We put a man on the moon about half a century ago yet we still haven’t solved the problem of access to the scientific literature.
I was invited to speak at the New Zealand Association of Scientists meeting this year. The theme was “Science and Society” and I was asked to speak about Open Access from that perspective.
The timing was really good. Lincoln University published their Open Access Policy last year, Waikato University released their Open Access mandate a couple of weeks ago, and the University of Auckland is examining their position around Open Access. New Zealand is catching up.
I opened my talk by referring to the New Zealand Education Act which outlines the role of univeristies:
“…a university is characterised by a wide diversity of teaching and research, especially at a higher level, that maintains, advances, disseminates, and assists the application of, knowledge, develops intellectual independence, and promotes community learning”
[New Zealand Education Act (1989) Section162.4.b.iii] (emphasis mine)
I argued that those values could be best met by making the research outputs available under Open Access as defined by by the Budapest Open Access Initiative, that is, not limited to “access” but equally importantly, allowing re-use.
After summarising the elements of the Creative Commons licences that can support Open Access publishing, I invited the audience to have an open conversation with their communities of practice to examine what values each place on how to share the results of our work.
My position is that the more broadly we disseminate our findings the more likely we will achieve the goals set out by the NZ Education Act to maintain, advance, assist in the application of knowledge, develop intellectual independence and promote community learning. I am also of the position that this is what should be rewarded in academic circles. I think that. as a community , we should move away from looking for value in the branding of the research article (i.e., where it is published) and focus instead on measuring the actual quality and impact of the research within and outside the academic community.
How do we measure quality and impact?
At times I feel we have we become lazy. We often stick to using impact factor as a proxy for quality instead of interrogating the research outputs to understand their contribution and impact. Impact factor may be an easy metric – but it is not one that measures in any way the quality or impact of an individual article, let alone of the researchers who authored it. It is just an easy way out, a number we can quickly look at so we can tick the right box. As a metric it is easy, quick and objective. As a metric of value of an individual piece of work it is also useless and, because of that, it inevitably lacks fairness in research assessment.
What does this have to do with OA?
By the end of the conference I couldn’t shake the thought that the barriers to Open Access may not be financial and the costs of publication fees may be the least of our problems. (This issue of cost just keeps coming up.) I can’t but wonder if the cost Open Access might just be a red herring that lets us avoid the real (and bigger) issue: quality assessment. Open Access may help our articles have a wider reach but, except for a few titles, Open Access journals are not recognisable brands. If we are forced to stop looking at the “journal brand” we will be forced to assess the individual articles for their intrinsic value and impact. And, although it may lead to better, more valid, assessment, it is also a big and difficult job.
A lot of what was said today at the conference revolved about the value of New Zealand science (and scientists) to society and the importance of science communication. We spoke about the importance of evidence-based policy, the need to be the critic and conscious of society and the challenges of working with the public to build a trust in scientific evidence despite its uncertainties. We expect politicians and society to do the hard job of making decisions based on evidence. I couldn’t help but ask whether we, as a community of scientists, can live up to those standards.
Can we ditch the bad and easy for the good and hard?
We put a man on the moon. Solving the issues around open access and research assessment must certainly be easier to solve. Are we ready to put our money where our mouth is?
I was lucky enough to be invited to SciFoo this year, which proved to be a wonderful experience. SciFoo is an unconference organised by O’Reilly media, Nature and Google. It brings together a group of sciencey people to talk about science, and I cannot describe the level of awesome that I experienced while I was there.
I went well-prepared: I had read the blogs of the attendees who blog, read their descriptions of themselves, contributed to the suggested sessions in the wiki, and showed up with a list of ‘must-meet’ people and ‘must attend’ sessions to make sure I made the most of it.
But (and I learned that this happens after having attended 2 KiwiFoos), I might as well not done any of that homework. Because, apart from a couple of exceptions, I never got a chance to talk to the people on my list. Nor did I end up going to any of the sessions I thought I would go to. Instead, I found myself being pulled to ‘other’ people and ‘other’ sessions. And I guess that is the beauty of it all. Meeting people and hearing interesting things that were not necessarily on my radar.
I started by attending two Lightning Talk sessions, moderated by Nat Torkington. Lightning talks are 5 minute presentations, which were great because it gave me the chance to hear about lots of different stuff and from very different people (which also explains why my original list ended up being useless). I was drawn to the third lightning talks session the next day. There I heard about the relationship between scientists and music from Eva Amsden, what we can learn about people by asking them how they played as children from Linda Stone, neuroscience and law from David Eagleman and many other mind tickling topics.
These are some of the other sessions I attended:
RuleCamp: Basically about rules to follow to do stuff. Carl Zimmer, one of the speakers, summarised the session in his blog, so I will send you there to read his notes (which are much better than mine!)
Brain Machine Interfaces: I seem to have a fetish with BMIs, and the work of Miguel Nicolelis in this area changed the way that I think about the brain. So I couldn’t miss this one (especially since Nicolelis was there too!). I will be writing a bit more about this at a later time, but it is totally worth it to read about his research in his page. Most of all, I was seriously impressed with not only how far BMIs have gone, but how this kind of research is making us think about the brain in a very different way.
Collaborative Science: This was fun, and I mean that in a literal way. Because among other things discussed, FoldIt came up. Yes, you can contribute to science by playing games. And in the process you end up being acknowledged as an author on a Nature paper.
I went to many other interesting sessions and had amazing scattered chats with different people throughout SciFoo. It was great to see old friends and acquaintances, and make new connections. But one thing I learned at Kiwi Foo, is that as amazing as the few days of the event are, what is really more amazing is what happens ‘between’ Foos. There is a whole year ahead, and I can’t wait to see what comes out of it.
(I have to give a special thanks to Nat Torkington and Cat Allman, who I am sure had a hand in getting me there, and also to Eva Amsen for wonderful personal swag from The Node.)
Last week I attended the 27th Australasian Winter Conference on Brain Research. You can read my short summary here.