Open access and peer review, in a nutshell

Let’s talk about something scientific.

One of the key underpinnings of the scientific process is the ability to share research results with others. Before scientists do this, we share our results with each other to get feedback on our work and suggestions on what other experiments we can do to provide more solid evidence for our claims*. This is a fundamental part of the publishing process and known as peer review, which is basically just scientists checking each other’s work. Who is more qualified to do this than other scientists in the field? If you’ve looked at an article published in a scientific journal recently, you might notice that 1) it’s very dense, and 2) the techniques used, and often the questions asked, are pretty complex. It would likely be hard for someone with no scientific training, or even a scientist from a different field, to provide useful critique, or to spot things the authors may have overlooked. So when we submit our manuscripts to journals for review, we try to have them reviewed by other scientists in our sub-field who are most familiar with the techniques and questions discussed in the manuscript (and thus, the benefits and pitfalls of what we discuss).

If scientists didn’t rely on peer review, we’d be able to publish just about anything and claim it to be fact, and then it would be up to the general public to critique it and spread the word about whether or not the results are valid. That would just be inefficient, and highly unlikely to succeed. Peer review acts as both a filter and a stamp of approval**.

After a manuscript is peer-reviewed and published in a journal, that information is theoretically available to the public and part of the established scientific knowledge base. But scientific research isn’t truly available to the public unless it’s actually accessible. Many journals are behind what’s known as a pay wall, where you have to subscribe in order to access the content beyond the abstract (a summary of what an article is about). This is similar to how the New York Times charges $2.75/week for digital access. The difference is that the subscription costs of many journals are exceedingly high, such that most individual people can’t afford a subscription, let alone multiple subscriptions to different journals. Scientists can usually access these articles because they work for a university or company that shoulders the cost of subscriptions to many journals, but depending on how well-funded your employer is, the cost may still be prohibitive.

Why is this a problem? There’s the obvious issue of forcing published science into a black box that remains mysterious to the general public, which helps to feed the perception that scientists’ work is beyond the reach of “normal people” and blocks public interest in all but the sexiest or weirdest stories. There’s also the fact that a majority of scientific research is paid for by the government, which uses taxpayer money to fund grants. So taxpayer funds are going to facilitate scientific research, but then most taxpayers can’t actually read about the research they paid for. If the research isn’t even made available to all scientists, it prevents future scientific progress (what do scientists have to build on if they don’t know the current state of the field?) This is where the idea of open access comes in.

Some publications are open access, like the PLOS journals and eLife, and these publications do not require a reader to pay to view their articles. Other publications, like Nature and Science, charge a subscription fee. Nature‘s fee is $3.90/issue. Perhaps that sounds on par with subscriptions to non-scientific magazines and newspapers, but keep in mind one fundamental difference: you can get the news from multiple sources, so if something important happens, several news agencies will report on the same story, and you don’t necessarily need to pay for it. With scientific publications, the research article will only be published in one journal, so to access all research as it comes out, you’d have to pay for a subscription to many different journals. It adds up quickly, and effectively leads to people paying twice for scientific research (assuming they already pay taxes).

Together, peer review and open access are fundamental to scientists’ ability to share our work with the public, demonstrate convincingly that our findings are accurate, and allow non-scientists to engage in scientific research. Attempts to limit this are wholly detrimental to the scientific process and public understanding of science. Last month, the Trump administration ordered a media blackout on several government agencies including the EPA, and also indicated that research from EPA scientists would need to be approved by the Trump administration so as to “reflect the new administration”. The Trump administration is not run by scientists, and it’s unclear who in the administration would be reviewing scientific results. This amounts to unqualified, politically motivated people deciding based on their agenda what science gets published—clearly problematic and fundamentally counter to widely-held standards of scientific integrity.

Regardless of who is in office, scientists should be working to improve peer review and the general public’s access to scientific research. On top of that, we should work to help non-scientists understand the process of doing research and the lengths we go to in order to demonstrate that, to the best of our knowledge, our findings are accurate. Without this line of communication, we will be forever holed up in our ivory towers, piddling away on experiments that will never make as great of an impact as they should, because people either cannot hear or cannot understand us.


*Or to find out if our claims really are accurate; sometimes you do another experiment and it demonstrates that what you thought was an interesting phenomenon is actually just noise, or that it’s less significant than you thought.

**It’s not a perfect system, of course. Peer-reviewed results do get published that are eventually shown to be false upon further testing, or sometimes after it’s discovered that data was fudged. An ideal system would have scientists acting with integrity 100% of the time. But like every other field, people are sometimes deceptive, and do things that undermine the system when it looks like it will benefit them. Sometimes we publish results that we think are correct, but later advances in the field or attempts to repeat an experiment show that those results are not correct. This is an ongoing struggle, and peer review is one of the things that combats this.

Featured image: Berkeley neighborhood flower.



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