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Open access science and its role in community engagement

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When most people consider the term community engagement, they think in terms of a neighborhood organizer who rallies people for a particular cause in the community. They may even think of the public process by which an organized group of people try to influence public policy.

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Open access science journals have taken the concept to a different level. The most well known proponent of open access science journals, Randy Schekman, joined a Google Hangout on Air earlier today to discuss open access journals’ value to not just the scientific community, but to the general public.

Randy Schekman, born in Saint Paul, is a Nobel winning scientist and editor-in-chief of eLife, an open access online science journal. He was joined by neuroscientist Jody Culham and 17 year old inventor Jack Andraka.

“Even the general public might read something in the news and want to learn more, but find they don’t have access to what they paid for with their tax dollars,” Randy Schekman says of the usual inaccessibility of commonly cited research studies.

With open access publishing, “those who don’t have access at schools and universities can have access at home.”

Reflecting on the scientific community’s role in driving change for how science is viewed and understood, Jody Culham noted, “We complain about the system, but it is important to realize that we are the system. We are the investigators, mentors of students, the reviewers for scientific journals, the researchers. We can do something about the system.”

Late last year, Randy Schekman made waves in the scientific community by declaring that his lab would boycott journals that he described as “luxury journals.”

In his announcement, he told The Guardian, "A paper can become highly cited because it is good science - or because it is eye-catching, provocative, or wrong."

In today’s Google Hangout on Air, Culham echoed this sentiment, “Impact factors rate novelty over all else.”

She says that she doesn’t mean to say novelty is something that science shouldn’t do. However, she observed that sometimes research is done a certain way to get the desired results.

“Statistics is sometimes a method of torturing the data until it confesses.”

Open access journals, like eLife or the Public Library of Science, do not have the high impact factor numbers of journals like “Nature” and “Science.” But, Schekman says there are still ways to determine the quality of the science.

“One can actually read the paper to assess the quality of the research.”

Both Schekman and Culham are proponents of open access journals. They anticipate this will be the norm in the future, especially, Culham notes, when “libraries receive less funding and need to make decisions on what materials to cut.”

However, both of these scientists were amazed to discover the impact that open access can have on future scientists.

“I’m still in high school,” inventor Jack Andraka says. “I don’t have access to all the journals. I only use Google Scholar.”

Andraka has received notoriety for his research of carbon nanotubes that led to a new detection method for certain types of cancers.

“My dream would be that all journals would be free,” Andraka says.

“Investing in the younger generation and getting them interested in science is critical,” he says.

Through a Twitter exchange, Andraka acknowledged his difficulties. “All I can do is read the abstract and hope when I buy the article that it's useful. That's why it's frustrating!”

Following the hangout, Andraka tweeted, “I talk to kids every day frustrated by paywalls and barriers to learning! Let us be part of the solution!”

In a world that is ever changing, solutions are happening. In addition to open access journals, Randy Schekman urges science editors to sign their pledge to the Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), developed to “improve the ways in which the output of scientific research is evaluated by funding agencies, academic institutions, and other parties.”

Schekman notes that “Science” editor-in-chief, Bruce Alberts, is one of the early supporters of DORA. Alberts’ notes on why he signed DORA can be viewed here.

As with any effective changes, affected groups need to self-evaluate their needs and desires in order to move forward. Through projects involving open access research and DORA, the science community seems to be making strides towards strengthening its role in society.

This is part three in a series on community engagement.

See Also:

In Saint Paul, you can make your voice heard

Engaging the community: meet Dai Thao

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