Open access publishing and equity -or- "Can I share this with my mom?"

The "publish or perish" adage has gotten a little more complicated. With a growing global concern for social equity, science legitimacy, and equal access to information, traditional publishing may not be enough

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Oct 24, 2018
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I published my first manuscript shortly after finishing my master's degree at Oregon State University. I'm early enough in my career that I still have a visceral memory of the joy associated with getting the acceptance notification. When the manuscript finally made it out in the journal, I emailed my undergraduate field technicians - beaming with excitement - to share this enormous accomplishment with them. 

One of them, a first generation college student and a woman of color, wrote me back: "My mom doesn't have a library login, am I allowed to share this with her?" I didn't know the answer, the paper was not published in an open access journal. I said yes, because I believed it was the right thing to do. 

My student’s mother is not an academic, but she read the manuscript and beamed with pride herself to see her daughter’s name mentioned in the acknowledgments section. She shared the manuscript at work, paraphrasing it the way her daughter had paraphrased it for her. In this way the paper grew legs and slipped quietly out of the ivory tower and onto the streets, which ultimately is where research belongs.

The Rapunzel Project Field Team- 2012
Members of my 2012 field team in Frederick Sound, Southeast Alaska

The sharing of information is ingrained in the modern technological world. I can freely download secret family recipes, instructions on how to change a flat tire, poems by e.e. cummings and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, or algebraic proofs. I cannot however, without some sort of institutional login, freely download peer reviewed literature on the media's influence (or lack thereof) on frequent dieting in adolescent girls. Why? Cookies are free, but legitimate studies on social pressures and health is available only to those affiliated with an institution? Without pointing fingers, it is time for the research community to shift our own culture, and value the dissemination of work above all. Open access seems to be one of the torches being carried in support of this goal. 

The move to open access publishing is palpable. Even journals that function on a traditionally subscription based model still have an open access option (at a hefty, dare I say, occasionally insurmountable fee of $2-$7k). Nonetheless, this is an important transition in the culture of science. Until the open access movement gained legitimacy, the potentially dramatic skew in access to scientific information - which is disproportionately biased against independent researchers, small NGO's, and the general public - remained unchecked. Open access allows us, as a scientific community, to make a commitment to minimizing access disparity, and maximizing access to merit based research across subjects. 

But open access publishing is only the first step. Opening the front door is not the same as giving someone directions to the house.

Open access publications ensure equal access. But equality and equity are not equivalent. Equality is about sameness – everyone gets to read the paper. Equity is about fairness – each person has the ability to find, and also understand the paper. As researchers we have developed a vocabulary that we'll gently call 'inaccessible' to many, if not most. This phenomenon is so widespread that without batting an eyelash we'll ask a scientist to quickly summarize their work for 'non-specialists', with the cogent implication that this means simplifying it to the utmost. While the vocabulary of research is to a large degree topically specific (one cannot talk about osmosis without using the word 'osmosis' at least once), the language of research has grown so obtuse that we ask "Do elasmobranchs possess the cognitive ability to discriminate between complex auditory cues?" rather than asking "can a shark tell the difference between two types of music?" (You can read this compelling study here, for a subscribers fee). I feel quite confident that my grandmother understands what it means to play music to sharks, but complex auditory cues may not get much of a reaction. 

So yes, open access publishing levels the accessibility playing field (this is the equality portion of publishing). However, publishing research in an open access journal does little to increase the scope of dissemination to the members in our global community who may most benefit from the information (this is the equity part of the conversation). We have some choices to make. Is equity important enough to us as a community that we will shift both our language and our access? Do we cultivate a research culture in which every scientific manuscript is accompanied by straightforward translation? If I can successfully write an entire manuscript in "layman's english" will my peer reviewers accept it? 

Albert Einstein wrote "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." As a research community we are moving in the right direction, but let us do more than remove all of the fences from the trees and post signs that say "Climb me". Let's examine how we can be better communicators of our work, both in the peer review literature and beyond it. 

This post was first published on the Nature Ecology & Evolution Community.

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Michelle EH Fournet

Postdoctoral Researcher, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Bioacoustics Research Program

Dr. Fournet is an acoustic ecologist investigating the role of sound in the marine environment. Her research interests include animal communication, the relationship between human activities and marine acoustic habitats, and science communication.

4 Comments

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Kamil F. Dziubek 7 months ago

I absolutely agree that scientific achievements should belong to all humankind, but I am not convinced if the language of science must be always interpreted for the general public. The scientific literacy is defined in the National Science Education Standards (https://www.nap.edu/catalog/4962/national-science-education-standards) as: "the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity". For instance, I would like to know enough about the effectiveness, side effects, precautions and interactions of a prescription drug before taking the decision to start therapy, but I do not necessarily need to know its mechanism of action on a molecular level. In the case of the cited paper, I am not an expert in the field but I presume that not all the elasmobranchs are sharks and not all the auditory cues can be considered as music. There is another famous quote often attributed to Einstein (but there is no direct evidence he actually said that): "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler". By oversimplifying things we can fall into the trap of vagueness, and the science must be accurate to work. That is why the Nature journals also publish News and Views, short and accessible articles that "inform nonspecialist readers about new scientific advances, as reported either in recently published papers or at scientific meetings" (https://www.nature.com/others.html#newsandviews). On the other hand, I agree that the scientific literature become increasingly unreadable and peppered with scientific jargon that is hard to understand, even by experts in the field (https://elifesciences.org/articles/27725), which make the studies virtually inaccessible and irreproducible.

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Michelle EH Fournet 7 months ago

Hi Kamil, Thanks for the careful read. Sounds like you and I are in generally in agreement. I don't know that we'll ever have a society of people in which everyone wants to understand the minutia of scientific methodology, nor do I think that the tradeoffs associated with mastering that level of scientific understanding are reasonable; a potter can understand the subtly of the clay without mastering it's chemical structure, and perhaps the time devoted to the potter's wheel is time well spent. I think you've captured it exactly in the 'most-likely-Einstein' quote- as simple as possible, and no simpler. But the baseline of 'no simpler' is constantly moving. To accomplish a scientifically literate society requires both a shift in how we communicate, and also a shift in the value of education in our respective societies. This can be hard earned for communities struggling with poverty or war, and requires valiant and dedicated effort in developed nations that face waning confidence in science. For a long time science and society were held separate by class, privilege, and circumstance (there's a nice mention to this in another blog in this thread: https://chemistrycommunity.nature.com/channels/1861-open-access-week-2018/posts/40139-open-access-scientific-publishing-3-0). We are dealing with the ramifications of our scientific history. You also raise some really excellent points about resources that are available, and the journals leading the way in adding value to them. May many of us choice to use them!  

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Michelle EH Fournet 7 months ago

(Also take a look at the abstract for the shark manuscript- it's really a fascinating study. They did indeed play two types of music - classical and jazz - to sharks to determine if they could tell the difference!)

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Kamil F. Dziubek 7 months ago

Hi Michelle, thanks for answering. I like your post very much and I really believe we think along the same lines. I do agree that, as you has noted, the baseline of 'no simpler' is constantly moving. But while equality does not mean equity (as you have very nicely explained), we need to mind also the vast difference between being simple and being simplistic. I took a closer look at the shark paper and I agree - it is a very interesting and original study. I am pretty convinced that talking about playing music to sharks is much more appealing to general audience than the same message wrapped in incomprehensible scientific jargon, but selling the simplistic image of scientific research is something that we should avoid by all means. Staying with this example: cartoons can make complicated ideas more accessible and engaging, but a doodle of an anthropomorphic smiling shark wearing headphones would be a step in the wrong direction. Public outreach and science communication must be always done wisely, with extreme care and responsibility - since misinformation is worse than ignorance. So if someone of my family or friends wants to catch up on what my research is about, I warn them it will take time. Then I try to explain everything step by step using simple language (but not simplifying concepts), sending a clear message without compromising details and avoiding ambiguity. Usually both sides are satisfied at the end of a long chat. After all, not every idea can be explained during an elevator ride. Sometimes shortcuts are not the way to go.