Science Just Wants To Be Free

This article was originally published in the Huffington Post

 

For a long time now, scientists were held in thrall by publishers. They worked voluntarily – without getting any pay – as editors and reviewers for the publishers, and they allowed their research to be published in scientific journals without receiving anything out of it. No wonder that scientific publishing had been considered a lucrative business.

Well, that’s no longer the case. Now, scientific publishers are struggling to maintain their stranglehold over scientists. If they succeed, science and the pace of progress will take a hit. Luckily, the entire scientific landscape is turning on them – but a little support from the public will go a long way in ensuring the eventual downfall of an institute that is no longer relevant or useful for society.

To understand why things are changing, we need to look back in history to 1665, when the British Royal Society began publishing research results in a journal form called Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Since the number of pages available in each issue was limited, the editors could only pick the most interesting and credible papers to appear in the journal. As a result, scientists from all over Britain fought to have their research published in the journal, and any scientist whose research was published in an issue gained immediate recognition throughout Britain. Scientists were even willing to become editors for scientific journals, since that was a position that demanded request – and provided them power to push their views and agendas in science.

Thus was the deal struck between scientific publishers and scientists: the journals provided a platform for the scientists to present their research, and the scientists fought tooth and nail to have their papers accepted into the journals – often paying from their pockets for it to happen. The journals publishers then had full copyrights over the papers, to ensure that the same paper would not be published in a competing journal.

That, at least, was the old way for publishing scientific research. The reason that the journal publishers were so successful in the 20th century was that they acted as aggregators and selectors of knowledge. They employed the best scientists in the world as editors (almost always for free) to select the best papers, and they aggregated together all the necessary publishing processes in one place.

And then the internet appeared, along with a host of other automated processes that let every scientist publish and disseminate a new paper with minimal effort. Suddenly, publishing a new scientific paper and making the scientific community aware of it, could have a radical new price tag: it could be completely free.

Free Science

Let’s go through the process of publishing a research paper, and see how easy and effortless it became:

  1. The scientist sends the paper to the journal: Can now be conducted easily through the internet, with no cost for mail delivery.
  2. The paper is rerouted to the editor dealing with the paper’s topic: This is done automatically, since the authors specify certain keywords which make sure the right editor gets the paper automatically to her e-mail. Since the editor is actually a scientist volunteering to do the work for the publisher, there’s no cost attached anyway. Neither is there need for a human secretary to spend time and effort on cataloguing papers and sending them to editors manually.
  3. The editor sends the paper to specific scientific reviewers: All the reviewers are working for free, so the publishers don’t spend any money there either.

Let’s assume that the paper was confirmed, and is going to appear in the journal. Now the publisher must:

  1. Paginate, proofread, typeset, and ensure the use of proper graphics in the paper: These tasks are now performed nearly automatically using word processing programs, and are usually handled by the original authors of the paper.
  2. Print and distribute the journal: This is the only step that costs actual money by necessity, since it is performed in the physical world, and atoms are notoriously more expensive than bits. But do we even need this step anymore? I have been walking around in the corridors of the academy for more than ten years, and I’ve yet to see a scientist with his nose buried in a printed journal. Instead, scientists are reading the papers on their computer screens, or printing them in their offices. The mass-printed version is almost completely redundant. There is simply no need for it.

In conclusion, it’s easy to see that while the publishers served an important role in science a few decades ago, they are just not necessary today. The above steps can easily be conducted by community-managed sites like Arxive, and even the selection process of high quality papers can be performed today by the scientist themselves, in forums like Faculty of 1000.

The publishers have become redundant. But worse than that: they are damaging the progress of science and technology.

The New Producers of Knowledge

In a few years from now, the producers of knowledge will not be human scientists but computer programs and algorithms. Programs like IBM’s Watson will skim through hundreds of thousands of research papers and derive new meanings and insights from them. This would be an entirely new field of scientific research: retrospective research.

Computerized retrospective research is happening right now. A new model in developmental biology, for example, was discovered by an artificial intelligence engine that went over just 16 experiments published in the past. Imagine what would happen when AI algorithms cross and match together thousands papers from different disciplines, and come up with new theories and models that are supported by the research of thousands of scientists from the past!

For that to happen, however, the programs need to be able to go over the vast number of research papers out there, most of which are copyrighted, and held in the hands of the publishers.

You may say this is not a real problem. After all, IBM and other large data companies can easily cover the millions of dollars which the publishers will demand annually for access to the scientific content. What will the academic researchers do, though? Many of them do not enjoy the backing of the big industry, and will not have access to scientific data from the past. Even top academic institutes like Harvard University find themselves hard-pressed to cover the annual costs demanded by the publishers for accessing papers from the past.

Many ventures for using this data are based on the assumption that information is essentially free. We know that Google is wary of uploading scanned books from the last few decades, even if these books are no longer in circulation. Google doesn’t want to be sued by the copyrights holders – and thus is waiting for the copyrights to expire before it uploads the entire book – and lets the public enjoy it for free. So many free projects could be conducted to derive scientific insights from literally millions of research papers from the past. Are we really going to wait for nearly a hundred years before we can use all that knowledge? Knowledge, I should mention, that was gathered by scientists funded by the public – and should thus remain in the hands of the public.

 

What Can We Do?

Scientific publishers are slowly dying, while free publication and open access to papers are becoming the norm. The process of transition, though, is going to take a long time still, and provides no easy and immediate solution for all those millions of research papers from the last century. What can we do about them?

Here’s one proposal. It’s radical, but it highlights one possible way of action: have the government, or an international coalition of governments, purchase the copyrights for all copyrighted scientific papers, and open them to the public. The venture will cost a few billion dollars, true, but it will only have to occur once for the entire scientific publishing field to change its face. It will set to right the ancient wrong of hiding research under paywalls. That wrong was necessary in the past when we needed the publishers, but now there is simply no justification for it. Most importantly, this move will mean that science can accelerate its pace by easily relying on the roots cultivated by past generations of scientists.

If governments don’t do that, the public will. Already we see the rise of websites like Sci-Hub, which provide free (i.e. pirated) access to more than 47 million research papers. Having been persecuted by both the publishers and the government, Sci-Hub has just recently been forced to move to the Darknet, which is the dark and anonymous section of the internet. Scientists who will want to browse through past research results – that were almost entirely paid for by the public – will thus have to move over to the Darknet, which is where weapon smugglers, pedophiles and drug dealers lurk today. That’s a sad turn of events that should make you think. Just be careful not to sell your thoughts to the scholarly publishers, or they may never see the light of day.

 

Dr Roey Tzezana is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, an academic manager of foresight courses at Tel Aviv University, blogger at Curating The Future, the director of the Simpolitix project for political forecasting, and founder of TeleBuddy.

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A Town in North Carolina has Banned Solar Energy – and You Can Thank Greenpeace for That

 

Recently, a town council in North Carolina rejected plans to open a solar farm in its area, after the town people expressed their fears about the new solar technology. As reported in the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, retired science teacher Jane Mann, complained that no one could assure her that solar panels did not cause cancer. Her husband, Bobby Mann, chimed in and warned the council that solar farms would suck up all the energy from the sun. Needless to say, neither of these arguments has any base in reality. The council, however, heard their warnings and voted against establishing a solar farm in the area. Later, the same town council also voted for a moratorium on future solar farms.

This is probably an isolated incident. In fact, the case has been covered widely in the last day, and the couple’s remarks have been met with worldwide ridicule, so some would say that it’s not likely to repeat itself. All the same, I believe similar arguments are bound to arise in other potential locations for solar farms. People will read about the claims associating between solar panels and deaths from cancer, and conspiracy theories will be created out of the blue. In some places, like that North Carolina town, fear will keep the new and clean technology from being deployed and used.

And if that happens, I can’t help but think that Greenpeace will be the ones to blame.

 

Greenpeace’s Feud with Science

A few years ago, I did a podcast episode about genetic engineering in plants. I wanted people to understand the science behind the technique, so I invited two distinguished professors from the academy who were experts in the field. I also invited a professor who was an expert in bioethics, to highlight the dilemmas surrounding genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Finally, I asked a senior member in Greenpeace to come to the show and provide their take on GMOs. I still remember her words, and this is a direct quote –

“If you’re inviting doctors to the show, I’m not coming.”

To say that her words blew me away is an understatement. I used to donate monthly to Greenpeace under the presumption that they’re striving to change the world to the better – but how can they know in which area they should invest their political and public influence, if they’re not guided by science and by experts? And can’t they actually do more harm than good, by supporting the wrong causes?

Since that time, I started following Greenpeace’s agenda and actions and scrutinizing them closely. It was immediately clear that the ‘green’ organization was acting more on blind faith and belief in the healing and wholesome power of nature, than on scientific findings.

Oh, you want examples? Here’s the most famous one, that we experience up to this date: the campaign against Golden Rice in particular, and genetically modified organisms in general.

Greenpeace’s campaign against the Golden Rice, for one, has succeeded in delaying the deliverance of genetically modified rice to farmers in poor countries. “Golden Rice” is golden indeed since it had been genetically altered to produce a precursor of vitamin A, which is a vital nutrient for human consumption. Sadly, vitamin A is lacking in many areas in the developing world. In fact, half a million children who suffer from severe vitamin A deficiency go blind every year, and half of them die soon after. The Golden Rice has been ready for use since the beginning of the 21st century, and yet Greenpeace’s campaign against GMOs in general and Golden Rice in particular has kept it off the market. At the same time, study after study show that GMOs are safe for eating, and in many cases are safer for the environment than ordinary crops.

Unfortunately, the scientific evidence on the issue of GMOs does not matter much to Greenpeace, which keeps on fighting against GMOs and utilizing bad science, funding extremely shoddy studies, and scaremongering all over the world. No wonder that Stephen Tindale, ex-director of Greenpeace, has recently denounced anti-GM food campaigns of the kind Greenpeace is leading still. William Saletan, who has studied the issue extensively, published his results in Slate –

“…the deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies. The people who tell you that Monsanto is hiding the truth are themselves hiding evidence that their own allegations about GMOs are false. They’re counting on you to feel overwhelmed by the science and to accept, as a gut presumption, their message of distrust.”

 

GMO-Labels.jpg
Greenpeace scaremongering. Image originally from the Genetic Literacy Project.

 

I don’t want this post to become a defense poster for GMOs. You can find solid reviews of the scientific evidence in some of the links above. What’s important to realize, though, is that Greenpeace have deliberately led a tactic that relies on people’s lack of scientific knowledge and their automatic fears of every new technology. This tactic is harmful in two ways: first, it can actually bring harm to environment since our choices do not rely on solid science but on scare tactics; second, it poisons people’s minds against science and scientific evidence, so that they are unwilling to look at new technologies in a calm and rational manner – even if those technologies are much safer for the environment than anything that came before them.

Which is exactly what happened at North Carolina this week, when the public rejected solar energy partly because of irrational and unfounded fears. Ironically, Greenpeace has put a lot of emphasis on solar energy as the preferred direction to solve the world’s energy problems, and their efforts are commendable. However, when they’ve spent the last few decades teaching people to be afraid of conspiracy theories by evil scientists, industry and government, why did they think people would stop there? Why shouldn’t people question the scientific base against solar panels’ safety, when Greenpeace has never bothered to encourage and promote scientific literacy and rational thinking among their followers?

Today, Greenpeace should feel proud of itself – it has primed people precisely for this kind of a response: a knee-jerk rejection of anything that is new and unfamiliar. With Greenpeace’s generous assistance, fear now overrides rational thinking.

 

PEAS3.jpg
I don’t like scare tactics, but when one of them is as beautiful as this one, I just can’t resist the urge to show it here. Image originally from the Inspiration Room, and the campaign was developed by BBDO Moscow.

 

Conclusion

For the last few decades, concerned scientists have watched with consternation as the environmentalist movement – with Greenpeace at its head – took an ugly turn and dived headlong into pseudo-science, mysticism and fear-mongering, while leaving solid science behind. This is particularly troubling since we need a strong environmentalist movement to help save the Earth, but it has to build its demands and strategies on a solid scientific base. Anything less than that, and the environmentalists could actually cause more harm to the environment – and to humanity – than the worst moneygrubbing industry leaders.

Even worse than that, in order to obtain public support for unscientific strategies, Greenpeace and other environmentalist movements have essentially “poisoned the wells” and have turned people’s minds against scientists and scientific studies. Instead of promoting rational thinking, they turned to scaremongering tactics that might actually backfire on them now, as they try to promote solar power technology that’s actually evidence-based.

How can we rectify this situation? The answer is simple: promote scientific literacy and rational thinking. I dare to hope that in the near future, Greenpeace will finally realize that science is not an enemy, but a way to better understand the world, and that its demands must be based on solid science. Anything less than that will lead to eventual harm to the planet.