Open science: why is it so hard?

Open access is the idea that scholarship should be accessible to all. Many believe that we should require publicly funded researchers to make their work available to the public. That is, if some professor discovers a new algorithm or a new remedy while on a government grant, you should be able to download and read the paper freely.

To non-scientists, open access may sound like a socialist utopia. Why would anyone give away carefully curated content for free? The problem is that the content is overwhelmingly produced by scientists who have no share of the profit made by the publishers. These scientists are often funded directly or indirectly by the government. Journal editors are typically not paid. Reviewers are almost never paid. In fact, the opposite is true. Over the years, I have given thousands of dollars in page charges or conference registration to publishers. For example, several ACM journals request $60 per page to the authors (so that publishing 30 pages costs $1800). That is right: as a scientist, you are often asked to pay to get your worked published. Thankfully, most of these fees are paid by research grants, which often come from the government.

Open access is a problem for publishers however. In the current system, the publisher has a monopoly on the journals it has published over the years. This means that as long as researchers need access to these journals, the publisher can charge millions for access. Open access kills this monopoly. Certainly publishers can increase their profits by increase the page charges, but authors can also take their papers to other, more reasonable journals.

Nevertheless, I could never get excited about open access. I find it annoying that I cannot download papers freely, but astrophysicists have already solved this problem without any government intervention or lawsuit. Indeed, nearly all recent astrophysics papers are on arXiv. What matters is the culture: physicists care about being read, they love the web. In this sense, open access is a short-sighted fight.

Thus, a much more significant vision is Nielsen’s open science. Michael Nielsen is arguing for a culture shift in science: from a science obsessed with individual performance (and publications) to a science culture resembling more that of open source software or wikipedia.

I fear however that despite all the (well deserved) press that Michael Nielsen’s latest book has been getting, too few people understand the importance of this shift. It is not about becoming hippies. It is not a socialist utopia. On the contrary, the system we have right now is akin to an highly regulated industry. All power is in the hands of the government and a few large organizations (universities, publishers) working in tandem. The barrier to entry is maintained artificially high. Open science is really about creating “open markets” with freer exchanges. It has the potential to boost our collective productivity by orders of magnitude through the removal of unneeded friction.

Meanwhile, American corporations are concerned with copyright violations on the Internet. Thus, they are pushing a bill, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) which would allow the government to shut down web site that is suspected of violating copyright. Using SOPA, a publisher could have a repository of research papers shut down. While at it, the publishers are also promoting a bill, the Research Works Act which would make it illegal for government agencies to require open access from publicly funded researchers.

If you are one of the thousands of members of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) or the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), then you are indirectly supporting this new legislation. Indeed, the ACM and IEEE are members of the Association of American Publishers (AAP). The AAP is a lobbyist for both proposals.

And we finally get a hint at why it is so hard it is to open up science: the business of science has become intertwined with businesses like the publishing business. ACM has to speak both as an association of computing professionals, and as a publishing house.

What should be a critical support service, the publication of results, ends up driving much of our culture. The journals become the science. The medium becomes the message.

In effect, we have too much organizational scarring tissue in science. It could be that we need to reboot the system. As a starting point, we should collectively recognize the problem. Repeat after me: scholarship is not a publishing business.

Further reading:


The ACM charges the authors of any conference for the publication of proceedings. However, they do not require payment for publishing in their journals: instead they request page charges.

19 thoughts on “Open science: why is it so hard?”

  1. Scholarship is not a publishing business!

    Have you read either Wikinomics or Macrowikinomics, by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams? They talk about open science in the context of their broader analysis of “openness” in society. Like Nielsen they mention examples of crowdsourcing in science, including Galaxy Zoo. They are careful to outline how this shift, as you mention, isn’t necessarily beneficial as long as institutions and corporations remain at the terminus of the process.

  2. I can’t find an article in which he specifically talks about science. It looks like the Amazon “Look Inside” includes some of Chapter 9, “Science 2.0”, so you could skim through that and see if it interests you.

    Tapscott is not himself a scientist, of course, and is coming more from a business-oriented view of the world. Perhaps that brings a nice difference of perspective though. The points he makes about how the Internet and other technologies enable collaboration sound very similar to what you have expressed the potential of open science in boosting our own productivity.

    They also discuss education, which I feel is an important companion when discussing an issue like open science. Does Nielsen spend any time on the current state of universities?

  3. IMHO. I see; that a government makes a highway (funding), then some people (pulishers) paints these roads and claim a payment to travel across these highway (to everyone).
    In many countries such bussiness are ilegal!

  4. I think one direction for the future is to do smaller, bite-sized research on blogs. That has a broader audience, moves faster than traditional pubs, is open access, and allows for more organic collaboration. The real catch is getting hiring committees and such to value that. I was hoping to try it out post-PhD but I ended up in industry so that didn’t work out.

  5. I must take issue with one aspect of “open science”. This is related to the prominence of “psuedo-science” appearing all too often in the “open” marketplace. One such venue that really annoys me is the “over unity” crowd that continuously insists that there are ways to get more energy out than you put in…
    Now, not all participants in an “open” science venue are going to be astute enough to recognize an obvious violation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Which suggests the need for moderators to weed out the garbage. Which is the same a censorship…Which is pretty much what happens in the publishing world anyway (try to get a scholarly paper published today that questions the fundamental assumptions of the Global Warming crowd!).
    So, how do we make science accessible to all, without exposing them to crackpots? And how do we guarantee that the guy we have classified as a crackpot isn’t actually the next Einstein?

  6. In order to move towards an open source model it seems like we need a unit of academic communication that’s smaller and less clunky than a peer-reviewed journal article. Research blogs were mentioned, is there any work being done on how they should be structured/vetted for qualit?

  7. Daniel- thanks for the link, but I had already read that blog entry- it’s the one that got me to subscribe! I generally favor a publish-then-filter approach, but more from the perspective of reader (or consumer of scientific literature, if you will) than one wanting to publish some break-through concept. I have been using on-line searches for literature since the days of the DARPA net, and the biggest problem, even back then, has always been separating the wheat from the chafe. The best filter I have ever found was an inverse-frequency filter- an author with too many publication credits is obviously not doing a whole lot of original work…Certain authors stand out in a particular discipline- maybe publish only once every three years (or less), but always with something worth reading. Unfortunately, one has to have some insight into the discipline to identify these individuals. Another issue is that in these searches, one frequently encounters conflicting information with insufficient detail to evaluate the source of the differences (conflicting information does not necessarily mean that one party is wrong- they may just be looking at the problem from a unique- but equally valid- perspective).

    I think the publish-then-filter model has tremendous merit, but one must be wary of things like the Pons and Fleischman fiasco over cold fusion. One also must recognize that the loudest voices are invariably those advocating a belief rather than presenting evidence-based reasoning…

  8. @Charlie

    Individual papers do not matter. It is only when you pile them up (with all their contradictions and mistakes) that you start to see the greater picture.

    The “science” is not in the research papers. The doubts, the mistakes, the arguments, the contradictions, the reproductions… that is the really important part.

    Only naive beginners take a single research paper and decide to build something on it. Even if you choose well, you are very likely to realize (maybe too late), that a single paper is nothing.

    That is one reason why I think that “open access” alone is not so exciting. Even if you have access to all the research papers, you don’t somehow have the “knowledge”. This knowledge, you have to construct it for yourself, at least to some extend. And to do that, it helps if you have access not just to the papers, but to all the underlying discussions, debates, data, software, and so on.

    Go to for an example of what open science looks like. There you get the questions, and the answers, the multiple answers, with their limitations and mistakes. The whole is much more valuable than just the “so-called” correct answer. And the beauty of it is that if you go there, spot a mistake and correct it (no matter who you are and no matter who made the mistake) you will be rewarded. That is how we get collectively richer and smarter.

  9. Agree and agree. The whole is most definitely much more valuable than a simple snapshot (i.e., a single published paper).

    But now, I am going to disappear into mathoverflow for a few days…

  10. See:
    “Research Works Act H.R.3699:
    The Private Publishing Tail Trying To Wag The Public Research Dog, Yet Again”


    The US Research Works Act (H.R.3699): “No Federal agency may adopt, implement, maintain, continue, or otherwise engage in any policy, program, or other activity that — (1) causes, permits, or authorizes network dissemination of any private-sector research work without the prior consent of the publisher of such work; or (2) requires that any actual or prospective author, or the employer of such an actual or prospective author, assent to network dissemination of a private-sector research work.”

    Translation and Comments:

    “If public tax money is used to fund research, that research becomes “private research” once a publisher “adds value” to it by managing the peer review.”

    [Comment: Researchers do the peer review for the publisher for free, just as researchers give their papers to the publisher for free, together with the exclusive right to sell subscriptions to it, on-paper and online, seeking and receiving no fee or royalty in return].

    “Since that public research has thereby been transformed into “private research,” and the publisher’s property, the government that funded it with public tax money should not be allowed to require the funded author to make it accessible for free online for those users who cannot afford subscription access.”

    [Comment: The author’s sole purpose in doing and publishing the research, without seeking any fee or royalties, is so that all potential users can access, use and build upon it, in further research and applications, to the benefit of the public that funded it; this is also the sole purpose for which public tax money is used to fund research.]”

    H.R. 3699 misunderstands the secondary, service role that peer-reviewed research journal publishing plays in US research and development and its (public) funding.

    It is a huge miscalculation to weigh the potential gains or losses from providing or not providing open access to publicly funded research in terms of gains or losses to the publishing industry: Lost or delayed research progress mean losses to the growth and productivity of both basic research and the vast R&D industry in all fields, and hence losses to the US economy as a whole.

    What needs to be done about public access to peer-reviewed scholarly publications resulting from federally funded research?

    The minimum policy is for all US federal funders to mandate (require), as a condition for receiving public funding for research, that: (i) the fundee’s revised, accepted refereed final draft of (ii) all refereed journal articles resulting from the funded research must be (iii) deposited immediately upon acceptance for publication (iv) in the fundee’’s institutional repository, with (v) access to the deposit made free for all (OA) immediately (no OA embargo) wherever possible (over 60% of journals already endorse immediate gratis OA self-archiving), and at the latest after a 6-month embargo on OA.

    It is the above policy that H.R.3699 is attempting to make illegal…

  11. Scholarship is not a publishing business.

    Thank you, this is the best take on what’s going on that I’ve read anywhere, even if it’s not particularly optimistic. I just wasn’t aware of how much scar tissue ACM had :-\.

  12. I can relate to what @Charlie says about the internet creating pseudo science with its open access. Open access has given way to pseudo writers, too.

    As a fiction and non-fiction independent writer, I support SOPA. As wonderful as open access might be for science and many things, it has greatly undervalued writing (and for some, opened it up – sure). Issues of open access and copyrighting protection have posed a problem for the independent writer where the playing field is widened not by thousands but millions.

    People hold romantic ideas about being a writer – hence bloggers. Good writing is scrambled in with fair and even poor, and worse, the average reader can no longer decipher one from the other. Internet copyright issues have exacerbated the problem.

    Sangiolo Writer’s Ink
    Book Marketing Manager: Cathedral of Dreams
    Booktrope Publishing

  13. @Elaine

    I also value great writing. I spend much more than the average person on books. Probably 10 times more.

    I also care a thousand times more for writers and editors than the companies they work for.

    I don’t think corporation-sponsored regulations are the way forward.

  14. Hi Daniel,

    Sorry for taking so long to respond. I did read and reread the SOPA law and issues and decided against it and am glad that they voted it down. However, I do feel that protection of copyright is extremely important anywhere and especially in the internet. Something does need to be done to protect intellectual property on the internet.

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