Biologists Are Rebelling By Publishing Their Research Online For Everyone To See

They've gone rogue – but is this a good or a bad thing? Maksim Kabakou/Shutterstock
Robin Andrews 18 Mar 2016, 17:31

A clutch of biological researchers have released their latest scientific research online – but without going through the conventional peer-review process. This small act of defiance against the traditional model, where papers are looked at by at least two (mostly anonymous) researchers before a decision is made to accept or reject, is considered by some to be an academic taboo. Many, however, have come out in support of this move.

As reported by The New York Times, Nobel Prize laureate Carol Greider from Johns Hopkins University became the third to publish her work to bioRxiv – a publicly accessible website – prior to sending it to an academic journal for peer review. She tweeted about this with the accompanying hashtag #ASAPbio, part of a rallying cry of biology researchers who want to speed up the way science is both published and accessed.

 

 

#ASAPbio advocates are arguing that, in recent years, biologists have been neglecting their duty to the public. When their research is published in journals that have paywalls, only wealthy institutions are realistically able to view their content, not the general public. By publishing these “pre-prints,” the public – who pay for this research with their taxes – are able to view the data first.

This practice, although relatively new to biologists, has been commonplace among physicists for some time, who often use pre-print servers like arXiv to showcase their work to anyone who wishes to peruse it. The hope here is that not only is the science accessible to everyone, but that other academics will be able to hear about new discoveries in their field as soon as possible. This, theoretically, will speed up scientific progress.

 

 

Open access journals, where all content – subject to passing peer review – is free to access, already exist. The problem in this case is that researchers themselves currently have to pay exorbitant fees to make their papers available in this way. The prestige of the more traditional paywalled journals, plus their often far cheaper publication fees, still draw far more academics than open access journals do.

 

 

Publishing scientific work online, accessible to all, is often driven by complex motivations. Recently, a Russian neuroscientist became somewhat infamous after her site, Sci-Hub, gained traction online; this portal allows anyone to access scientific papers blocked behind a paywall for free by using contributors’ academic passkeys.

Technically illegal, the neuroscientist argues that journal publishers themselves are charging extortionate fees, preventing millions around the world from accessing knowledge that they themselves may have actually produced in the first place. In this regard, Sci-Hub has a distinctly political motive, in that knowledge shouldn’t be owned by corporations, but the general public.

In the case of these pre-prints, people are divided. Should servers like bioRxiv co-exist with journals, or should they provide a form of civil disobedience designed to disrupt the journal’s somewhat oppressive grip on scientific publishing? The debate, as always, continues.

 

 

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