Open Access and Science Censorship

*In the spirit of honesty and transparency, though I tried to be as unbiased as I could, I found my debates seeming to lean toward one side. A goal of this blog was to be unbiased and present both sides of a debate topic. I realized that, though I attempt to present each separate argument without bias, at times there will simply be better/ more arguments for one side of a debate. As someone new to debate, this took a while to learn and accept.*

Science is often criticized for not being inclusive of the general population. When we talk about scientific matters, we tend to speak in scientific jargon that nonscientists find difficult to understand. When we publish our research (even publicly funded research), it is published in scientific journals that many cannot access. When I’m researching a topic, I typically start on Scifinder, a scientific articles database for which my university pays access fees. Without being a member of academia, this access can cost a private individual hundreds of dollars a year. An average citizen will not (and shouldn’t be expected) to pay this. Unfortunately, without access to the scientific journals publically funded research is often exclusively published in, the general public is barred from the scientific understanding for which they pay. Additionally, recent events have further barred the public from publicly funded research through gag orders on US federal agencies’ communication with the public.1 I tried to make today’s topic into two. However, I came to believe the debate over science censorship falls into the larger debate of the public’s right of access to publicly funded science. The EPA, USDA, and similar agencies have research divisions of their own and often give grant funds to outside researchers. All of this research is funded using taxpayer money. Yes, it often comes down to a fraction of a cent per household. But we still pay for it.

Traditionally, if a research scientist wanted to share results with the world they would submit a scientific manuscript to a scientific journal. It would undergo the peer-review process, with experts scrutinizing the manuscript for possible fabrication, for experiment validity, for significance, etc. If editors believe a paper should be published it will still be sent back to the author for revisions. If a paper makes it through this intense process, it will eventually be published in this one journal. To attempt to publish one manuscript in multiple journals is a violation of the author’s agreement with the journal. This gives the journal the power to restrict access to that manuscript, and they can charge membership fees to access articles published in that journal. Currently universities often pay general access fees to several top journals so that students may access them. Private persons can pay access fees, but to pay access fees for several journals will cost much more than a university student or professor, for whom the costs are included in tuition and general fees costs, or given.

In the past few decades an alternative has sprung up, largely supported by the research physics community. Open access journals are run for little or no profit by experts within the field. Any person with internet access can read open access articles at no cost. The costs to publish are borne either by the article author(typically with funds from their institution or grants) or subsidized by universities, government agencies, foundations, and other groups with interests in supporting public access to research. Publically funded medical research articles are often published on PubMed, a database anyone can access. However, while, in 2013, the U.S. government announced a plan to have federal agency research available after one year,2 this has not been put into effect for all publically-funded research that is published in pay-for-access journals. The directive plans for the authors to create an article for an open-access depository within a year of publishing anywhere else. However, while most of the agencies have released their plans to implement open access, it is not yet in effect for most agencies.3

Like everything in the whole world, there are people for and against open access.

For:

Price: Open access (OA) articles are free to read. That’s not just for me, a university member. That’s for anyone who has internet access. If OA become the predominant system, then a private individual with no ties to research could still access research articles. This ties into accessibility.

Even if an author pays to have their manuscript published through OA (also called Gold OA), the cost is very small. Many journals will waive the publication fee if an author requests.

Universities and their students also save through OA since they do not have to pay for those journals.

Accessibility: Many believe that if research is publicly funded then the public should be able to access the results of that research. We’ve already paid for it. So, to a reasonable point, we should be able to read about the results of our investment in the research. This includes research that not everyone may agree with, and research that some are trying to hide from the public. This ties into science censorship, and the debate on whether it’s appropriate for a government to censor scientific communication with the public.

Boosts Research Progress: Because more people will have access to research articles, more people can process these ideas and come up with more research of their own, furthering research progress. OA could also help scientists in developing countries or small-private laboratories who would not be able to afford multiple journal access fees.

Against:

Peer-Review System Damage: The biggest concern about OA is that it will harm the peer-review process. Pay-for-access (PFA) proponents believe there needs to be financial incentive for publishers to keep bad research from being published. If no one is being paid to review or edit, then they won’t work as hard on the review process, and falsified manuscripts will be published. However, this already happens with PFA. Recently, a highly-published scientist resigned from a top research university and several of her publications were redacted, including some in Science and Nature, two of the top scientific journals using PFA models. The integrity of the peer review process undoubtedly is necessary for OA models, but it’s also a necessary for PFA models, and problems in the process are not exclusive to either publishing model. There are already problems with research that is fabricated, or research that isn’t reasonably reproducible or sound. This is a problem with research publishing as it already exists, and isn’t exclusive to OA models. Also, peer reviewers aren’t always paid, even in PFA publishing, and when they are it isn’t exactly motivation money. Money isn’t the motivation to critically analyze and offer feedback on a fellow scientist’s work, and typically peer reviewers are asked to volunteer.

Also, researchers found no difference in metric (quality) of epidemiology articles published in OA journals and those published in PFA journals.4

Decline in Tough Research: Some worry that OA doesn’t motivate scientists to plan and execute tough experiments to publish in OA journals, and that scientists will be motivated to do these studies in order to publish in high-impact, high-profile journals, and therefore a move to OA dominating research publications could hinder progress. While an OA journal (eLife) is now considered to be a competitor to Nature and Science, offering motivation for researchers to push their research for publications in such an OA journal5, it may be a while before top OA journals are recognized as being top-shelf.

Doesn’t Fix Communication: One argument is that OA doesn’t necessarily improve scientific communication with the public. Instead, we could focus on creating interesting media that can communicate publicly funded research results, such as YouTube videos. There may be more cost-effective and efficient in communicating with the public than an article written in scientific language.

How this ties into science censorship: If we do have the right to freely access data our taxes pay for, then the power of an entity to censor that data becomes an issue for debate. Is there ever a reason for the government to halt federal agencies’ research communication with the public? Or with other scientists? Is there a balance for censoring certain classified research that, in the wrong hands, could be a public threat?

For:

Weapons Research/ Research with the Potential for Public Harm: The Department of Defense’s budget includes funds allocated to research, part of which is to develop weapons. This research will likely always be classified. Not every person, not even every citizen, should be trusted with access to weapons plans or development. An actual case involves a modified strain of avian flu that can move between different species. While the strain allows scientists and health officials to understand what mutations to look for in the case of an outbreak, many are fearful of what this information could do if obtained by a potential bioterrorist.6 The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity asked the scientists who would publish the paper about the modified strain to delete critical information from the article before publishing.7  Some have disagreed with this measure, as it keeps potentially beneficial information from health officials and other scientists. Others have called for a vetting process for access to such information.

Against:

Used to further political agendas: While weapons are an obvious potential threat in the hands of an untrusted person, much of science doesn’t research such viable threats. For example, most data won’t lead to developing anything with lethality. A recent example include the President’s plan to have an executive team review EPA research articles before they can be published.8 President Trump has spoken of his doubts about climate change, leading many to worry about his team’s review process censoring data that provides evidence of climate change. While the EPA has teams researching climate change, the EPA is also tasked with researching potential mishandling of waste materials, such as industrial waste. A facet of this task uses research to find if there has been significant environmental change due to industrial habits, and reports on this for public awareness and policy. Because the president plans to promote the economy and keep jobs in the US by (in part) cutting regulations on industry, the EPA could offer resistance if environmental protections were threatened. The EPA’s research on industry’s impact on the environment could also offer problems for the president. If the halt on communications continues on after the new administration has settled in, then it could be used to review and bar from publication research that provides evidence of industrial deregulation negatively affecting the environment and putting the public at risk. Hopefully, the President does not plan to continue the gag order.

Used to mislead the public: If a politician is in charge of distributing research, that person could choose which studies to release to the public, essentially tailoring the data to, again, suit a political agenda, and/ or to mislead the public.

Public Should Form Own Opinions: Adult US citizens have the rights and responsibilities to choose their leaders who will represent them. A certain degree of trust has to be established for our democratic republic to work. My local representative won’t have time to call each and every one of his constituents before deciding on a policy issue. Defense R&D also won’t be able to call us and ask if we think plans for such-and-such should be released publically. However, most research isn’t viably threatening to us. It’s an interpret-as-you-will-but-some-ways-are-more-correct-than others kind of thing. If my research on potential DNA-transcription factors were to be published, a person should be able to read it, interpret it, and then decide what value they find in it. If someone disagrees with my findings, then they can offer a scientific critique. Pre-publishing review is performed for scientific validity by the peer-review process. A team deciding whether not to allow research to be published based on keywords isn’t necessarily looking for bad science, nor does it exist for the purpose of keeping bad science from the public. It exists to keep information from the public, preventing us from forming our own directly formed opinions.

References:

  1. Fine, D. USDA. USDA Calls Scientists Gag Order a “Misunderstanding.” Scientific American. Published 25 January 2017. Accessed 28 February 2017. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/usda-calls-scientist-gag-order-a-ldquo-misunderstanding-rdquo/
  2. Noorden, R. White House announces new US open-access policy. Nature Newsblog. Published 22 February 2013. Accessed 28 February 2017.  http://blogs.nature.com/news/2013/02/us-white-house-announces-open-access-policy.html
  3. Public access mandates for federally funded research. Columbia University Libraries/ Information Services Scholarly Communication Program. Updated 18 November 2016. Accessed 28 February 2017. http://scholcomm.columbia.edu/open-access/public-access-mandates-for-federally-funded-research/
  4. Pastorino, R.; Milovanovic, S.; Stonjanovic, J.; Efremov, L.; Amore, R.; Boccia, S. Quality Assessment of Studies Published in Open Access and Subscription Jounrals: Results of a Systematic Evaluation. PlosOne. 2016, 11 (15), 1-11. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0154217
  5. Callaway, E. Biology’s big funders boos eLife. 2016, 534, published 1 June 2016. Accessed 28 February 2017. http://www.nature.com/news/open-access-journal-elife-gets-25-million-boost-1.20005
  6. Walsh, F. When should science be censored? BBC News. Published 20 December 2011. Accessed 28 February 2017. http://www.bbc.com/news/health-16275946
  7. Caplan, A. When censoring science makes sense. CNN. Published 21 December 2011. Accessed 28 February 2017. http://www.cnn.com/2011/12/21/opinion/caplan-flu-science/
  8. Tribune news services. Trump mandates EPA studies; data undergo review by political staff before release. Chicago Tribune. Published 25 January 2017. Accessed 28 February 2017. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/politics/ct-trump-epa-studies-20170125-story.html

 

 

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