Monday, February 04, 2013

Hiding Science Behind Academic Journal Paywalls

As outlined in the February 1st, 2013 Chronicle Journal article "Ecocidal behaviour," there has been substantial, recent Canadian debate as to whether or not the Federal government has "muzzled" scientists by preventing them from commenting publicly on scientific research.

Of course, if mainstream journalists spent a little more time directly accessing the scientific journals and a little less time waiting for scientists to tell them what's happening, they might have noticed a larger problem.

According to Nick Shockey of the Right to Research coalition and Jonathan Eisen, professor at the University of California, Davis and editor in chief of PLoS Biology, we live in a culture where access to scientific information is routinely restricted and not just by the government.

The two argue that much of the current government science funding is often compressed into a single research paper for publication in an academic journal which then can't be accessed by others because of the costs the journals routinely charge. Shockey and Eisen argue that journal prices have outpaced inflation by over 250% during the last 30 years and this cost often prevents those without the cash from accessing the most current findings. 

In essence, they argue that journal paywalls are considerable barriers to scientific collaboration and instead advocated a process of "open access," which is the practice of providing unrestricted access via the Internet to peer-reviewed scholarly journal articles. The logic behind this is that most of the research is paid for by taxpayers through government grants, who therefore have a right to directly access the results of what they have funded.

The situation is worse for rocket and space scientists, which work in areas often restricted over concerns related to national security.

As outlined in the June 24th, 2012 post "Jerry Pournelle, the CoDominium and ITAR Policy," the current confusion of contradictory rules and regulations for disparate organizations which proliferate to encourage the division of knowledge into increasingly smaller, unconnected and useless sub-specialties, isn't helping science move forward.

But many governments, including Canada, are slowly moving in the direction of mandating open access. For example, as outlined on the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) open access policy webpage:
As of January 1, 2013, CIHR-funded researchers will be required to make their peer-reviewed publications accessible at no cost within 12 months of publication – at the latest. 
While the revised Policy provides researchers with clear guidance on CIHR's minimum expectation, in the spirit of public benefits of research, CIHR continues to encourage researchers to make their publications accessible for free as soon as possible after publication. 
Compliance with the Open Access Policy will continue to be monitored through end of grant reporting.
All of which sounds positive for the private citizen, who would receive direct access to journals, but also sounds like more work for the poor traditional journalist. who might need to start doing more than simply buttonholing scientists for the latest sound-bytes.

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