Open Access and Intelligent Design

From: Michael Eisen <mbeisen_at_LBL.GOV>
Date: Fri, 23 Dec 2005 09:50:11 -0800

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Hello All,

I wrote this Op-Ed in response to the ongoing battles in the US over
^—intelligent design^“. I couldn't get a paper to publish it, so I
figured I'd spread it the old-fashioned way, but posting it to this
list, and by starting a blog (

Happy Holidays, and congrats to all on a great year for open access
in all its forms.



Now that a federal judge in Pennsylvania has ruled that intelligent
design has no place in the classroom, the scientists who rallied to
defend evolution will return to academia happy that science has
weathered yet another assault. But this battle will not be won in the
courtroom. Antipathy toward evolution is the natural consequence of a
growing gulf between the scientific community and the public. Until
scientists close this gap, much of the public will continue to
dismiss Darwin^“s theories, and we risk losing the broad public
support on which science depends.

Rather than blame public ignorance, scientists must accept
responsibility for this distressing trend. We go about our business
rarely thinking of the public as an audience for, or interested party
in, our work. We speak up when crises occur, but this is not enough.
We can and should do more to engage the public on a daily basis, and
if we fail to do so, we will face far greater problems than
intelligent design being taught in our schools.

I propose a simple solution. We should give the public access to the
peer-reviewed scientific journals in which we publish our ideas and
discoveries. It is certainly the right thing to do - afterall, the
public paid for most of this research, they should be able to see
what their tax dollars have produced. But does the public want to
read these papers? I believe they do. Many non-scientists whose
interest is piqued by science stories in the popular press would love
to learn more about the research directly from scientists who carried
it out. People facing medical decisions would love to read the most
accurate and up to date information about diseases and their
treatments. When they do, they will find that much of the scientific
literature is surprisingly comprehensible to a lay audience (and much
more will be once authors know the public may read their work). And
anyone who reads these papers will be left with a better
understanding of how science works, and why we believe the things we do.

Unfortunately, the public can not access most scientific journals
without paying steep subscription or access fees. Fortunately,
scientists do not have to publish in these journals. The last several
years have seen the birth and growth of ^”open access^‘ journals that
make their contents freely available to anyone with an Internet
connection. These publications invite the public in, and they have
responded ^÷ downloading, reading and even blogging about scientific
articles like never before. Simply by choosing to publish in open
access journals, scientists can honor the importance of public access
and engage the public directly in their work.

But too many scientists still forgo this opportunity. Young
scientists believe that success in their careers depends upon
publishing in the ^—best^“ (read long-established) journals, while
established scientists find the allure of ^—prestige^“ journals too
difficult to resist. When scientists ^÷ many of whose salaries and
research labs are funded exclusively by US taxpayers ^÷ are unwilling
to take simple steps to provide the public access to the research
they fund, how can we blame the citizenry for feeling disengaged from

It is incumbent upon scientists to change this dynamic. We must
ensure that hiring, grant review and tenure committees give heavy
weight to efforts (or lack thereof) to engage the public. But more
importantly, we all must ask ourselves if that Science or Nature
citation is worth furthering the dangerous divide between science and
the public?

Non-scientists can help scientists engage as well. Next time you read
about some cool new scientific advance, find the paper on which this
story is based. If you can^“t access it, email the authors and request
a copy ^÷ and ask them why they didn^“t make it available to you in the
first place. You^“ll be letting them know that the public is
interested in what they do, and holding them accountable for their
decisions. Maybe next time they will publish in a journal that
reaches you.
Received on Fri Dec 23 2005 - 19:11:49 GMT

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