The people you meet on the train…
Yesterday on the train I had a most remarkable experience of synchronicity. I had been at the RIN workshop on the costs of scholarly publishing (more on that later) in London and was heading of to Oxford for a group dinner. On the train I was looking for a seat with a desk and took one up opposite a guy with a slightly battered looking mac laptop. As I pulled out my new Macbook (13” 2.4 GHz, 4 Gb memory since you ask) he leaned across to have a good look, as you do, and we struck up a conversation. He asked what I did and I talked a little about being a scientist and my role at work. He was a consultant who worked on systems integration.
At some stage he made a throwaway comment about the fact that he had been going back to learn or re-learn some fairly advanced statistics and that he had had a lot of trouble getting access to some academic papers, certainly he didn’t want to pay for them, but had managed to find free versions of what he wanted online. I managed to keep my mouth somewhat shut at this point, except to say I had been at a workshop looking at these issues. However it gets better, much better. He was looking into quantitative risk issues and this lead into a discussion about the problems of how science and particularly medicine reporting in the media doesn’t provide links back to the original research (which is generally not accessible anyway) and that, what is worse, the original data is usually not available (and this was all unprompted by me, honestly!). To paraphrase his comment “the trouble with science is that I can’t get at the numbers behind the headlines; what is the sample size, how was the trial run…” Well at this point, all thought of getting any work done went out the window and we had a great discussion about data availability, the challenges of recording it in the right form (his systems integration work includes efforts to deal with mining of large, badly organised data sets), drifted into identity management and trust networks and was a great deal of fun.
What do I take from this? That there is a a demand for this kind of information and data from an educated and knowledgable public. One of the questions he asked was whether as a scientist I ever see much in the way of demand from the public. My response was that, aside from pushing the taxpayer access to taxpayer funded research myself, I hadn’t seen much evidence of real demand. His argument was that there is a huge nascent demand there from people who haven’t thought about their need to get into the detail of news stories that effect them. People want the detail, they just have no idea of how to go about getting it. Spread the idea that access to that detail is a right and we will see the demand for access to the outputs of research grow rapidly. The idea that “no-one out there is interested or competent to understand the details” is simply not true. The more respect we have for the people who fund our research the better frankly.