Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Analysis: Open Access Out of the Shadows – Now What?

by January 23rd, 2013

There’s an essential piece missing from the blizzard of news and commentary on the tragic recent suicide of Internet hacktivist Aaron Swartz, who was reportedly distraught at a looming federal prosecution for downloading without permission through the network of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about four million academic articles from the subscription fee-based JSTOR database. Open access to scientific research not only helps degreed experts collaborate in their own languages; it is a building block to a better informed citizenry. But capitalizing on its value to the broader society takes focus, effort, and support.

Swartz faced up to 30 years on 13 felony counts, although prosecutors had reportedly offered a plea-bargain that would have yielded only a few months in prison, writes Yale Law School researcher Adam Cohen in Time. However Cohen adds that Swartz bristled at having to accept the status of a felon because what he did was to serve the broader public. Meanwhile, the affair has vaulted the seemingly rarified subject of open access publishing into the spotlight. There could be no better time to examine the pay-wall model Swartz fought – as well as the flip side – which is that the reach of open access is already growing. We also have to consider who should be doing what with this stuff, once it is made public in full and for free. Crucial is the role of an engaged and networked news eco-sphere that cares about science and its impact on the human condition.

The Wretched Status Quo

As data guru Daniel Lathrop of the Dallas Morning News notes, Swartz was a prominent and outspoken backer of open information systems, and a Web entrepreneur. There were certainly grounds for Swartz’s mission, if not entirely for his methods, in trying to tumble the walls around scientific research findings, particularly for work done at public expense.

Faculty members are rightly bitter that their years of work reaches an audience of a handful, while every year 150 million attempts to JSTORS content are denied…” — Laura McKenna, in The Atlantic

Last year, former political science professor Laura McKenna described in The Atlantic the whys and wherefores of the wretched status quo in academic publishing. Academic journals, McKenna explains, are housed in universities, in no small part for prestige. They are mostly subscription-only and due to tradition and inertia, have historically been seen as reserved for an elite, degreed audience – never mind that most of the research is taxpayer-funded. The commoners aren’t educated enough to make sense of it all. The for-profit publishers of these many thousands of journals have to cover the costs of printing and distributing each “to its tiny community of readers,” McKenna writes, so most sell article access rights to a search engine firm such as JSTOR which in turn uses pay walls and subscription fees to make back its own outlays.

Laments McKenna, “The public – which has indirectly funded this research with federal and state taxes which support our higher education system – has virtually no access to this material, since neighborhood libraries cannot afford to pay those subscription costs. Newspapers and think tanks, which could help extend research into the public sphere, are denied free access to the material. Faculty members are rightly bitter that their years of work reaches an audience of a handful, while every year 150 million attempts to JSTORS content are denied…”

Open Science authors and “Pay to Play”

Fortunately there are a few promising developments unfolding to provide more free public access to more published scientific research. Most noteworthy is a “pay-to-play” approach. Current open access journals actually levy an article processing charge of as much as $1,300 on authors to vet and publish their work.

“…collectively the top two or maybe three publishers take out of the academic world enough profit to pay for every research article in every discipline to be made freely available online for everyone to access using PLoS’s publishing fee approach.” – Glyn Moody, in TechDirt

The authors agree to this for several reasons. The fee is usually paid from research grants and budgets, not from their own pockets. Additionally, open access journals, which follow time-honored pre-publication protocols of peer review, are now increasingly accepted within the academic community though snobbery sometimes persists in upper echelons.

Perhaps most of all, as McKenna notes, many scientists want their work available to the widest possible audience. As a result of all this, gaining traction are open access publications such as the seven titles published by the Public Library of Science or PLoS; and the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, among others. The University of California at Berkeley’s impressive eScholarship hub provides open access to a rich cache of published research and related material in the hard sciences and social sciences.

UK planning for open access in 2014

The new model has legs, says Tech writer Glyn Moody. He gathered some financial data on the big closed-system journal publishers and has noted in TechDirt that, “…collectively the top two or maybe three publishers take out of the academic world enough profit to pay for every research article in every discipline to be made freely available online for everyone to access using PLoS’s publishing fee approach.” As The Guardian reported this past summer, the article fee paid to open access publications on behalf of authors is at the heart of a plan by the UK to make all publicly-funded research freely available in full text form by 2014. The U.S. Congress and Executive branch should explore more deeply what they can do to assure free, full text, public access to taxpayer-funded scientific research.

The pricey subscription journals now offer at least some free online content alongside their pay-walled articles. They may be doing damage control, or they may see the handwriting on the wall. Even before Swartz’s dramatic actions, controversy had been growing, with many academics becoming increasingly insistent in demands for the open model. A new generation of scholars raised in the open online environment, understands. Open science, open government and open data are united through a concern for the public welfare. That’s rooted in the collaborative, non-hierarchical ethos of “open source” software developers.

Capacity For Translation And Distribution

However, open access is a double-edged sword. Merely opening the floodgates to millions of specialized research articles, most written in the richly obfuscatory prose of science, might only add to growing information fatigue. We need as a civil society to build greater capacity for translation and distribution to engaged citizens who care about the policy and fiscal underpinnings of specialized research, but aren’t likely to speak the lingo of the transportation economist or molecular biologist.

So how would a regional public affairs blogger go about doing “open science” stories stemming from public research institutions in their orbit?

A good starting point is to develop a simple online infrastructure, keyed to non-technical audiences. Through its Public Data Ferret database of originally-reported articles, founded in 2010 and built on a WordPress blogging platform, our 501c3 Seattle-based charity, Public Eye Northwest, converts selected public sector documents and data into everyday language and then archives the repurposed contents by jurisdiction and topic. One of numerous topical archives focuses on open science produced in or about the Puget Sound region or Washington state, providing a geographically-rooted model. To illustrate the point, and show the relevance of “open science” to broadly shared concerns such as public health, environment, and economic justice, here are a few of the stories from that archive at Public Data Ferret. The publication is a member of The Seattle Times’ News Partner Network.

UW Study: Tattoo Snags May Mimic Disease, But Don’t Panic;”

UW Study: Scat-sniffing Dogs Can Help In Spotted Owl Counts;”

Pertussis In WA Hit Hispanics At Double The Rate Of Others;”

UW, WA Researchers: Tobacco Prevention ROI More Than 5-1;”

UW Study: Low-dose CT Scans For Lung Cancer Too Costly;”

In Seattle Streams, Six to Ten Out of Ten Coho Salmon Die Before Spawning;”

Seattle Region Scores Poorly On HIV Risk Behaviors;”

Regional Tolling Fair To Low-Income Households, UW Researchers Report;”

Washington Indoor Smoking Ban: Good For Bars, Taverns and the State’s General Fund?

How To “Do” Open Science

If you run or plan to start a regional public affairs blog, such stories could prove a useful part of the mix. One way to get started on conveying open science to the broader public, is using the search tool at the National Institute of Health’s “Pub Med” guide to scientific journal articles. Government open science publications are also worth tracking – a key title in the U.S. is Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, published by the Centers for Disease Control. Other resources are listed in Public Data Ferret’s guide to open access: one not to miss, especially for its inclusion of social science, economics, transportation and more, is the afore-mentioned eScholarship repository.

Take the initiative when articles that look promising are limited to the brief summary form known as an “abstract,” and full text access requires paying a hefty per-article fee. Approach the authors directly.

In our coverage of open science we zero in on fresh output relating to Seattle, King County or Washington state, and work by researchers at public institutions such as the University of Washington, Public Health Seattle-King County, and various Washington state agencies. The same approach can be adopted in other geographies.

Practical Guidelines

If you’re going to take the plunge, keep in mind some best practices.

  • Always link to the full text, free version of the original source material.
  • Relentlessly translate the language of science into everyday terms. It can be done. Online science and medicine dictionaries can be a great help, and the authors as well.
  • Also know going in that open access or not, you will want to pass over well more than half of the articles you will scan. Quite often the title will be clue enough. You are not writing for scientists, but for the general public. Would an engaged citizen care about the subject and the findings? Are there implications for public health, the environment or other policy concerns? Does the article contain findings with substantial implications for return on investment of public funds? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” dive in. The sweet spot may well be where open science meets open government.
  • As with all online news and commentary, you will need to establish ways of getting your work noticed. Partnerships with Web sites of established media, using social media, doing radio interviews, and producing podcasts – perhaps featuring study authors – are a few possibilities.

  • Ways Around That Damned Pay-Wall

    Often, via Pub Med, only abstracts of the articles are available for free. But at the same time, a growing share are offered there in full for no charge. Take the initiative when articles that look promising are limited to the brief summary form known as an “abstract,” and full text access requires paying a hefty per-article fee. Approach the authors directly. The abstract itself or university staff directories found online will yield contact information.

    No Free Full Text, No Story

    I’ve found that when approached respectfully, they’ll very often make available to a public service news site their pay-walled articles, in full, for no charge. They often have that discretion based on their arrangements with the journal. In some cases they won’t provide free access, saying there is a 12-month embargo on free distribution. Their loss for having agreed to that. No free full text, no story.

    Open Science Can Reside In Unexpected Places

    Lastly, be aware that “open science” can reside in unexpected places. Here in the Pacific Northwest, one such is the publications page of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP), a taxpayer-funded unit which has recently conducted thorough, selective reviews of the academic literature on what does and does not constitute smart spending in public education. The news so far: whether it’s a 10 percent increase in general K-12 spending, or a 10 percent decrease in class size, there are very modest gains in key student performance outcomes in the youngest grades and virtually no quantifiable benefits in the middle and higher grades. A next phase of analysis will examine the elasticity between student outcomes and spending targeted to teacher effectiveness training. It’s all the more relevant for Washington state lawmakers because they’re facing a state Supreme Court mandate to produce several billion dollars more in annual K-12 spending.

    In the months and years to come, definitely expect more grist for public policy debates supplied through open access to scientific research. Maybe along these lines: Do urban trees actually help save human lives? Granted, it’s not entirely clear yet. But as a reporter, I’m glad to have a chance to begin to tell the story, and appreciate that a stalwart open science practitioner, the forest economics researcher Geoffrey Donovan of the Portland, Ore.-based Pacific Northwest Research Station of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is on the case. I like that he tips reporters to his research team’s new open access publications, and makes available online, in full and for free, all his related papers. This cache includes examinations of the nexus between urban tree cover and not only mortality rates, but also crime rates and property values. The ties to potential urban land use decisions and city council actions are evident, and important.

    The Legacy of Aaron Swartz

    The real legacy Aaron Swartz has left us is, first, a heightened and broader awareness that open access to taxpayer-funded research in a democracy is not a luxury, but a right; and second, that a vital challenge is the last-mile delivery of actual insight to the community from the rarified climes of the public campus and the capitol. The good news is that the value-add is a lasting investment in healthy communities.

    Matt Rosenberg has worked for 29 years in journalism, public policy and strategic communications.

    Public Data Ferret is a news knowledge base program of the 501c3 public charity, Public Eye Northwest. Ferret In The News. Donate; subscribe (free)/volunteer.

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