Statement on the criticism received by the book  Analyzing the Role of Citizen Science in Modern Research

 

We are editing a book, and it’s not an open-access book. We received criticism from people who can’t find a justification for a book that will cost more than 100 €, putting it out of reach of some early-career researchers, most NGOs and most citizens. They consider that there are reputable open-access publishers, and that it is possible to get funding from the EU to go the open-access route.

We definitely agree on the principle, but, first of all, some clarifications. The book will be expensive, yes, but its audience aren’t NGOs and the general public; it is a scientific publication for researchers working in the domain of citizen science; researchers who usually have some budget available for acquiring reference material; senior researchers, writing project proposals; they are the ones who actively have shown us interest in this publication. And we have taken into account the context of this audience, which may be very different between different groups of researchers.

And our initiative is, on our side, completely nonprofit. Any earning reaching the editors of the book will be turned to the European Citizen Science Association (ECSA). We understand that the publisher may make some profit and we find this acceptable because it’s providing a useful service to us, which is facilitating the publishing process; it is also saving us time, which is in our case, and in the case of the majority of the people, a precious resource that can be critical for a project to go ahead or not.

We understand that thinking that “paid access to research articles isn’t an issue since most researchers have access to reference material from their lab” is debatable and possibly false: even at MIT, they don’t have free access to many research articles, which subsequently may reduce their productivity. They are obviously not the only ones in this situation and we all sometimes get requests from friends asking for articles to which they don’t have access from their lab. Hence the question: to what extent paid access to research articles slows down research? In many fields, researchers have no problems whatsoever finding access to research articles, and this is the case of environmental science. Many publishers allow (or don’t actively prevent) authors to post preprints on arXiv [http://arxiv.org/], CiteSeerX [http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/], CogPrints [http://cogprints.org/], among others, and their personal websites. We think, as this trend continues, that access to good research articles is not in fact hard to come by, especially due to the availability of preprints. In our experience, most articles that absolutely cannot be found unless paid for are published in very low tier journals and aren’t worth reading.

If we consider the arguments against open access from academics, they are all logistical and not against open access in principle. Specifically, while scientists and other academics write articles, and do a lot of the more specialized intellectual labor of choosing good articles and reviewing them, for free, there’s still a fair amount of editorial work which is not free.  A funding model needs to be created in order to organize this, as well as the IT infrastructure.  We can imagine a future when universities have to pay less for reference material, and they can afford to pay grad students to copy edit articles, but right now they’re cash strapped. Also, there is an established hierarchy of publications.  Open-access publications will have to start from scratch and establish their credibility.  In the beginning this will mean that they will not always attract the best work, which will reinforce their lack of prestige. We think this will be worked out in the long run, but it’s going to take either the NSF, the European Commission or a similar government agency to go out and start working on possible solutions. Well, they already started, we know…

Regarding accessibility of research articles to the citizen or even the educated citizen, we think that, not our book maybe, but general research on citizen science could be an example of an area that non-academics might be interested in delving into and innovating on. This is a wide open space ripe for innovation of some kind; it would be awesome for scientists and post-docs to work as part time journalists to educate the public on the latest research findings without dumbing down the content.  But it’s hard even for an academic to delve into a new area; and it’s even harder for  the average person to read academic papers and understand their relevance. So maybe paid access doesn’t slow down academic research, but as it currently stands it probably slows down the subsequent application of advances in research by the non-academics. We devote an important part of our efforts precisely to foster the advances in research by citizens and to engage them directly in science. But, as we mentioned earlier, this book is something different.

 

Luigi Ceccaroni (1000001 Labs) and Jaume Piera (ICM-CSIC)