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When You Think You Are Contributing to "Science", But Actually You Are Contributing to "Paywall Science"

27 March, 2016
We now understand that Paywall Science is bad

But many people have not heard of it

Those same people may be unwittingly contributing to Paywall Science

We need to ask: is this "Science"?

Or is it "Paywall Science"?

Open Science, and Why We Should Care

What is "Open Science"?

I will quote the beginning of the Wikipedia article on the subject:

Open science is the movement to make scientific research, data and dissemination accessible to all levels of an inquiring society, amateur or professional.

One specific aspect of Open Science is Open Access Science, which refers to the free availability of the full content of published scientific papers. The opposite of Open Access Science is Paywall Science. The "Paywall" is the thing that non-open access science is hidden behind, and any individual can only go behind the wall if they are willing to pay the specified price to the owner of the Paywall (typically $US30 to read each paper).

If I had to summarize my own view on the subject, it is that Science is a human enterprise. Science is a collective effort of humanity to understand the nature of reality. But Science cannot be something that "humanity" does, if much of the actual content of science is owned by a particular group of commercial institutions that have a legal right to prevent the general public from freely accessing that content.

Does everyone know what "Open Science" is, and does it matter?

I think that the idea of Open Science is now well known to most people working in science.

But it is not so well-known to the general public, even though the general public are, in the long term, the primary beneficiaries of open science, given that the goal of open science is to make science accessible to everyone.

One problem with attempting to open up science is that the creation of non-open science is mostly irreversible. Every time a scientific paper is published non-openly, the authors of the paper have chosen to hand ownership of that paper over to a publishing enterprise, and the publishing enterprise is motivated to keep it behind the paywall, for as long as copyright law allows – which may be a very, very long time, if not forever.

So all existing non-open science might remain non-open, forever.

And, to make things worse, Paywall Science is still being produced by working scientists.

How the General Public Contributes to Paywall Science

Sometimes members of the general public are asked to contribute in some way to "Science".

Such contributions can include:

In some cases, members of the general public may think they are contributing to "Science", but actually they are contributing more specifically to "Paywall Science".

In all these cases, I think that those people contributing to Science would not be happy if they realized up-front that their contributions are actually supporting Paywall Science.

We Need to Ask Questions

There is one straightforward solution to this problem: we need to ask questions. We need to ask questions about the science being done, before it becomes locked behind the paywall.

We need to ask questions about Science as a whole, and we need to ask questions about every new scientific research project, especially for those projects where the scientists are inviting members of the general public to contribute to their project.

For individual research projects, we need to ask:

When contributing to scientific charities, we need to ask:

At the government level, we need to ask:

(The US Government is one government that has instituted an official open-access policy on government-funded research, although it appears there are a few exclusions included in that policy. If you are one of the other approximately 195 countries in the world, you need to find out if your government has any official policy at all on this issue.)

These questions can be asked by individuals when they respond to requests to contribute to specific projects or specific charities, and they can be asked when there is an opportunity to ask representatives of governments and government institutions about government policies.

The same questions can also be asked by journalists when reporting on research projects and research institutions. (At the government policy level, these questions deserve their own full investigative report.)

And when journalists fail to ask these questions, then other people who care about this issue have an opportunity to raise awareness. For example, write letters to the editor whenever a research project is reported on with no mention of Open Access, and write something like: "Dear Editor, I was interested to read about X's research project on Y, but it was not made clear in the article whether X will be publishing their results as Open Access Science or whether they will be publishing them as Paywall Science."

A Paywall of Shame?

Questions and answers are inevitably transient in the stream of public consciousness, even if they get recorded somewhere on a web page.

It might be beneficial to the cause to have a central "Paywall of Shame", which would show, for all governments and all charitable institutions involved in scientific research, what policies (if any) those governments and institutions have with regard to Open Access Science.

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