HOW OPEN IS OPEN? practices IN DISSEMINATING SCIENTIFIC INFORMATION

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Open science framework was the topic of my master's dissertation at the London School of Economics. As I delved deeper into my research by attending various conferences and reviewing literature, I started to grasp the complexity of openness, re-usability, and reproduciblity in sciences as well as literary and cultural materials at large. I wonder why often publicly funded research isn’t available to… public?

My interest in the topic was sparked by closely following cases of the late American Internet activist Aaron Schwartz, who downloaded peer-reviewed articles from the MIT databases to allegedly share them illegally with public. He was treated as a high profile criminal with a possibility of 35 year imprisonment and, consequently, took his own life.

 Server log data for the website Sci-Hub shows users and their diverse interests. Sci-Hub had 28 million download requests, from all regions of the world and covering most disciplines. | Science

Server log data for the website Sci-Hub shows users and their diverse interests. Sci-Hub had 28 million download requests, from all regions of the world and covering most disciplines. | Science

The rigidity with which publishing houses chases internet science-stealing “criminals” are treated is appalling! In recent years, there has been a lot of fuss about Sci-Hub, a website that allows anyone from around the globe to bypass paywalls and gain access to over 60 million academic papers and articles, available for direct download. Despite the fact that Sci-Hub founder Alexandra Elbakyan is called a highbrow pirate in hiding, facing several lawsuits for violating copyright practices, the website for pirated academic papers is in high demand. Science Magazine visualizations show that the individuals from around the globe are using the resource (and what's encouraging is seeing how people in rural communities are downloading papers about agricultural and other locally-applicable practices!) I question proprietary walls that guard and limit dissemination of such intrinsically valuable asset as generational scientific expertise.

Durign one of my dissertation interviews, Tim Smith of CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) considered the premise of science:

“Science is open and we have always done science openly for the past hundreds of years; the discussion of open science is a reflection on the fact that in the digital age things became more difficult. Nonetheless, science should be open, since science only works if you put up an idea, you test the idea, and you expose the idea to everyone else to either validate or invalidate, and come up with a better idea. That's science; science is self-correcting. If you don't do it openly, then it's not science.”

Another interviewee, Mark Hahnel, the founder of Figshare, noted: "The Internet was built for disseminating knowledge. The web has disrupted every single industry more than academia, every single major industry. Even cooking."

How does the multiplicity of available digital tools and repositories complicate rather than ease the way we share information? Tim Berners-Lee, the quote-on-quote founder of the World Wide Web, and all the engineers of developing the Internet as we know it today, did not intend for the Web to become another commercially driven device to further empower the powerful and not benefit intellectual and cultural curiosities of the general public. Without going into too many details about the history of the Internet and evolution of its functional and legal principles over the years (read some of Lessig's writing for an insightful overview), let's note that it was intended to be a more democratic platform for dissemination of information than it is today.

Kaitlin Thaney of Mozilla Science Lab discussed what constitutes open in the digital age: "I think open access isn't just about the access component, it is about the utility and others’ ability to reuse that information […] There is information that is closed and is much more useful and applicable." What Kaitlin is talking about is very important as opening the process of sciencerequires that the available content at any stage of research is usable, machine readable, and tools/ data/ metadata are also made available.

Though much left to be desired, the state of open practices in academia isn't hopeless. There are many initiatives in spheres, ranging from software/hardware development to academia, government, and non-profit sector that aim to challenge scientific information dissemination practices. A great success story of open collaborative problem solving in the sciences is the Polymath Project, where mathematicians from around the world connected on Tim Gower's blog and solved a highly complex mathematical problem together. Other examples of collaboration in the scientific circles include CERN's Open Data PortalMozilla Science LabHuman Genome Project among others.

While these initiatives are a great step in the right direction, I couldn't help but wonder who the beneficiaries of open science projects are: scientific community, public at large, both? One of my interviewees had  insights to share:


”We have two strands of open science projects. The one that is the research app with access to raw data: the idea was really to collaborate with those scientists we don't know about yet, but who want to make that effort and join in. These are experts either close to our domain or experts in another domain who are used to handling data that now can access it. The other thread is for education, where we actually have done something, which transforms the data in a simpler format and the tools into an easier-access tool to get everyone involved, to have scientific data at their hands, to get people to understand what it is to be doing science.”

My own understanding of the utility of science in general echoes the quote above: yes, open science projects are mostly geared towards promoting collaboration within academic circles; viewing scientific endeavor as a process rather than an end point of arrival is where public gets its cut of the cake. In this scenario, individuals are given scientific tools for educational and, as in the case of Sci-Hub or making scientific articles available, practical purposes, which serves an invaluable social purpose as well as helps increase public appreciation for the sciences.

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