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Wider open spaces

Freely accessed papers are simply points in a constellation of scientific communication with the public, says Alice Bell

Like a fair few others, I rolled my eyes at The Guardian’s front page last week on the “academic spring” pushing for open access in scholarly publishing.

It’s not just the crassness of the comparison to the Arab Spring, or continued questions over business models for open access.

It’s not even that it is not really news - or at least that it’s nothing new.

For me, the main problem is that open access does not equal open science, and that is something we should be talking about more.

I should make it clear that I am all for open access, but I also worry that it is a distraction from the larger challenge of developing meaningful public engagement with research.

Yes, we can make science free at the point of access - and I really want us to - but that’s only a small part of a much more complex picture.

Being able to download a paper is one thing. Understanding it is another, as is having the time to read it. Having the kind of cultural relationship with scientists that means they are the people you look to and trust for information is yet another.

Sharing specialist scholarship is hard work at the best of times, and sharing it with a broad audience is harder still.

If we are going to have meaningful open access, then, for a start, we are going to need to write more clearly. Maybe open access will be a step towards this. I suspect researchers’ writing will improve if they know that a more diverse and larger group of people might read their work.

Perhaps the current revolt by academics over publishing will lead to another one from the new non-academic audiences who, frustrated by how bad many papers are, will bug us to be better.

I should stress that I don’t think we should lose expert-to-expert communication. Jargon can be a good thing. We need spaces where we don’t have to constantly stop and explain ourselves and can just run with an idea.

But we also need to open up education, paying much greater attention to the barriers that can still limit access to scientific expertise.

Moreover, I worry that a focus on open access perpetuates a sense that science is something to be “delivered” to the public.

More than two decades ago, Stephen Hilgartner, the American sociologist of science and Cornell University professor, argued that overly linear models for science communication provide the scientific community with “the epistemic equivalent of the right to print money”.

There is a fair bit in that which still rings true. We should be working harder to shake off the idea that a paper is the measure of science rather than just one point in a constellation of communication that includes learning, listening and debate with a diverse range of people, at a range of times, in a range of spaces.

If I were feeling especially cynical, I would say that open access is simply a new way to rub scientists’ cleverness in people’s faces, letting more of them feel lost and stupid in the face of such impressive expertise.

I think that would be unfair, but we do need to be aware of the ways in which traditional forms of academic communication can keep the public out.

So if I am going to shake off this cynicism, I want more than a journal boycott. Academics must take time to translate their work and seek and build relationships with people other than their immediate colleagues. They should demand that their supervisors and funders take the time they spend on this seriously.

It would be a good news day if the launch of a journal really warranted front-page attention because it was covering an issue the public cares about.

I will get really excited only when science finally deals with the issues of social, cultural and economic exclusion rather than revelling in its elite status.

Until then, talk of an academic spring just sounds like PR puff.

Readers' comments (6)

  • I must be reading different papers to a lot of you guys. Sure, there's some impenetrable gobbledegook out there, but there's also a lot of beautiful papers, lucidly written in clear English and with key terms explained for the near-layperson. In my classes, we are constantly told to avoid jargon. It's a matter of balance, of course - some amount of specialist language is necessary for brevity and clarity. I think the arts are far more guilty than the sciences - I've read both - where literary and cultural theory ties itself in linguistic knots. Take this gorgeous paper by Christopher Loewen as an example - I've hardly done any biology but I can understand a surprising amount of it, enough to 'get the gist' even though the finer details are over my head. Really delightful writing in my (still very humble) opinion

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  • Just to address Ian's points: Firstly, I don't think the debate over OA *hampers* public engagement. You have misunderstood me. I apologise if that was my clunky prose, but it really wasn't my point. Rather, I said I *worried* that OA is a distraction from debate over opening up sci in ways that allow feedback and accessibility to broader audiences. I like OA, but it's a science issue, not a public one. For me, having seen a lot of blah about engagement in the last few decades but a lot less substantive action I worry that OA becomes a way for some (not all) members of the scientific community to think they've done their public duty and go back to rather old school top-down models of sci com. Does that make more sense? I think we should remember that OA publishing is still rooted in a rather linear approach to science, one that is rather science serving (as well as being v frustrating to a lot of them too - publish or perish frustrates ma as an academic). That was where the rub people's faces in it point came in, which I admit was (a) an attempt to be a bit provocative and (b) condense several decades of badly written history and sociology of science papers into a short explanatory metaphor. So I can see why it came over as "potty", but it wasn't to be taken seriously. I agree there is some ways we have to expect people who want to know more about a subject to bother to take some time and learn, but we also have to make it possible for them to do so and I think it's our duty to make it as easy as possible too. Maybe you favour the "think science is interesting, or f off" approach. I don't. I think there are more barriers around science than just paywalls, and we badly need to be talking about them. I didn't expect PEST policy to go on your front page but you could cover class and science more, e.g. the points about "school type" and GCSEs CaSE made last summer I also agree with you that has been activism on OA recently, though I disagree followup pieces prove it's newsworthy (please) and it's good you covered it. But it's not new. And you know that. Or you should. E.g.

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  • I've been thinking a lot about these issues, and agree with Alice that open science isn't magically enabled by enabling open access. OA is probably a necessary condition, but just having access to literature doesn't enable people to engage with science. There is a skill to reading a paper, starting with the confidence not to stop when you reach the first words you don't understand (hey, fellow academics - when was the last time you actually read a whole paper and understood it all, or for that matter when was the last time you actually read a whole paper?). Providing those tools, though, need not necessarily be a burden to be placed on the publishing scientists, but is something that can be shared across disciplines and projects. For example, community discussion tools can be a way for expertise and interpretation to be shared, but they will need careful designing if they're going to produce useful discussion. (See for a very early attempt from one of our projects at a community of expertise engaging in science). Similarly, tools which will enable (almost?) anyone to visualize and interact with data sets are probably going to be more useful than direct access to papers, at least for the kind of free exploration and public-led research that I think makes for truly meaningful open science.

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  • Hi Chris, try the NCCPE - they were set up for this sort of thing. Check lists too simplistic, but there is some good advice here (although I'd also say there are problems with this too...) As I said on twitter, happy to admit I was being deliberately a bit grumpy for effect with this piece... it's meant to be a provocation to be more ambitious in how science connects to the rest of the world.

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  • Ian, Firstly, sorry if my last sentence didn't make sense. I'm abroad at a conference slightly brain fried and dealing with dodge hotel wifi and doubt I'm making much sense at all. But I don't think it's sensible, fair or realistic to discuss newsworthiness of any particular story anyway really - agree its subjective - and it wasn't even my intended point with this piece. I actually like that it was covered by you in many ways and can see if emboldening previously nervous academics to stick up for themselves against editors even if I'm still not sure it's a public issue which in my book is a good thing. So let's leave that if it's ok. I don't have any evidence that they feel it's ok not to do PE if they do OA. Do you have any evidence they don't? My piece was an opinion piece saying I worry. Maybe I'm wrong. I'd love to be. I want to see the sorts of ambition and consideration about barriers to involvement to science I mention in that piece. When I see it, I'll be happy. I don't see enough of it now. To more substantive points... you say "open sounds fun, how might we do it". Great. That was basically what I was (perhaps clumsily) trying to provoke with that piece, so I'm glad we got there. As I've sort of said to Chris above, I have no idea, though I've been following some possibilities and debates around this for years, and some of the pitfalls. I reviewed a book about biotech policy and engagement last year for Sci & Public Affairs last year, and largely agreed with its rather pessimistic view that PEST was a somewhat unrealistically utopian movement Something else that relates to your other point about hiring people to be sub-PhD students is the discussion of the ethics of citizen science which we discussed at a fringe event for Sci Online last year - notes and link to podcast here On a more positive note (perhaps too positively spun...) there are also the case studies gradually being amassed by the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement I also think that stuff Rick Holliman and others at the OU are doing as part of their Catalyst award - - is worth having a look into. If you're interested, drop Rick a line about it. My personal view is that a wholly opened science isn't actually possible (Harry Collins does some interesting work on the incommensurability of expertise if you want to properly meta-nerd up on this) or possibly desirable, but there are many ways in which science, society and probably Planet Earth might benefit from science being opened up a bit more, in a range of ways. Finally, just to repeat something I've said to Stephen Curry in another comment thread... I want to apologise for the eye rolling line. The original draft had a joke after that which, I think, softened and contextualised it more. I edited it out for word limit and in retrospect, the whole link should have gone. It’s meant to be a provocative start to an opinion piece, but that's not always the best approach. So, yeah, if we can get beyond people either liking/ hating this piece because they thought it slagged of the Guardian/ science/ both (delete as applicable) open science sounds fun, how might we do it?

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  • Alice, There are hundreds of examples of "Citizen Science" projects out there which are being supported by professional scientists. Some of them have a conservation focus such as the Hoverfly and Butterfly Recording Schemes. Others are linked to universities such as the OU's iSpot site. Here's another recent example: There has never been more popular interest in science than there is now. I think to accuse us as a body of elitism and trying to keep the "general public" out of the frame is just wrong. Jeff

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