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Open science—good fit for the digital age

This article appears in the issue January 2007 [Volume 16, Issue 1]


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Anthropologists are in an uproar. A few weeks before the annual American Anthro- pological Association meeting in San Jose, an ad hoc group put up a site that protested the AAA's insistence on keeping the publishing of scientific papers as a for-profit activity. "How has the AAA gotten to a point where its solvency seems to be based solely on the sales of our scholarly work?" the site challenged. "Work that has already been paid for by public and private granting agencies, which we pay registration fees to present at conferences organized by the scholarly society we pay membership fees to join? Why must we also charge our readers?" In particular, the site objected to the AAA's public opposition to federal legislation that would require any research it funds to be available for free.

It's not just the anthropologists who are having this fight. If you're a scientist because you want to advance knowledge, then the embedding of science in capitalism feels like a poor fit. Of course there are times when their aims are aligned, but there are times when the moon and sun are aligned, too, but those are exceptions we call eclipses. There's no reason to think that the invisible hand of the market will steer us exactly the same way that well-funded scientists would. There's no guarantee that any particular area of knowledge will have monetary value now or ever, directly or indirectly. We don't know and can't know exactly what will turn out to be of extraordinary explanatory or practical value. If science were left solely at the mercy of capitalism, it would be indistinguishable from product development.

Fortunately, science gets funded in a variety of ways that keep it somewhat independent of the market's shortsighted demand on tying effort to recompense. But some of those ways leverage scarcity of access. Scientific journals can charge enormous amounts of money for subscriptions, knowing that academic libraries have the sufficient budget. They even leverage the scarcity of pages in paper-based journals by charging scientists hefty production fees for printing their articles—not for the offprints but for publishing the article in the journal itself. They do this knowing, again, that the institutions have budgeted for this expense.

Unfair old policies

But, we pay a high price for these methods of funding. Only a small portion of the world can afford to pay $15,000 for a subscription to a scientific journal. Only scientists employed by relatively affluent institutions can afford the production costs. If it's true that we can't know in advance which areas of research are going to have value, then these policies hold us back as a species. In the digital age, where both access and production are essentially free, these old policies are unconscionable.

New open models

There's plenty of activity trying to get past those old models. Cornell's arXiv.org (originally created by a scientist at Los Alamos) publishes online any paper sent to it, so long as it comes from a scientist with some type of credential. Public Library of Science (PLoS) peer-reviews articles but publishes many, many more than any journal with a staple in its center can. A new project, PLoS One, will publish any peer-reviewed article, no matter how important or relevant. Sites like these open up science.

While getting published in any of these sites doesn't carry the same career-advancing cachet as having your article run in Science or Nature, it does get your ideas and data out into the public where it can do some good.

And over time, reputation systems will emerge that will bolster careers as effectively as an offprint from The Journal of the American Medical Association. When there's a scarcity of publication media, reputation is built by being one of the few to make it through the filter. When there's an abundance of publication media, reputation gets built by links. An economy of scientific knowledge will emerge that lets people find research and quickly judge its credibility—perhaps too quickly, but abundance can be tough in its own way.

The fact is that demands of capitalism and the processes by which we develop ideas and knowledge don't always fit together well. Businesses, too, would do well to keep them apart except where their aims are truly aligned.


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