Open access, the new paradigm

Read time: 5 mins

Paolo Rossi, the historian of ideas who passed away at the beginning of the year, claimed that modern science began in the 17th century when a paradigm was broken down: the «paradigm of secrecy». Communicate everything to everyone. Thus enabling everyone to criticize everyone.

John Ziman, a theoretical physicist and expert in «scientist's work» states, as can be seen in the title of one of his books, that science is a social activity which tends to reach a «rational consensus of opinion» in the widest field possible. Science activity has two dimensions: one is private (observe nature, elaborate explanations) and the other one is public (communicate the results of research, whether it be theoretical or experimental). The second part is equally as important as the first. There is no science without communicating science. In fact the communication system is the scientific community's fundamental social institution. An institution whose features are characterized by total transparency and accessibility.

It is to take into account these two assumptions that, probably, the Royal Society of London recently issued the Science as an open enterprise report, which was put together by a vast working group headed by Geoffrey Boulton, professor emeritus of geology at the University of Edinburgh. The report is quite clear as can be seen by its title: science is and must remain an open enterprise. Transparent research is its beating heart. Public communication of scientific theories – and experimental data and the observations they are based on – allow everyone to analyze them, make them their own, criticize them, refuse them or use them for new research and to create new knowledge. Science's successes depend on its powerful ability to correct itself. And science's powerful ability to correct itself, as the Royal Society reminds us, depends on the total transparency of its system.

For a long time, the science communication system was based on using journals (with peer review, with ex ante critical analysis on the colleagues' part who are experts on the authors) through subscriptions. The first historical example are the Philosophical Transactions, which were published in 1665 by the Royal Society. Well, today there are 4 facts that obligate us to preserve the substance of the value and practice of «communicate everything to everyone».

The first is the enormous growth of the scientific community: in just over one century the number of researchers increased considerably, from roughly 80.000 at the end of the 19th century to over 7 million today. The growth was accompanied, in recent years, by a rapid internationalization. Both in the sense that science is carried out in many more countries, and in the sense that many more groups of people are doing science in various countries. All of this has brought to an enormous increase in communication: in the number of published articles and in the number of magazines publishing them. However, this has, along with the development of technologies, brought to an even more explosive increase in the quantity of data that is produced and preserved.   

The second fact is the enormous change in communication technology. Nowadays, with computers and Internet it is possible to communicate everything to everyone in real time. However, there are two facts that are creating an obstacle for communicating everything to everyone.

The first is the difficulty in accessing the communication. It's impossible because of the physical space needed and because of the extremely high subscription costs thus making it impossible for any library to contain all the scientific communication.
The second obstacle is the request by private companies who now finance a large part of research throughout the world – but also many countries, for security reasons – to keep secrets rather than communicate the research results. These facts contradict themselves. The time has come to solve this thorny issue. And the problem, according to the Royal Society can be solved only in one way: restoring total transparency to science. Communicating everything to everyone. Technology allows us to do this: all that needs to be done is to create on-line “open access” magazines. All that is needed is the will and limited resources.

“Open science” with on-line “open access” magazines can become a political objective: by governments or, perhaps, the European Union.

“Open science” with on-line “open access” magazines, according to the Royal Society, must become an objective for scientific community and governments. For at least eight different reasons. Six can be found, so to speak, inside the scientific community: preserve the ability to 'self-correct' without which there is no science; make information available to everybody, because this is the motor that is needed to produce new knowledge; create a system that allows the enormous amount of data to be inter-linked (inter-linking an enormous amount of data could lead to a new paradigm in science, the fourth, after the first two – elaborating theories and experimental research – and after the advent of computer simulation); not only publish articles, but all the data that made their elaboration possible (this is impossible through paper documents); experiment new forms of computer simulation; experiment with technology that makes it easier to create new forms of collaboration and new research networks.

The other two reasons they suggest – actually almost impose – is the creation of an on-line “open access” communication system with reference to the relationship between science and society. Complete transparency is an essential condition for increasing the non-expert publics' trust in science. Furthermore, on-line “open access” communication creates more and better dialog between science and citizens. We've already talked about this in a previous article: the British government has decided to adhere to Royal Society's proposal.

It is important that Italy too adheres. In order to create both the premise for a “democratic society founded on knowledge” and so as not to remain again behind in a process that is, also, technologically innovative. But the important thing is that the Royal Society's objective – which should undergo critical analysis, obviously – should be carried out by the European Union. Science, the ability to innovate technologically and widespread knowledge have, for 500 years, given this old and small continent a primary role in the world. If Europe wants to get out of the present crisis, it needs to do so through science, technological innovation and widespread   knowledge.

Scienzainrete will do its part, in Italy and in Europe, so that these processes can come into being.

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