Giving People What They Paid For

Drew Story outlines a simple approach academics can use to increase access to research and restore its public value.

August 8, 2017
 
 
iStock/Gheatza

Many scholars are becoming aware of a change in the tide of public support for their work, reflected in proposed budget cuts for many federal science funding agencies, and are struggling to decipher the reason for this shift. Some researchers feel that political groups are targeting their work for its inconvenient truths, while others resort to thinking, “If people only knew how important my work is.”

Either or both of those views could be true, but we in the academic community have no one to blame but ourselves for waning public enthusiasm and financial backing.

For too long, colleges and universities have held a monopoly on new knowledge, mostly with specialized language, but recently more with exclusivity. The fact is that, aside from what the news media passes on, the public can’t access scientific research in its original published form.

And even if they could, journal publications are written to be understood by experts in the field, not the average reader, no matter how curious they are. If scientific progress is made in part because of tax-dollar contributions, then society deserves access -- real access -- to the products of that investment.

I am advocating that researchers be given more opportunities to share the impacts of their research that are far-reaching and offer a low barrier to participation. Specifically, I’m recommending the development of a journal-curated mechanism that would encourage an author to simultaneously submit what I am calling a General Public Summary.

This one-page document would:

  • inform readers of the gist and societal impact of the original scientific article;
  • be written in regular English;
  • be housed on the publisher’s website (like the abstract), and;
  • be free to the public.

Just like the formal manuscript, this relatable summary should also be peer reviewed to ensure its accuracy and accessibility. Software now exists that can quickly assess the reading level of any digital document. So we should limit the complexity of the General Public Summary to, say, an eighth-grade reading level -- not because society is illiterate, but because our public school education generally doesn’t teach us words like “pandiculation” (which means, among other things, yawning).

From my experience, researchers are eager to make their work widespread and well-known, as well as more relevant to the general public, but they often lack an approachable avenue to do so. This General Public Summary would allow researchers to share their work more broadly and simultaneously contribute to an informed citizenry by giving taxpayers a sense of the return on their investment in the scientific enterprise.

Although several publishing options now allow researchers to make their work available to the public -- such as open-access journals and personal websites -- they typically require additional submission fees or significant investments of time, posing a deterrent to many scholars. And even if the public could access all scientific articles for free, as already mentioned, these articles are written with expert audiences in mind, not the general public. Thus, most of us who aren’t experts in that field can’t discern or understand the results or, more important, the societal value.

This is not a barrage on the current mode of academic publishing. Experts communicating about their expertise to other experts will often need to be highly technical to discuss the novel advances of their latest work. And publishers provide a great deal of investment in time, skills and resources into making scientific publication possible, so it is not unreasonable to ask for the entirety of that effort to be monetarily compensated. Rather, this is a call for an appropriate deliverable to encourage public engagement with science that delivers on our societal obligation.

Now, more than ever, a well-informed citizenry is paramount to the future well-being of our society. The General Public Summary can be one of many necessary steps taken to give the people what they paid for and to restore the value that the public places on scholarly research.

Bio

Drew Story is a Ph.D. candidate in chemical and environmental engineering with a designated emphasis in public policy at the University of California, Riverside.

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