August 21, 2009

Would free access for all to all scientific knowledge be a good idea?

Science relies on systematically testing ideas with evidence gathered from the natural world. Not everyone realizes this, but science affects our everyday lives in all sorts of different ways. One principle of science is to let it be public and accessible. This way, researchers can check, respond to and build on each other's work and the general public can be informed about public knowledge, too. There are many ways scientific knowledge can be disseminated to the general public. One important way is through the general education everyone gets. Parts of scientific knowledge find their way into the basic education of everyone (although this sometimes remains a struggle). Another way is through popularized science books (example), a great way to reach massive audiences. An interesting and useful development is also how some universities have started to create chairs for the public understanding of science (for instance Oxford). Then, there the many information technology-driven approaches which enable the further spread of scientific knowledge. Much scientific knowledge seeps through by the wonderful wikipedia technology and community. There are now even peer reviewed scholar sites ( And there are more and more researchers uploading pdf files on their websites (example). Some universities are very generous in sharing their knowledge, too (example). Youtube also offers wonderful opportunities for sharing scientific knowledge broadly (example). In addition, websites like Google Scholar can be a great help in identifying articles.
Unfortunately, despite all of these initiatives, there remains a substantial gap between scientific developments and the public's knowledge and understanding of it. Some worry that the gap growths. Even basic scientific knowlegde is unknown to large proportions of the population of many countries. As an example: A US national survey (American adults flunk basic science) carried out this year showed that only 53% of the adults know how long it take for the earth to revolve around the sun. Only 59% of them know the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time. Only 47% of them can roughly approximate the percent of the earth's surface that is covered with water. A recent poll in the UK found that half of the Britons do not believe in evolution and many are confused about what it means. These are indications there is room for improvement, so to speak. On a mailing list I am subscribed to, one of its members started a lively discussion on the dissemination of scientific knowledge. He argued for a free open access to all scientific knowledge for everyone. He said: "Scientific publishers can be viewed as "rent-seekers" in economic theory. They are acting as a third party between the taxpaying public and taxpayer-funded research by depriving them of access to each other. This lands them in the economic neighborhood of illegal drug trade, taxi medallions, lobbyists, bribery and regulatory capture... quite a fall from the vision of the Enlightenment. "
If you are not a scholar or a student it can be hard and expensive to get hold of certain scientific articles. For many people, educated at universities but now working outside academia, this will keep them from closely following scientific developments within their discipline, which could lead to an unnecessary gap between science and practice.

What do you think?
  1. Would it be a good idea to create open access for all to scientific knowledge?
  2. Is it possible to do this while sticking to important quality standards? If yes, how?


  1. Handling the split between those who understand science and those who don't is a matter of creating more interesting "basic knowledge".
    People who don't know are not to be blamed for being "lazy" or "close minded"... the teacher shares the blame for not starting creativity in the pupil.

    As for opening access to scientific knowledge... I fail to see how could that be a bad thing. The only thing that comes to mind is the "using of the knowledge for terrorism".

    As for quality, I believe that quality in science comes to peer review... what could promote greater quality more than MASSIVE peer review?

  2. Thanks Peter, good ideas. Technology might indeed make the peer review process more potent...

  3. Hi Coert,
    interesting topic.
    I really liked all the linked examples! Thanks for sharing, I am impressed by your research! It sure adds context to your point.

    Personally I am all for free access to all scientific knowledge, in principle. Now, I do not know how that would work in practice - peer reviewed publication in prestigious journals is how researchers advance in their careers, so there is a whole lot of important issues to be taken care of.
    I would definitely not go as far as to characterize scientific publishers as drug dealers!!

    Regarding the concerns about sharing knowledge with people that are not "educated":
    1) I always found troubling the whole Marxist framework of the enlightened elites who lead the ignorant masses; I have little patience with intellectuals (vs. actual researchers)
    2) Academia in itself is not a guarantee of scientific literacy: some law schools and some medical schools do not bother to require statistics and scientific literacy courses (source: "Mistakes were made, but not by me"). Even though lawyers and judges will have to deal with DNA evidence or decide on issues that are strictly scientific (e.g. whether vaccines cause autism: even though the scientific verdict has been a resounding NO, 3 judges in Federal Claim Court, a tax lawyer, a military lawyer and an environmental lawyer by background, respectively,will have the final say).
    Sometimes some well self-educated persons, outside of academia, like J.R. Harris, can bring very meaningful contributions!

  4. Oh, I forgot!
    One final point.
    You write:
    "Only 59% of them know the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time".
    Yeah, isn't it sad hat only 41% know the truth?? Humans and dinosaurs lived together, as it has been amply documented in the prestigious scientific production "The Flintstones"! :)))))

  5. Thanks, Paolo. Some questions.

    * Would career progress really be hindered by making articles free?
    * Maybe open access could help to reduce the gap between elite and mass?

    Agree with your last point. Judith Rich Harris is a present day example. Einstein, Darwin and Newton where examples of the past of people who have made the largest part of their contributions in relative isolation from the Academic world.

  6. Oh gosh, you are right! I found it on Youtube: ttp://

  7. "free access Yes, but then what would most people make of the 11,000 psychology journals? No one can read all that every month, so who says what is "true"? Scientist don't agree and so many widely accepted things have been shown to be wrong. Solution focus at least teaches people to check within their own capacities and knowledge. Everyone has a BS detector that can be tuned by becoming more aware and tuned to our own and other's inner self. I think a big dose of Mindfulness practices, Yoga, Taichi, meditation, just calming the mind and being in the now, is equally helpful to the knowledge."

    Derek W Patton

  8. The information democracy. Free access to scientific information, while rigorously adhering to standards for proper research. Sounds terrific.

    Educating people in everyday science and appointing professors in public understanding of science. Great. In the UK we had prof. Richard Dawkins, a biologist and here in the Netherlands we have prof. Bas Haring, a philosopher in science. People who appeal to the general audience.

    However, I want to raise another point in the discussing. Information in the 'wrong hands' can be lethal. I'm not worried about the 11.000 psychology journals. But, think about information about building nuclear bombs or the use of toxins. Should this scientific information also be free to all? And if not, who should assess which information is free and which information is potentially dangerous?

  9. Hi Richard, how does Wikipedia solve that same problem?

  10. In star trek to boldly explore new frontiers is to venture
    forth upon the starship enterprise seeking new worlds.
    Understanding new worlds hinges upon ones
    Imagination and tools at hand. I seek as we speak
    And yet there is so much more out there, if only.

    I do not bemoan my inability to accomplish for it is only,
    As others have said, for my lack of trying.

    Free and universal access is but one book end. The other
    Book end is of the human spirit.

    sam lammie
    From my blackberry

  11. I think it is a good idea to allow open access for all to scientific knowledge. Open Access (OA) refers to online access to material that has been traditionally accessible only in print. Thomas Friedman, in his book, "The Word is Flat: A Brief History of The Twenty-First Century, describes emerging globalization as a level playing field and identifies OA and its source (i.e., the Internet) as one of several factors as contributors. Although your post indicates that many people do not know simple facts (e.g., how long it takes for the earth to revolve around the sun), in contrast to, say, a quarter century ago, due to the Internet, this ignorance is largely a personal choice.

    I think Peter above makes an excellent point regarding the possibilities for peer review for OA.

  12. One of the reasons our governments fund research is to, ultimately, improve our lives. One way to do that is to get the information out to the public. One way to do that is to provide the information (journals, books) to free public libraries.

    But why limit the free dissemination to those who can get inside the libraries (drive, park, walk, spend all day looking in the stacks).

    We have the ability to make this free public library information available on the internet, but we don't. Why not? I'm not sure. Because we want only the truly motivated to have access? (I see a lot of homeless in the public libraries. Are they truly motivated?) Because the information in the hands of the idle web searcher might not be in their best interest (think of un-replicated findings)?

    But for myself, one of those "educated at universities but now working outside academia" I would like to have easier free access. I would be one who would use that access for the greater good (or smaller, since I have a small practice).

    I resent having to pay the middle man for the research my tax dollars help support. But I probably or maybe don't know enough about it to understand that my paying for access is a necessary cost. How the quality standards would be adversely impacted, for example.

    So in answer to your first question, yes. In answer to your second, I don't know. Would like to learn more, however.

  13. Wikipedia describes a lot of lethal topics. I've tried the entries for croftybomb, sarin nerve agent, dirty bomb and thalium. All freely available. The compounds, the origin and the way it works are properly described. Of course, based on public (free) information. However, they do not offer: How to sections. The principle behind Wikipedia is permanent peer reviewed information. This is ,in principle, a good thing.

    On second thought. The question of safe and dangerous information is the wrong way of thinking. The underlying question of free information is the viability of current business models. Scientific information has been paid for (taxpayers money). Cutting out the middle man (i.e. the publishers) leads to new questions on the dissemination, and moderation of information. Any thoughts on this question?

  14. Richard, forget wikipedia! There is the "Anarcy Guide" that is freely available on a simple google search. It has a collection of things you can do to create mayhem.

    Information to create terror is very easy to come by. Willingness to commit terror is however very hard to come by. Security institutions want to convince people that "enemies" are willing and ready but in reality they are just like us. The want to live and let live.

  15. Hi Richard and Peter, thanks for the thoughts. Peter, I like your thought and I agree with it. It seems very dangerous to have lethal things and information available to people but if you think of it. We all have the potential at any time to create great damage but we don't tend to use this potential.

  16. Coert, with the risk of sounding like a broken record, I will mention again NVC. Marshall Rosenberg has great insights regarding the enemy images built by society and the promotion of ideas like "people are inherently evil and need the law to be disciplined" by the society.

    I think the potential we have is for good and, unfortunately, very few reach their potential because of the way society treats us.

  17. _Researchers_ *need* free access to each others' work in order to do their work well. This is very basic to the process of how science works in my opinion: ideas and evidence building on ideas and evidence.

    Now for the larger issue of public access to science, remember I'm writing from the U.S., where our problem honestly (and tragically) seems to be more public science illiteracy than access.

    The _public_ should have free access so they can make informed decisions, but their bottleneck in the U.S. is not really accessibility it is the skills and background to understand what they are reading. I rarely see people here writing about research who really understand what the data is saying and what it means for theory. Even many science journalists do a really poor job, although perhaps often more because of *motives* rather than lack of skills and background.

    The virtues of scholarship and honest inquiry are pretty low on the list of "values" in the U.S. for most of the population. I'm not just picking on our right wing extremists here, either, even some of our most popular science writers seem to often put disturbing slant on research most of the time to get more attention or make some political point rather than reporting it fairly to help it tell its own story.

    So for me the issue of open access is a foregone conclusion, it is the issue of science education that seems most critical.

    The question of dangerous knowledge is to me more a matter of access to technology than to science. "How To" articles on bombs and such are a different question from basic science. True, the number of people willing to do really bad things with freely available tech knowledge is very small, and positive social and political change and medical and behavioral knowledge is probably the best way to address that population. But unfortunately with some technologies it doesn't take many psychos to cause a huge problem, so this problem will NOT go away completely. We seem to be stuck with a certain amount of risk in that area, and freely available technology information does increase the risk somewhat. It's ultimately a question of risk mediation, not ideology.

  18. Thanks, Coert... I brought up this issue on the mailing list you mentioned after I had discovered that an article that I had been openly referencing for years had suddenly been turned in to a copyrighted paper by the APA. Years of my open literary efforts across many different news groups, emails, etc. were obsoleted because APA's decision to restrict access to the article. People who want to access the article must now pay $11.95, provide personal credit card and IP information, agree not to share the information, and must pay the fee every 12 months they wish to access this info. Here is my blog entry on the topic

    Citizens pay billions of dollars to promote science, literacy, and increasing our understanding of the world around us. This is wonderful, and I think we should spend more doing so. But when academia accepts this trust and funding, it also has an obligation to make this available to the very folks who supported this in the first place. Instead, we find that academic publishers have established themselves as "choke points" in the flow of knowledge, restricting access to knowledge so that they may earn ill-gotten gains.

    Thomas Jefferson had it right when he wrote about knowledge:

    ... no one possesses the less because everyone possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me receives [it] without lessening [me], as he who lights his [candle] at mine receives light without darkening me.

    to APA's view: may access this knowledge, copyrighted by the APA, if you provide us a credit card with personal information, internet IP address, and pay us $11.95 for one year's access. You agree not to share, distribute, or reproduce this knowledge without written permission from the American Psychological Association.

    We are facing a crisis in our understanding of science today. We are facing cross-disciplinary issues, requiring lateral thinking independent of the horizontal thinking so prevalent in our specialized academic world today. This lateral understanding of broad swaths of knowledge will require a fundamentally different approach to how we aggregate knowledge.

    Publishers who restrict access to public knowledge should be viewed with the same respect as thugs who restrict access to public parks.

  19. Tom, that's disgusting. I agree with you. I don't think they're thugs, I think they are concerned with their business model more than science. And there's a serious problem with their business model.

  20. It seems like such a strange contradiction. Through books and the internet I meet so many brilliant Americans. What a strange contrast with the scientific illiteracy that seems to be so widespread. What will work to bridge the gap?

  21. Maybe highly concentrated material.
    Basic Introductions and MindMaps.

    For example. Go out at night and take a look at the sky. How many constellations do you recognize? How many stars do you recognize. Are you able to point at Mars?

    Very few people know. Some lack even the basic ability to located Polaris.

    Now, there is a line that has to be drawn between Basic Astronomical Knowledge and Advanced. Where do you draw that line? That line is important! Very important! Without that line you cannot point out that something is basic knowledge, knowledge that should be acquired.

    Same thing for the medical field. There should be a "First Aid Basic Knowledge" that should allow a person who knows it to respond to minor medical events or to major event in case of emergency. Basic stuff like sanitizing a wound, preventing blood lost, removing obstructions in case o choking and so on.
    Again, where do you draw the line? What should be Basics.

    Once this Basics knowledge from multiple fields is established, then it could be presented in a highly effective way. Charts, mindmaps, tutorial videos, tons of examples, etc.
    All this materials should focus strictly on the basics and point out at the end a place where a person could get more information, like a Wikipedia Portal.

    What is the Basics knowledge of SFC? Where do I get it? Is there at least some consensus regarding this Basics knowledge? Why aren't the sites of the SFC specialists explicitly point to this Basic Knowledge? Is this basic knowledge in its best graphical form?

  22. Coert,

    I believe in open access to all knowledge however, I'm not sure it should always be "free." But the cost should be reasonable. Journals are printed on paper, editors must be hired, peers must review (are they paid?) - things cost money and someone must bear the cost. I think the issue is how to pay for everything in such a way that we gain the maximum benefit from the knowledge available.

    In the past even the news wasn't free. You had to pay a quarter to get a newspaper. But now with the Internet and all the free news sites and news aggregators out there we forget that information, like everything, has a cost. Someone had to spend time to gather it, and often that costs the time of someone who is paid.

    So let's not figure out how to make it free. Let's figure out how to make sure those who want the information can get it at costs that don't keep them from achieving worthy goals.

  23. Hi Rodney, interessting. thank you for your thoughts!


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