David Dobbs on the importance of open-source science

Right now, most scientific research exists behind paywalls. And expensive paywalls at that. A license to read a single peer-reviewed journal article can set you back $50. Depending on the journal, that number might be a little lower, or a little higher, but access usually doesn't come cheap … even if the research was funded with public money. When I write about a paper, I usually have to request a copy from the researcher before I can even know whether the paper in question is one I want to write about. And it's not just journalists that get locked out. Even scientists themselves can't always get access to the papers they need to read in order to do their jobs. New science is being stifled by the old business of scientific publishing, argues science journalist David Dobbs.

Open-access journals are different. These publications—the most famous being the Public Library of Science, or PLoS—make all the papers they publish available to anyone online, rather than printing expensive paper copies for subscribers. In a great article at his Neuron Culture blog, Dobbs makes the case for open-access science:

The current system, they note, grew out of meeting notes and journals published by societies in Europe over three centuries ago. Back then, quarterly or monthly volumes could accommodate the flow of ideas and data from most disciplines, and the printed journal, though it required a top-heavy, expensive printing and publishing infrastructure, was the most efficient way to share those ideas.

"But now," says Jonathan Eisen, "there's this thing called the Internet. It changes not just how things can be done but how they should be done."

… To get a sense of how the current system curbs science, consider a rare case in whichresearchers attacked a big medical problem with an open-science model. In 2004, in the United States, a network of government and private researchers, including large drug companies, used open-science principles to accelerate research into Alzheimer's. The project, as Gina Kolata aptly described it in the New York Times last summer, "was an agreement … not just to raise money, not just to do research on a vast scale, but also to share all the data, making every single finding immediately available to anyone with a computer anywhere in the world. Before that, researchers worked separately, siloing off much of their work. Now methods and data formats were standardized. The data would immediately enter the public domain, where anyone could build on it."

An extraordinary project ensued. The U.S. National Institute on Aging contributed over $40 million, and 20 companies and two nonprofit groups kicked in another $25 million to fund the first six years. The program produced an explosion of papers on early diagnosis and helped generate more than 100 studies to test drugs or other treatments. It greatly sped and opened the flow of findings and data. According to the New York Times, the project's entire massive database had been downloaded more than 3,200 times by last summer, and the data sets containing images of brain scans was downloaded almost a million times. Everyone was so pleased with the results that they renewed the accord this year. And all because, as a researcher told Kolata, "we parked our egos and intellectual-property noses at the door."