supplemental materials,” which is published online only and often buried slightly.
  3. This is one of my most important and most difficult parts. If people don’t understand, then they don’t actually have access to the information. The problem is that the complex terminology really does serve a purpose. Much of the language we use in science has very specific definitions that make it difficult to communicate as efficiently and effectively without it. And I don’t actually think that should change among scientists. But it absolutely needs to for communication with the public. You shouldn’t need a college degree to understand the research being done with your money (because most research is funded by government grants). And I think the solution to this needs to be better simplified communication by the researchers themselves. Science media could serve this purpose, but it can’t possibly account for all the research being published every day.

I was recently shown this website: http://labscribbles.com/. Dr. Rachel Harding is publishing what she’s doing and her data in real time, which I think is awesome! That is what I wish this blog could be. I love that Dr. Harding is not only using her blog to make her data accessible to the research community, but to the broader public as well. And it’s useful to get feedback in real time (which comments and emails allow when you publish what you’re doing) because it can keep you from spending months doing research based on a faulty premise or incorrect technique. So why am I not publishing my data? Why am I being secretive about what exactly I’m doing?

I’m in my first year and have no publications. That means I have at least 4 more years, and in that time I need to publish in a respectable journal. You’ve probably heard the term “publish or perish.” And it is absolutely true. It is extremely difficult (and not advised) to get your PhD without publishing on your work. The number of publications you have is one of the major numbers that gets looked at for hiring. If I were to graduate with no publications, I would have an extremely difficult time finding a job. Because publication is viewed as verification that you have done work worth reading.

But many journals will not publish any data that’s been published before (which seems like it makes sense at first because you shouldn’t just copy what you’ve done before to make it look like you’ve done more than you have), but that includes things that have been published online. Which means if I put out my data on this blog, it may be incredibly difficult for me to publish on it, which could seriously hurt my future. And I’m nowhere near established or experienced enough for my career to survive that.

Another big problem with publishing data online is “scooping.” This is when another lab publishes on your research before you. Journals will only publish new research (which is one of the reasons we have a big replication problem). So if another lab already published experiments similar to mine, I won’t be able to publish my own. In actuality, two labs typically aren’t doing exactly the same thing, so the lab that publishes later probably will still get a publication, but it will be in a “lesser” journal (journals are ranked by how good they are; I have plenty of complaints about that if you want to hear them). So how does this happen? Usually it just happens that labs pursue the same questions by accident because they’re both interested in similar topics (which means making your research public is actually great because it means you could see what other people were working on and work with them or go in a slightly different direction!) But occasionally you get people who specifically try to scoop someone. I’ve heard numerous stories of labs that send grad students to scope out posters and talks in order to steal ideas and then try to finish the project first and beat them to publication. Which is a waste of everyone’s time and money, but because all that matters is publications, people have incentive to cheat like that.

So I’m not in a place in my career where I can feel secure putting my data out there. Dr. Harding already has her PhD, a post doc position, and several publications. And because most scientists would love if research were more open access, her blog could even be used as a selling point for hiring committees. But I’m just not there yet. And as much as I agree that the publication and research access system is deeply broken, I’m not yet in a position where I can afford to not work within it.

Fortunately the vast majority of researchers agree that data should be more open access, so this will hopefully change in the future. And of course, when I do get a publication (still working on the getting data part though, so it could be awhile), I will definitely let you know and provide explanations so you can understand what my data actually mean, because that’s the most important part.

As always, if you have any questions about anything, let me know!

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