Making a Case for Open Access

On October 28th, the global scientific community wrapped up the Open Access Week. Open Access Week (according to wikipedia, and fact-checked by is a scholarly communication event that focuses on Open Access and related topics. Events include talks, digital seminars, symposia, curated blog communities, or the announcement of open access mandates or other milestones in open access. All free of charge, of course.

This is well and good (very good in my opinion), but what is Open Access and what does it mean to me? First and foremost Open Access means information (often in the form of peer reviewed publications) that is freely available to anyone who seeks it. Which is, strangely, not always or even typically the case.

I published my first manuscript shortly after finishing my master’s degree at Oregon State University. I’m early enough in my career that I still have a visceral memory of the joy associated with getting the acceptance notification. When the manuscript finally made it out in the journal, I emailed my undergraduate field technicians – beaming with excitement – to share this enormous accomplishment with them.

One of them, a first generation college student and a woman of color, wrote me back: “My mom doesn’t have a library login, am I allowed to share this with her?” I didn’t know the answer, the paper was not published in an open access journal. I said yes, because I believed it was the right thing to do.

My student’s mother is not an academic, but she read the manuscript and beamed with pride herself to see her daughter’s name mentioned in the acknowledgments section. She shared the manuscript at work, paraphrasing it the way her daughter had paraphrased it for her. In this way the paper grew legs and slipped quietly out of the ivory tower and onto the streets, which ultimately is where research belongs.

The sharing of information is ingrained in the modern technological world. I can freely download secret family recipes, instructions on how to change a flat tire, poems by e.e. cummings and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, or algebraic proofs. I cannot however, without some sort of institutional login, freely download peer reviewed literature on the media’s influence (or lack thereof) on frequent dieting in adolescent girls. Why? Cookies are free, but legitimate studies on social pressures and health is available only to those affiliated with an institution? Without pointing fingers, it is time for the research community to shift our own culture, and value the dissemination of work above all. Open access seems to be one of the torches being carried in support of this goal.

The move to open access publishing is palpable. Even journals that function on a traditionally subscription based model still have an open access option (at a hefty, dare I say, occasionally insurmountable fee of $2-$7k). Nonetheless, this is an important transition in the culture of science. Until the open access movement gained legitimacy, the potentially dramatic skew in access to scientific information – which is disproportionately biased against independent researchers, small NGO’s, and the general public – remained unchecked. Open access allows us, as a scientific community, to make a commitment to minimizing access disparity, and maximizing access to merit based research across subjects.

But open access publishing is only the first step. Opening the front door is not the same as giving someone directions to the house.

Open access publications ensure equal access. But equality and equity are not equivalent. Equality is about sameness – everyone gets to read the paper. Equity is about fairness – each person has the ability to find, and also understand the paper. As researchers we have developed a vocabulary that we’ll gently call ‘inaccessible’ to many, if not most. This phenomenon is so widespread that without batting an eyelash we’ll ask a scientist to quickly summarize their work for ‘non-specialists’, with the cogent implication that this means simplifying it to the utmost. While the vocabulary of research is to a large degree topically specific (one cannot talk about osmosis without using the word ‘osmosis’ at least once), the language of research has grown so obtuse that we ask “Do elasmobranchs possess the cognitive ability to discriminate between complex auditory cues?” rather than asking “can a shark tell the difference between two types of music?” (You can read this compelling study here, for a subscribers fee). I feel quite confident that my grandmother understands what it means to play music to sharks, but complex auditory cues may not get much of a reaction.

So yes, open access publishing levels the accessibility playing field (this is the equality portion of publishing). However, publishing research in an open access journal does little to increase the scope of dissemination to the members in our global community who may most benefit from the information (this is the equity part of the conversation). We have some choices to make. Is equity important enough to us as a community that we will shift both our language and our access? Do we cultivate a research culture in which every scientific manuscript is accompanied by straightforward translation? If I can successfully write an entire manuscript in “layman’s english” will my peer reviewers accept it?

Albert Einstein wrote “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” As a research community we are moving in the right direction, but let us do more than remove all of the fences from the trees and post signs that say “Climb me”. Let’s examine how we can be better communicators of our work, both in the peer review literature and beyond it.

The Student is the Teacher

Classes have started again here at OSU.  I know this is old news for those east coast universities that start classes in late August or early September, but here in Ye Olde Oregon fall starts late… so school starts late.  As a PhD student I’m no longer required to take classes at the university, and having just pushed the paperwork through on our National Park Service Grant I will soon be exclusively a GRA (graduate research assistant) and will no longer be required to teach courses either.  For now, however, I am both student and teacher — taking classes and teaching them.

FW255 student James tests out the directional microphone during a playback study at Finley Wildlife Refuge.

I love teaching.  Rare for many researchers I know, but for me – true.  I find it helps me to synthesize my thoughts, to approach science creatively and simply, and to consistently reference back to the basics.  In my tenure as a graduate student at OSU I’ve been privileged to both TA and instruct classes in basic biology, ecology, intro to anatomy, physiology and disease, marine biology, marine mammal science, marine habitats, and (my all time favorite) field sampling.  FW255 — field sampling — is a required course for all of our Fisheries and Wildlife undergraduate students; I’ve been a GTA (graduate teaching assistant) under the brilliant and compassionate guidance of biological oceanographer and community ecologist Dr. Doug Reese for four quarters.  The course gives students the opportunity (under the instructors’ guidance) to design and execute field studies at the Finley Wildlife Refuge.  Courses range from comparing predator habitat use, to investigating the impacts of beaver dams on water clarity, to chronicling avian community structure.  I know. Our students are impressive, creative, young minds.

When your classroom looks like this teaching is heavenly.

When your classroom looks like this… teaching is heavenly

For my part I see participating in this course as an opportunity to introduce undergraduate students to acoustic ecology.  In my tenure I’ve guided students through studies that seek to aquatically detect amphibian species, investigate the impact of diel vs. nocturnal raptors on songbird communities, and studies that use acoustics (playbacks and recordings in this case) to test for territorial responses of red-winged blackbirds to encroaching yellow-headed blackbirds. Currently we’re starting up two playback studies; one study uses acoustic playbacks to investigate the impact of raptors on waterfowl, the other which will asses behavioral responses of elk to breeding calls (assuming we can find the elk — backup plan includes tracking elk and using trail cams.  No student left behind here).

While there’s a lot to love about teaching this class (I spend two days a week hiking through a wildlife refuge looking for animals, I can pay my rent each month), there are a few things that really strike me as I start up my fourth quarter interacting with our students in the field.  First, I have a lot to learn.  Whenever I start to feel like I understand something in its entirety, be it about ecology or about bioacoustics, a student asks me a question I don’t know the answer to.  I then go home, look it up, and learn something for the both of us.  It is simultaneously refreshing, inspiring, and humbling.  Good qualities for any PhD student to embody.

Second, teaching is valuable.  While I believe that my research has, and will continue to have an impact of the world around me, when I teach I can see the impact.  My students start the quarter not knowing how to do something (“What is a quadrat?”), perhaps lacking direction (a.k.a. don’t know how to operate a GPS), and are sometimes a little short in the inspiration department (“What study do you think I should do, Michelle?”), but when then leave?  By the time my students hand in their final papers — a full scale research paper, intro, methods, results, & discussions, stats and all — I can see that they have changed (“We used a one square meter quadrat to investigate insect biodiversity between the upland forest and the agricultural lowland riparian zone”). Further, the relationships that I see unfolding in our class between the students and their groups, and the students and Doug and myself, are proof to me that doing science is a powerful tonic for a healthy life.  Not everyone loves teaching, not everyone gets it, but for me (at least for now) it’s nourishing to put big picture impacts into real world perspective.

So yes, I am a teacher.  Yes, I am a student. The teacher is a student & the students are the teachers.

But enough with philosophy (Niki’s really much better at that than I am).  While 99% of the time I love teaching… no one can deny that this is also true.  Cross your fingers and I may just graduate some day.