Open Science and the developing world: Good intentions, bad implementation?
I spent last week in Cuba. I was there on holiday but my wife (who is a chemistry academic) was on a work trip to visit collaborators. This meant I had the opportunity to talk to a range of scientists and to see the conditions they work under. One of the strong arguments for Open Science (literature access, data, methods, notebooks) is that it provides access to scientists in less priviledged countries to both peer reviewed research as well as to the details of methodology that can enable them to carry out their science. I was therefore interested to see both what was available to them and whether they viewed our efforts in this area as useful or helpful. I want to emphasise that these people were doing good science in difficult circumstances by playing to their strengths and focussing on achievable goals. This is not second rate science, just science that is limited by access to facilities, reagents, and information.
Access to the literature
There is essentially no access to the subscriber-only literature. Odd copies of journal issues are highly valued and many people get by by having visiting positions at institutes in the developed world. I talked to a few people about our protein ligation work and they were immensely grateful that this was published in an open access journal. However they were uncertain about publishing in open access journals due to the perceived costs. While it is likely that they could get such costs waived I believe there is an issue of pride here in not wishing to take ‘charity’. Indeed, in the case of Cuba it may be illegal for US based open access publishers to provide such assistance. It would be interesting to know whether this is the case.
Overall though, it is clear that acccess to the peer reviewed literature is a serious problem for these people. Open Access publishing provides a partial solution to this problem. I think to be effective it is important that this not be limited to self archving, as for reasons I will come back to, it is difficult for them to find such self archived papers. It is clear that mandating archival on a free access repository can help.
Access to primary data
Of more immediate interest to me was whether people with limited access to the literature saw value in having free access to the primary data in open notebooks. Again, people were grateful for the provision of access to information as this has the potential to make their life easier. When you have limited resources it is important to make sure that things work and that they produce publishable results. Getting details information on methodology of interest is therefore very valuable. Often the data that we take for granted is not available (fluorescence spectra, NMR, mass spectrometry) but details like melting points, colours, retention times can be very valuable.
There were two major concerns; one is a concern we regularly see, that of information overload. I think this is less of a concern as long as search engines make it possible to find information that is of interest. Work needs to be done on this but I think it is clear that some sort of cross between Google Scholar and Amazon’s recommendation system/Delicious etc. (original concept suggested by Neil Saunders) can deal with this. The other concern, relating to them adopting such approaches, was one that we have seen over and over again, that of ‘getting scooped’. Here though the context is subtley different and there is a measure of first world-developing world politics thrown in. These scientists are, understandably, very reluctant to publicise initial results because the way they work is methodical and slow. Very often the key piece of data required to make up a paper can only be obtained on apparatus that is not available in house or requires lengthy negotiations with potential overseas collaborators. By comparison it would often be trivially easy for a developed world laboratory to take the initial results and turn out the paper.
The usual flip side argument holds here; by placing an initial result in the public domain it may be easier for them to find a collaborator who can finish of the paper but I can understand their perspective. These are people struggling against enormous odds to stake out a place for themselves in the scientific community. The first world does not exactly have an outstanding record on acknowledging or even valuing work in developing countries so I can appreciate a degree of scepticism on their part. I hope that this may be overcome eventually but given that the assumption of most people in my own community is that by being open we are bound to be shafted I suspect we need to get our own house in order first.
All of this is well and good. There are many real and potential benefits for scientists in the developing world if we move to more open styles of science communication. This is great, and I think it is a good argument for more openness. However there is a serious problem with the way we present this information and our reliance on modern web tools to do it. Its a very simple problem: bandwidth.
All of our blogs, our data, and indeed the open access literature is very graphics heavy. I actually tried to load up the front page of openwetware.org while sitting at the computer of the head of the department my wife was visiting (the department has two networked computers). Fifteen minutes later it was still loading. The PLoS One front page was similarly sluggish. I get irritated if my download speeds drop below 500K/second, at home, and I will give up if they go down to 100K. We were seeing download rates of 44 bytes/second at the worst point. In some cases this can even make search engines unuseable making it near impossible to track down the self-archived versions of papers. Cuba is perhaps a special case because the US embargo means they have no access to the main transatlantic and North American cables, in effect the whole country is on a couple of bundles of phone lines, but I suspect that even while access is becoming more pervasive the penetration of reasonable levels of bandwidth is limited in the developing world.
The point of this is that access is about more than just putting stuff up, it is also about making it accessible. If we are serious about providing access, and expanding our networks to include scientists who do not have the advantages that we have, then this necessarily includes thinking about low bandwidth versions of the pages that provide information. I looked through PLoS One, openwetware, BioMedCentral, and couldn’t find a ‘text only version’ button on any of them (to be fair there isn’t one on our lab blog either). I appreciate the need to present things in an appealling and useful format, and indeed the need to place advertising to diversify revenue streams. I guess the main point is not to assume that by making it available, that you are necessarily making it accessible. If universal accessibility is an important goal then some thought needs to go into alternative presentations.
Overall I think there are real benefits for these scientists when we make things available. The challenges shouldn’t put us off doing it but perhaps it is advisable to bear in mind the old saw; If you want to help people, make sure you find out what they need first.