Chained Science

Off late I have been doing some literature study for a new project I am working on and like any newbie I started searching the online libraries for research papers. It has been an old habit since pre-college days to learn a subject from research articles, all thanks to the incredible journals I could get my hands on from the publication panel of Indian Institute of Science.  One journal which has left a long lasting impression has been ‘Resonance’, a multi-disciplinary journal of Science published monthly for an annual subscription of $5. Most of my pre-college years I used to eagerly wait for the postman to deliver the journal and I would spend endless days going through the different sections and the papers.  From learning Classical Mechanics to mastering the Ubiquitin pathway of Apoptosis to its last protein, the journal has been a true mentor in letter and spirit. College was a candy land ride, with the college library having paraphernalia of journals ranging from ‘Nature’ to ‘NEJM’. The enormity of good science and the inability to cope up with the fast evolving science was one of the primary concerns during those days.  Well like they say all good thing comes to an end, so was the college days and the practically unlimited access to quality journals.

So now when I came across a ground breaking article of my interest in ‘Nature’ I was excited beyond measures and the college days memories came flooding back to be hit by a Visa payment gateway. I was shocked. I was shocked at my premature excitement, shocked at the $30 price tag for a paper on basic science, shocked at the realization that I can’t access a paper because I don’t have a subscription for that journal, shocked at the realization that college days are over. It just reminded me of Antonio Panizzi, librarian of British Museum, who wrote about open access in 1836, “I want a poor student to have the same means of indulging his learned curiosity, … of consulting the same authorities, … as the richest man in the kingdoms.” It was a dream at that time with all the difficulties in printing press and cost of publication. But in this era of Internet and online libraries, we are still miles away from achieving the dream of Antonio Panizzi. This led me to think what has gone wrong in our world of science. I went through blogs, newspaper entries and articles on ‘publishing in science’.

Apparently ‘the paper’, the nucleus of scientific development, is the culprit. In the past century or so the paper has gained so much of weight that the paper and not the science it describes have been given more importance. The saying ‘Publish or Perish’ has effectively led to the near death of open access science. People in academic circles boast about their papers, they boast about the prestigious journals they have got themselves published, they ego ride on the impact factor of the journals. This ego driven, paper blinded academic practices has given the paper and the publishing groups a virtual autonomy. For example, Nature publishing group’s University subscription per journal is high as $10,000. The irony lies in the fact that the Universities fund these researches and publish them in these journals and end up paying heavy money to read them in return.  The paper which was supposed to be the Messiah of science has become the Satan. The paper has become the bottle neck in the progress of science. And this doesn’t end at the financial front alone. It takes anything between 3-12 months on an average for an original research to get published in a respectful journal. This includes the article submission, peer review, editor comments and the rectification of the comments by the author, lineup for publication and further dissemination. In a fast evolving scientific universe a delay of 6 months is at the least unforgivable. Most of the publishing groups shrug of their responsibilities stating that this is the minimum time to ascertain the usefulness of the result for the targeted audience, which stands to no logic as the usefulness of a research outcome is a completely retrospective assessment (i.e. the more the paper is being quoted in the future research papers the more useful the original paper, objectively speaking).  The monopoly of the publishing group is exemplified in the fact that authors have to pay as high as $1500 to make their paper open access. This is as good as saying that I build a machine and pay for the ride too.

But it’s not dark all way down. Many academicians have started taking cognizance of the damage being done by the maze of copyrights and publishing laws to the free flow of science. Open Science has started gaining momentum and social platforms are helping in clearing up the cobwebs. A promising venture is that of Public Library of Science (PLoS), with all its open access articles spanning wide domains of science. PLoS One, the premiere journal of PLoS, is slowly entering the academic circles with an Impact Factor of 3.534 in 2013. Hopefully, academicians and Universities will start promoting open access culture and break the monopoly of publishing groups and make the dream of Antonio Panizzi come true.  Till then I guess I just have to pay $30 a paper.

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