How the open-access argument plays on the Hill

As anyone in academia likely knows, the “open-access” argument is a heated and contentious one. There is increasingly more pushback from authors who do not believe that we should have to publish behind paywalls. The argument is that the research and data is ours, so why is it being held hostage by journal groups such as Elsevier or ESA?

Journals that are exclusively open access are becoming more and more popular. The prime example is PloS Onethe open access journal. However, PLoS has been repeatedly criticized because of their merits for publications (i.e., if the science is sound, it doesn’t matter how novel the research is). This model has been copied by journals such as Ecosphere from ESA and Scientific Reports from the Nature publishing group and has lead to the criticism of “pay to publish” journals (because open-access journals require* a hefty up-front fee from authors to offset the lack of funds from traditional journal paywalls). While these issues have been discussed to death over the past few years, a new facet to the open-access argument pertains to raw data.

Historically, when a researcher would publish a paper, they would be responsible for interpreting the data and presenting it in the correct manner. While this is still the case, more and more journals are requiring the submission of the raw data used in the experiment as supplemental information (e.g., the Royal Society Publishing Group, ESA). These policies have (understandably) been met with some resistance; however, proponents argue that “open data” reduces the incidence of faking data in scientific publications (though honestly, what is to stop someone from altering the raw data)? So how does all of this play in congress?

A couple weeks ago my agency was involved in a hearing on the Endangered Species Act. The Act is a very contentious issue and is rather unpopular with conservatives in particular. The most common issue with the Act is trying to prevent a species from actually being listed. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is the primary agency that administers the Act, and as a consequence, receives the most pushback (e.g., we get sued a lot). For this hearing in particular, one issue that was discussed was how the USFWS makes listing decisions. Those who oppose many aspects of the Act wanted to know where the information comes from when listing endangered species. Accusations were (and have been previously) made that the data being used, whether it be from USFWS, academic researchers, or other agencies, is unreliable. Opponents of the Act wanted to know why they can’t see the data that is used to make listing decisions. The short answer: journal paywalls.

While we do not always (or ever) agree with our congressional leaders, it is their job to make legislation that governs this country. That is their job and we have to live with that. Our job as scientists is to perform research, analyze it, and disseminate it to the scientific community. That research is then picked up by policy-makers for policy or legislation. Any piece of research that is used in listing decisions for the Act by the USFWS is peer-reviewed, especially if it published in a scientific journal. So, if the research is reputable enough to pass the scrutiny of experts within ones own field, what good will putting the raw data in the hands of opponents who have little to no scientific experience? Let us do our jobs as scientists and we’ll let you do yours (until you’re voted out).

Presenting raw data for manuscripts is already a contentious issue; however, it could become a much bigger issue if the argument makes its way to congress. Not only could it affect how conservation-related legislation is created, but also play into the mess that’s going on at the NSF (e.g., congress trying, and succeeding, to limit what NSF funds). So if you think that all of this doesn’t apply to you because your research is not conservation/management-related…you’re dead wrong.

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2 thoughts on “How the open-access argument plays on the Hill

  1. “what good will putting the raw data in the hands of opponents who have little to no scientific experience” Presumably because those questioning a proposed listing will have the funds and incentive to hire other trained scientists to: i) check and re-analyse the data independently; ii) perhaps even hire people to gather more data in locations that have identifed gaps; or iii) perhaps hire people to gather data that is more up-to-date. If the species is really obviously endangered there’s presumably nothing to worry about in this, and the task of proving the fact to the satisfaction of beady-eyed opponents will provide more employment for ecologists etc. But if there are real question marks over the data, then the added scrutiny (and any extra data and analysis) should be welcomed. In the longer term, such open data availability and public scrutiny of the data might even help preserve the raw data sets, so that a decade or more down the line – when data might otherwise be lost, technically inaccessible, or tied up in a tiny graph or map in a journal article – it can help subsequent researchers to map species recovery, maybe even bringing the species off the list quicker than otherwise.

  2. Shane, in your short duration on the “Hill” how does the political divide influence conservation/environmental decisions? Is it as bad as I think it is?

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