In a previous post I wrote that open access is about education. The argument I made in my previous post was tangential; it was the conclusion of a few thoughts I typed up in discussing the arguments made by people who are against open access. So I want to take this opportunity to elaborate a bit on my argument.
Scientists have an interesting role in society. On one hand, they’re seen as being wise and intelligent; and being called ‘an Einstein’ is a compliment. On the other hand, people without personal experience of science seem to subscribe to the popular stereotype of the ‘mad scientist’ to various degrees, and think that scientists are not to be trusted. There is a considerate anti-science movement in the world, with people who claim all sorts of outlandish things that betray a misunderstanding of how science works and what the scientific literature actually says. The anti-science movement is, in other words, based on a misconception of what science is and what it can do, and these misconceptions are giving rise to mistrust.
It is vital to the scientific enterprise that the results are trusted — by both scientists and non-scientists; experts and non-experts alike. But to be trusted, science needs to be communicated. Science is, traditionally, communicated through publication. It follows that good science communication involves easy access to the scientific literature.
Change happens gradually, and the world will not be educated overnight. But for every person who is spreading ideologically-motivated misinformation, there’s another person who wants to check if this is true. And it is for these people that the scientific literature must be accessible, because educating even a single person out of ignorance is, on the whole, a good thing, and exactly what the scientific enterprise is about.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that science is about more than the scientists themselves. The purpose of the doing of science is not to facilitate scientists to make a career. No, rather, science is about expanding the body of human knowledge — and not just for science; we do this for humankind. And seen this way, it seems immoral to put whatever we find behind lock and key. To do so is to act selfishly; jealously guarding whatever we find because it can benefit not everyone, but ourselves.
Going back to my previous post, which came about after I read Mike Taylor’s post on the bizarre comments made by some people who don’t believe in open access, it seems like argument from personal gain is a recurrent theme: that it’s a ‘fallacy’ that ‘non-experts should read journals’. Indeed, this is even further elaborated by Robin Osborne at the Guardian, where he makes the argument that open access ‘makes no sense’ because access comes at a price. And that price, he argues, is the admission to the institutions where research is being carried out:
For those who wish to have access, there is an admission cost: they must invest in the education prerequisite to enable them to understand the language used.
But this kind of education can come in many forms. And one of those is free access to the literature. You don’t need to be an expert to make sense of things. It helps, but it’s not a prerequisite. Furthermore, this means that there is a parallel argument to be made: that research should be freely accessible both intellectually and financially. You shouldn’t have to pay to access research, and that research should be well-written. Indeed, there is an argument to be made to reduce the amount of jargon used in scientific papers, because what is jargon except another barrier that is used by those ‘in the know’ to keep those who are not in the dark?
And that brings me to my second observation, that a lot of the hostility that is directed against open access seems to stem from a sense of academic insecurity; that science is only worth something if it is ‘pure’. Osborne says:
There can be no such thing as free access to academic research. Academic research is not something to which free access is possible. Academic research is a process – a process which universities teach (at a fee). Like it or not, the primary beneficiary of research funding is the researcher, who has managed to deepen their understanding by working on a particular dataset. The publications that result from the research project are only trivially a result of the research funding, they come out of a whole history of human interactions that are not for sale.
It seems like Osborn is saying that open access is impossible because it would threaten the ivory tower of academia and that, as a result, it would dilute the academic enterprise. It’s exceedingly elitist to suggest that the uneducated don’t deserve access to the scientific literature, as this would reduce its value, but, alas, it is also a very common argument.
It’s very interesting that this argument is common. It seems to imply that academics and researchers and scientists who are against open access oppose it on the grounds that they think their role will be lessened if the ivory tower was to open its gates; that the value of science is inversely proportional to the ease by which it can be accessed. This is not true. Rather, it is the opposite; the value of research increases the more it is accessed. Indeed, isn’t a high download rate and high citation count what every researcher yearns for — since these metrics measure the amount of times information has been disseminated and impact has been made?
I don’t want to read too much into this, but part of me wonders if at least some hostility towards the idea of open access comes from the misconception that the status of being a scientist comes not so much from being a facilitator of the spread of knowledge as much as a custodian of the unknown?