In Blog

Transparency and access to publications: The question of (useable and useful) knowledge

by: Jim Deutsch

May 5th 2016

Science (from the Latin scientia, for knowledge) is an essential part of how we grasp reality and decide how to act. As we are all citizens of the world, should the collected works of science not be available freely to all of us? Clearly they are not, for a variety of reasons.

This blog is part of an effort to address barriers to access. But it is also necessary to look beyond this crucial issue. What good is access to science, if many scientists fail to grapple with urgent and pressing threats to humankind and life, or are discouraged from studying and publishing in certain controversial areas? And what of those scientists who collaborate with or collude with the governmental, corporate, military, and security entities that contribute to those threats? I will also briefly look at the quality of the information published.

A good proportion of scientific publications are protected behind pay walls that require individual or institutional subscriptions and are extremely expensive. The industry is worth billions. Various efforts are underway to circumvent these pay walls, or to target publishers, for example, Elsevier [1], that constitute an industry worth billions.

One such effort, that of Aaron Swartz[2], tragically cost him his life, after he was viciously targeted through the courts. A young Internet pioneer and prodigy, Swartz had, among other things, downloaded an enormous number of scientific papers in order to make them freely accessible, publicly. The subsequent government legal action over whose “intellectual property” these papers were, and the threat of an unconscionably onerous fine and potential imprisonment, drove him to suicide. Another proponent and practitioner of the breaking down of pay walls, Alexandra Elbakyan, of Kazakhstan, seems to be eluding such efforts, so far: “There was no big idea behind the project, like ‘make all information free’ or something like that. We just needed to read all these papers to do our research,” Elbakyan has stated[3] . She has devised a way to bypass pay walls on a gargantuan scale, automatically, making papers freely accessible to researchers and citizens, globally. See also here[4]. Recently, there has been an initiative to boycott [5] the publisher, Elsevier, in response to Elsevier’s lawsuit against Elbakyan’s website, See their statement here[6].

What I have described are three prongs of an approach to making what is often publicly funded science, accessible. One is to sue the boycott publishing companies, one was to manually download reams of articles from a university website (Swartz), and one has been to invent a reliable workaround on a massive scale. A further approach has been the open access journals which, however, generally require a significant fee to be paid by the publishing scientists.

There is a further issue having to do with the predominance of digital copies of journals and articles. What if one needs paper copies to peruse with certain questions in mind? A conversation with two librarians at the Gerstein Library, University of Toronto’s science library, was enlightening. Most journals are now obtained via digital subscriptions and rely on a functioning Internet. Physical copies have been discontinued or are very limited. Access to the journals digitally is via various circuitous routes, and depends on links that are frequently broken for reasons that are often not clear. If one wants to peruse the tables of contents of journals in a particular field, this can be very difficult, now. One librarian mentioned an example of a project that would no longer be possible: to study advertisements in paper copies of journals as they evolve, historically. An example that they raised was looking at cigarette advertisements in medical journals pitched to doctors and researchers, in the past.

Does access necessarily lead to knowledge?

The notable climate scientist, James Hansen, has written about what he terms “scientific reticence”[7], referring to the self-censoring of scientists, rather than openly publicizing threats and risks of climate change. He describes a reviewer of his paper quibbling with Hansen’s use of the word “dangerous, regarding anthropogenic climate change. In an article, “Seepage: Climate change denial and its effect on the scientific community”, Lewandowsky, Oreskes (known for her book, Merchants of Doubt[8] ) et al, study how fossil-fuel-funded dis-information can permeate an entire scientific field. (Apologies, the article[9]may be protected by a pay wall).

In this writer’s own field, psychiatry, there has been the scandal of Big-Pharma corruption of research. One example [10]of the laborious process of piecing together how distortion concealment can occur at different levels is illustrative. A collaborative, labor-intensive review of a drug study, known as Study 329, involved gaining access to all the raw data, including each individual checklist or questionnaire administered to patients or completed by clinical researchers, for the antidepressant, paroxetine (trademark Paxil). Only at that level of examination did it become apparent that an apparent systematic bias in coding certain events resulted in a significant underestimate of the potential for the drug to induce suicidal states. A forthcoming blog will deal with this study in detail. Clearly there are many levels in such studies at which it is quite easy to skew the final published results, placing large numbers of individuals at risk, and compromising the ability of patients and practitioners to make informed decisions.

In Disciplined Minds [11], physics PhD Schmidt spells out ways that graduate and professional education can destroy the “soul” of the degree-bearer and effectively neutralize the potential to uncover important corrupting influences, such as military funding of university departments. One example of efforts to combine knowledge and action to expose such collaboration is Demilitarize McGill [12]

To conclude this short blog, knowledge that is necessary to support an effective democratic process must be both accessible to all and protected from corrupting influences. This would mean careful oversight and enforceable regulation. It is hoped that Our Right to Know can be a force in the right direction.

Jim Deutsch received his AB in analytical biology at Columbia, PhD in biochemistry at Caltech, and MD at Yale. He is on the faculty of the Dept. of Psychiatry at University of Toronto and of the Toronto Psychoanalytic Institute.














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