Un-cripple science with open access

1 februari 2012 - Cameron Neylon, British biophysicist, open access proponent and speaker at the SURF Research Day, criticizes academic publishers for their corrupted business model. All data need to be available freely – especially ’negative data’ that contradict research findings.

"It's dangerous, stupid and counterproductive to the publishers themselves." Cameron Neylon cannot abstain from cynicism when asked to comment on the recent law proposed to the U.S. Congress in order to limit open access publishing of publicly funded research.

Cameron Neylon, who will be speaking at the SURF Research Day the 9th of February, is one of the editors of the open access academic journal PLoS ONE which started in 2006. For him, this journal is "a step along the way" towards open science. "You have to take little steps to pull the community in the right direction, without leaving them behind. PLoS ONE is one of those steps."

Cameron Neylon is also part of a campaign opposing the recent law initiatives such as SOPA and the Research Work Act (RWA) aimed at limiting open science."The RWA is just barking mad. Traditional academic publishing has corrupted its own business model. They crippled it and now you have to pay to uncripple it."

Neylon argues that legislation prohibiting open access publishing is not in the interest of the traditional publishers. "It's just an attempt to slow down the process. They deliberately attack it, which is really dumb. It's dangerous, stupid and counterproductive to the publishers themselves."

What is needed: "lots of connections and transferring of data"

Quite early in his interdisciplinary research career in biophysics, Neylon came to believe in the virtues of open sciences. His first contact with open access was still driven by the 'classic' academic interest of attracting research funding. "A colleague came to me with a project on electronic lab notebooks on which we could get a large grant."

These notebooks were aiming to provide a very flexible framework for recording and analysing data. As he got more involved, Neylon became convinced that what was truly needed for scientific progress was an open web for research data. "The key thing is that when you create networks, capacities can change. The most important is lots of connections and the transferring of data as easy as possible."

The current way in which research is being done does not live up to what such an open network could offer. According to Neylon this is damaging to the state of science. "There is a series of problems in the current framework of science. At this moment the framework is based on data forming successful experiments while not showing failed experiments."

Lacking communication leading to wasted resources

"What has been missing all the time was information on what hadn't worked," Neylon explains. To illustrate this, he recalls being at a conference long time ago talking about a new technique he was developing. "When I was talking, there were two leading scientists in front of me. You could see them shaking their heads while I was talking. Afterwards, I found out I wasted £40.000 developing something of which people already knew it didn't work."

It is this slow process of communication that can be solved through developments in open science. "The capacity of a group of researchers can be at least 10 times faster and ten times better, using network based communication. And only if it were like 10% better and faster it would be a big financial gain for science."

Twisting the system of publishing

On this path towards open web, many steps are still to be taken. "PLoS ONE, I believe, will be on the lead of that." Nevertheless, also in open access publishing the problem of obtaining all the data with negative outcomes remains a problem. "It still costs the same amount to publish, so it's still hard to publish something for which you're not going to get much credit."

"We therefore have to find ways to make it much easier to bring also negative data out there." One of the initiatives to turn around the cycle of publishing for the good is the recently released F1000 RESEARCH.

Neylon himself is on the advisory panel for this initiative. "It is about just twisting the system in which you first need two researchers to review your work. It's about yes, we'll make it public, but no, we haven't reviewed it yet." This development will seriously influence the speed at which data and information can be made public.

"The next step is that you just push out your data, put a little wrapper around it and publish it online." For Cameron Neylon, that step will also lead to the 'negative data' being available for every scientist throughout the web. "But, we are not there yet."