søndag 24. august 2014

Open Access - A blessing or source of confusion?

In 2012, The European Commission announced that all research funded by the Horizon 2020 program will be Open Access. This means unrestricted online access to finished and peer reviewed research papers. UK research funders have also released similar plans the recent years. Now, Open Access isn't a new concept, but it seems like the world(meaning funders) is finally beginning to embrace it.

Open Access makes me positively excited. If you look at the fundamental purpose of research, it is (in my humble opinion) all about elevating humanity through new discoveries. How can you do this by keeping your newfound knowledge to yourself(ignoring ethical reasons)? Ironically, this is exactly what the research community has been doing through the years. Closed journals with expensive entry fees usually makes access impossible unless you are filthy rich or connected to a paying institution.
Yet you often hear complaints on how new discoveries are misrepresented and twisted in the media. How can we complain if we don't let all journalists read the source?

In an ideal world, I imagine news articles with lovely citations and references, where it is possible for the journalist to present the real numbers and discussions, not just the conclusion(which often isn't conclusive). I imagine a world where the reader can easily look up the papers and check the facts straight from the source, without having to rely on the abstract alone. Or as a researcher, you don't have to hassle your library to order specific papers from journals you can't access, but I'll focus on the public in this post.

Unfortunately, I realise this is slightly utopian. I am not blind to the often black/white representations in the media. Where the research world thrives on perhaps and maybes, the popular media relishes stark contrast and clear cases. A "Z might happen if X is this and Y is that, but we need more testing" rarely makes the headlines(or if it does, it's "X causes Z!!") .  

Reading and understanding research papers is almost an artform. The lingo and phrasings can easily confuse the most seasoned professor. Is it possible that free papers for the public can cause even more misrepresentation of research? I imagine three reporters reading the same paper, getting three different interpretations and three different sensational articles in the media. Will we get an even more confused public that shudders at the latest reports? The phrasing "Agh, those pesky scientists never find out anything useful, use our tax money and always change their minds" comes to mind.

With Open Access and the media of today, having skillful presentation of research is more important than ever. Perhaps we will see new degrees called "Scientific Journalism" in the future(or perhaps they already exist)?

There are many technicalities around this issue, mostly money based. Nevertheless, I strongly believe we can get around those in order to bring new knowledge to humanity. That is why we do this, right?

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