Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Science Commons

Enter John Wilbanks, executive director of the Science Commons initiative, and the six-year-old innovation of its parent organization, Creative Commons—an intelligent, understandable copyright that's revolutionizing how everything from photos to publications are shared. Wilbanks and his team (which includes Nobel Prize winners Joshua Lederberg and John Sulston) are focused on three areas where roadblocks to scientific discovery are most common: in accessing literature, obtaining materials, and sharing data.

In June, Science Commons introduced a set of tools to allow authors greater control over papers published in scientific journals. And this week, Science Commons is expanding its Neurocommons project with the launch of an open-source research platform for brain studies. By using text-mining tools and analysis software to annotate millions of neurology papers, researchers worldwide can find relevant information in a matter of minutes.
I am a fan of the Creative Commons initiative, and I am glad they are now entering the scientific space.

How does John Wilbanks want to change journals to make scholarly articles more accessible?
Scholarly literature would be available for free because the peer-review charges would be paid as part of the cost of research instead of through subscription models, and the annotations or comments that had been made on any given paper would be readily available. The idea is that we would do things in science that we already do everyday in other fields with ease. Science ought to be like this, but it isn't.

Currently, journal articles, data, research, materials and so on are stopped by contracts and copyrights at such a rate that it's become nearly impossible to pull them together. The estimated utility half-life of a scientific paper is 15 years, but the copyright lasts until 70 years after the author's death. It's hard to get data sets shared, and the basic elements of the commercial Web (like eBay, Amazon and Google) function poorly, if at all, inside the sciences. The knowledge simply isn't moving as easily as it should, and transactions are slow on a good day, non-existent on a bad one.

Admittedly, right now the traditional for-profit publishing companies don't have a strong incentive to change. These publishers are making as much as a 35 percent profit, and in the absence of prodding from the scientific and research communities they're not going to change. But over the long term, people will get frustrated that we can easily find everything we need recreationally online but we can't do it for science. Google doesn't work as well for finding science as it does for finding pizza, and that's a shame. Open access isn't just about getting a scientist access to a file. It's the best thing for science because it allows all the smart people in the world to start hacking on the scientific literature and applying tools like text mining, collaborative filtering and more. Right now, all that content is basically dark to most of the smart people on Earth.
It is crazy to me that some journals have a 35% profit. The open source software movement was created to mimic the way scientific research was conducted, where information is freely available to all. How ironic is it then that academic journals have become some of the most profitable businesses in the world and open source concepts need to be brought back to the scientific community?

I always find it strange that when I am researching a topic, Google ends up taking me to a lot of blogs and very few academic studies. Not that there is anything wrong with blogs :), just that I am sure there are academic studies that have the exact answer to what I am looking for, and Google rarely takes me to them. Instead of getting well thought out, heavily researched and peer-reviewed information, I end up with some blogger's back of the envelope calculation.

And in the few instances when Google (or Google Scholar) does find an academic study, I am directed to a website that requires payment for access. And not something reasonable like $1-5 for a 3 page article. No, they want something crazy like $25-100 for a single article. If I was sure the article had the information I was looking for, it might be worth that, but I am typically too scared that it won't be there and I pass. Instead, I spend 10-15 minutes Googling the authors' names to see if they happened to put a free version of the report up on their personal websites. Sometimes I get lucky, sometimes not. But, it is always a huge waste of time.

Making academic studies freely available and searchable via Google would be immensely valuable and so I hope Science Commons is successful in their endeavor.

via Popular Science

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