One source of very important digital information is scientists. They can use computers to do calculations, databases to store results, and websites to publicize their research findings.
Thanks to the Internet and the open access movement, the results of scientific research are becoming increasingly available for anyone to learn from and build upon.
Traditionally, scientists share their research findings by submitting a paper to an academic journal, hoping for its acceptance after a peer review, and presenting the published paper at conferences.
The invention of the web led to gradual changes in the research publishing process, slowly widening access to scientific research.
Screenshot of Google Scholar search results for "ADHD". The results say there are "About 776,000 results" and the screenshot shows the top 2 results.
At first, many of those papers weren't available for online viewing, so scientists had to order paper copies or find them at libraries.
Then research journals realized the potential of the Web to share papers and they started to put full research papers online. At the same time, journals realized the potential for revenue generation, so many of them only allow access to the full paper if you're a subscriber or if you pay a fee. Here's a typical paywall on a journal website:
Screenshot of paper access prompt from Elsevier that says "Choose an option to locate/access this article:" with two options "Check if you have access through your login credentials or your institution" and "Purchase PDF for 35.95".
That restricts the research findings to people who are a member of a paying institution or individuals who can afford the subscription themselves, leading to an inequity in the availability of scientific information.
Open access journals
The goal of the open access movement is to remove barriers to scientific information, by encouraging journals to freely distribute full research papers online and encouraging authors to archive their papers in an open access repository or personal website.
Screenshot of a published paper on PLOS that shows title, abstract, and table of contents, plus a "Download PDF" button.
The open access movement brings us closer to universal access to scientific information, both for scientists and the public.
Concerns with online publishing
There is a growing concern about scientific research on the web, however. The scientific community expects published research papers to go through a peer review process, where experts read a paper and bring up any doubts about the scientific integrity of the method and data analysis. Now that it's so easy and cheap to make a website, new research journals are popping up that vary widely in the rigor of their peer review process—and potentially don't use any peer review at all.
In 2009, a researcher decided to test the rigor of an online science journal by submitting a paper written by SciGen, a computer program that randomly generates research papers, complete with diagrams and citations.
A screenshot of a paragraph and a diagram from the auto-generated paper called "Deconstructing Access Points".
To the surprise of the researcher, the journal accepted the paper and agreed to publish it for a fee of $800. Publishing fees are common for research journals, but even more common for so-called "predatory" journals. In this case, the researcher declined to pay and publish, but some authors will happily pay the fee for the prestige of having a published paper on their resume.
Most researchers aren't submitting nonsense papers, but there are certainly researchers that, intentionally or not, fail to follow a rigorous experimental process or skew their data analysis to favor more exciting (but less accurate) results. When their research studies are debunked, or when they are used to refute well-designed and executed studies, they can reduce the public’s confidence in the scientific process.
The question of accuracy on the web isn't unique to scientific research, of course: there's a growing concern about "fake news", conspiracy theories, sensationalist journalism, and more generally, the alarming rate at which false information can spread online.
In the scientific community, they hope to combat "fake science" with efforts like the Directory of Open Access Journals, which lists only journals where the papers are open access, peer reviewed, and high quality.
🤔 When you're reading a research paper, how could you determine the quality of the research? What signals would be helpful? What might mislead you?
Scientific research isn't just about the process and conclusions, it's also about the data. Scientists are increasingly contributing their collected data to open databases and using the data from open databases for their own research.
Open databases include a wide range of data types, like:
For example, a scientist researching climate change might download the NOAA data on daily average sea surface temperature, visualized below.
A visualization of the 10-year daily average of sea surface temperature, from 1998-2007. Displays a world map with colored bands across the ocean. The legend indicates the temperature for each color, with blue representing 0 degrees Celsius and red representing 30 degrees Celsius. The bands are blue near the poles, red near the equator, and graduated colors between.
With a larger data set, scientists can usually come to more certain conclusions about their hypotheses. So why wouldn't every researcher make their data publicly available?
Sometimes, it's because a for-profit company is conducting the research, and it benefits the company to keep the data to themselves. For example, health tracking apps like FitBit have massive amounts of physical activity data—data which would be very exciting to researchers—but the business models for many for-profit companies depend on mining those data sets for insights. Plus, companies may fear that opening up their data can also open them up to research that exposes flaws in their products.
Across both companies and organizations considering open data, a big concern is privacy, especially with health-related data. The US government has strict laws regulating patient privacy, and those laws make it harder for medical institutions to release patient data. It is sometimes possible, however, if they can strip the data of personally identifiable information while still retaining its usefulness to researchers.
🤔 What is the best way to balance privacy with scientific progress? Are you willing to have your medical information available in open databases, if it might aid science?
Want to join the conversation?
- What do the colors in the image represent?(0 votes)
- The Average temperature of the ocean surface between 1998 and 2007. The darker the red, the hotter it is, and the darker the blue, the colder it is.(1 vote)