Wider open spaces

Freely accessed papers are simply points in a constellation of scientific communication with the public, says Alice Bell

April 19, 2012

Like a fair few others, I rolled my eyes at The Guardian’s front page last week on the “academic spring” pushing for open access in scholarly publishing.

It’s not just the crassness of the comparison to the Arab Spring, or continued questions over business models for open access.

It’s not even that it is not really news - or at least that it’s nothing new.

For me, the main problem is that open access does not equal open science, and that is something we should be talking about more.

I should make it clear that I am all for open access, but I also worry that it is a distraction from the larger challenge of developing meaningful public engagement with research.

Yes, we can make science free at the point of access - and I really want us to - but that’s only a small part of a much more complex picture.

Being able to download a paper is one thing. Understanding it is another, as is having the time to read it. Having the kind of cultural relationship with scientists that means they are the people you look to and trust for information is yet another.

Sharing specialist scholarship is hard work at the best of times, and sharing it with a broad audience is harder still.

If we are going to have meaningful open access, then, for a start, we are going to need to write more clearly. Maybe open access will be a step towards this. I suspect researchers’ writing will improve if they know that a more diverse and larger group of people might read their work.

Perhaps the current revolt by academics over publishing will lead to another one from the new non-academic audiences who, frustrated by how bad many papers are, will bug us to be better.

I should stress that I don’t think we should lose expert-to-expert communication. Jargon can be a good thing. We need spaces where we don’t have to constantly stop and explain ourselves and can just run with an idea.

But we also need to open up education, paying much greater attention to the barriers that can still limit access to scientific expertise.

Moreover, I worry that a focus on open access perpetuates a sense that science is something to be “delivered” to the public.

More than two decades ago, Stephen Hilgartner, the American sociologist of science and Cornell University professor, argued that overly linear models for science communication provide the scientific community with “the epistemic equivalent of the right to print money”.

There is a fair bit in that which still rings true. We should be working harder to shake off the idea that a paper is the measure of science rather than just one point in a constellation of communication that includes learning, listening and debate with a diverse range of people, at a range of times, in a range of spaces.

If I were feeling especially cynical, I would say that open access is simply a new way to rub scientists’ cleverness in people’s faces, letting more of them feel lost and stupid in the face of such impressive expertise.

I think that would be unfair, but we do need to be aware of the ways in which traditional forms of academic communication can keep the public out.

So if I am going to shake off this cynicism, I want more than a journal boycott. Academics must take time to translate their work and seek and build relationships with people other than their immediate colleagues. They should demand that their supervisors and funders take the time they spend on this seriously.

It would be a good news day if the launch of a journal really warranted front-page attention because it was covering an issue the public cares about.

I will get really excited only when science finally deals with the issues of social, cultural and economic exclusion rather than revelling in its elite status.

Until then, talk of an academic spring just sounds like PR puff.

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