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Scientific publishing: Take a hike!

May 15, 2011

I went for a hike yesterday in Oldervik, Norway, exploring its shale and slate beach. Across Ullsfjord, rises the dramatic beauty of the Lyngen Alps.

My hike was one that anyone can make. In Norway, we can freely and legally traverse uncultivated land, even it’s privately owned. Beaches, mountains, woods — all are open to anyone, anytime. Norwegians know about their Right of Access, and they know the responsibilities it implies. And, best of all, they use it!

We need a Scientific Right of Access.

There are too many hindrances to accessing the results of research. Creative solutions to society’s problems emerge through sharing ideas, through widespread scrutiny and reflection, and then through action.

Innovation requires combining ideas, which presupposes accessibility. Progress happens in exploration of the adjacent possible, as Steven Johnson eloquently discusses in Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. And the richest innovations makes use of everything we know to move forward, to expand the realm of the possible.

What’s stopping us? What blocks us from accessing new knowledge? Part of the answer is about dissemination. More specifically, it’s about publishing. The scientific world has been abuzz in recent years, debating the open access approach for journals. As Chair of the Current Research Information System in Norway (cristin.no), I frequently speak on this topic; I try to paint a picture of something bigger, perhaps even identifying a true competitive advantage for open access.

I’ve suggested, for example, that social media can be used not only to disseminate work, but even to produce it. Maybe the most radical proposal is not to augment traditional websites, but to eliminate them. And this is not just a distant vision. The U.S. State Department has recently closed america.gov as a communications channel, choosing instead to focus on facebook and other fresh approaches. What would it mean to develop a vision like this for spreading scientific ideas and the results of research?

While our current publishing system may be the biggest impediment to access, it isn’t the only one. Even at a single institution, the creation of departments and faculties often resembles amateur fence-building where the inclusion of gates to get through the fences is at best an afterthought. How could a Scientific Right of Access increase our awareness of impediments on a single campus? Could it lead to new structural and organizational approaches?

Other problems include the narrowness of PhD training, provocatively argued by Mark Taylor in a recent Nature column, Reform the PhD System, or Close it Down. Our expertise has become so great that we can hardly talk with others about it. Maybe a Scientific Right of Access could help us reflect on the nature of higher, higher education. Maybe it could help us educate future experts in new ways.

Researchers are driven by the pursuit of new knowledge. Often it takes one set of eyes to identify scientific problems and see their solutions, and another set of eyes to innovate further; perhaps it takes yet another set to find the best ways to teach these solutions. Without unhindered access to our research results, without conditions to share the beauty we see, without a functioning Right of Access, our route is blocked and we won’t get where we want to go.

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