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Opening up Science

I love science.

I don’t have time to do it, really. But I do like to write about it. As I’m getting back into blogging, (realizing that for me it’s work rather than play so I shouldn’t feel guilty about it), I’ve been looking at science blogs. And the first things that have gotten my attention are about how to break open the floodgates.

First off, I read about the journal system from Travis Sanders at The Science of Blogging. Peer review is important for getting quality studies published, but since more and more journals are being published, we can be assured that even poor quality studies get published. What’s wrong with that? Well, no longer can simply being published prove that something someone claims is true. And of those that get published in the prestigious journals where one can probably trust the findings, we still learn little about their quality and why the peer review accepted the study.

Further, readers no longer read entire journals. Since they’ve gone electronic, it’s now possible to pick by subject and read only the studies – across many journals – that touch on subjects you’re researching on, or are interested in.*

Travis suggests a new system, where we have one huge journal where every study can be published with a ‘peer review pending’ status. Then these studies get peer reviewed based on some quality assessment such as a checklist and comments, which are included with the study. I love that last bit. I think it’s an important bit. I’ll tell you why in a bit.

The second interesting thing I read was a post about opening up the journals to us regular folk. And by regular, I mean people with a typical income. Publishers of journals charge so much that we can’t afford to access them. Only large institutions can, effectively closing off high quality studies to the typical person. As a writer, I’ve often found this frustrating. Yes, I can go to my university and access their library, but as a non-student I have to pay 100 bucks plus it’s a decent drive. And that might not even cover everything I might want to research. In this age of information, that’s a little ridiculous. I pay less a year to get free shipping and streaming video from a certain large bookstore corporation.

Some scientists feel the same way, and are starting to boycott the large publishers responsible for such publishing. Thank you!

I imagine a day when things work as Travis says, and such a portal is free or nearly so. Not only that, I think it would be good to have a lay person’s portal attached, with several articles on what makes good science and high quality studies. And if I really could have some wishes, I would want good papers to also include an everyday vocabulary abstract. Something lay people could understand.  Lots of science is hard to understand not because of difficult math or concepts, but because of esoteric vocabulary (important in the field, but difficult for the non-initiated to understand.) We just need a simple translation, by people who value science rather than sensationalism.

Add this to the citizen science projects going on – regular people either donate CPU power to cracking large amounts of data, or play games which solve scientific puzzles.

If our goal is really to push the boundaries of knowledge, it’s time we break that knowledge free – free input and output. It’s time we make science a part of the everyday life of normal people, rather than keeping sacred cloisters of elite tinkerers. Yes, I love what scientists do and it’s important to have specialist researchers. But one of the reasons people distrust science is because it is so closed to them.

A large, searchable open publishing paradigm with peer review. These kinds of things are steps in the right direction.

*While I think that it’s fantastic to be able to read only the articles that apply to a subject you’re searching for, I worry that as scientists do this they become even more segregated from each other. There is a lot of knowledge out there, and its inevitable that people become highly specialized just to attack the questions of one small area of science. But sometimes a wider perspective is exactly what one needs to solve a problem. Without the relatively rounded out reading, someone could be in danger of having very deep but very narrow understanding.

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