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Originally published Monday, December 16, 2013 at 4:44 PM

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Guest: How to rebuild trust in science

The science community must bring more transparency and inclusiveness to research, writes guest columnist Glenn Hampson.


Special to The Times

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NO pursuit in the history of humankind has had a more positive and profound impact than science. Yet, even today in our techno-wizardry world, public faith in science has hovered at only 45 percent, plus or minus a few percentage points since the mid-1970s. Until recently, at least. Science critics and deniers have managed to lower this level of trust to about 35 percent among conservatives.

In response to these trends and to the serious meanings and criticisms behind them, the science community has been developing new approaches that are poised to usher in a new era of science transparency and inclusiveness.

In November, experts from research institutions throughout the Pacific Northwest gathered at the University of Washington to discuss one such approach: improving science journals.

Since the time of Galileo, journals have served as the official repositories of and vehicles for sharing research. But journals have grown increasingly specialized. The number of journals has doubled every 20 years to exceed 36,000 today.

So while it was possible for a biologist in the 1990s to keep current by reading a few major journals such as Science, Nature and Cell, a biologist’s required reading list in 2013 has fragmented and multiplied into dozens of journals.

This multiplication and fragmentation has had consequences. In some fields scientists now have to read 400 articles a year to stay current. Journalists — who we rely on to identify research news of consequence — must sort through and interpret this ever-growing haystack of science information while their own newsrooms shrink.

This growth has affected quality. The editorial and scientific integrity process called peer review is not uniform from one journal to the next; throughout, scientific language has become nearly impenetrable. This is partly due to overspecialization but also to the internationalization of English as it has become the global language of science.

Costs are another consequence. Journal prices have been increasing rapidly along with the number of journals that libraries need, even as academic budgets are squeezed. Libraries have responded by bundling and cutting subscriptions while smaller research organizations have been pushed into information underload.

And there are consequences to access. Most journals have copyrighted content just like any other book or magazine, which means research gets locked up after publication. In effect, universities must pay to gain usage-restricted access to the very information they paid to develop in the first place.

The possibility that unchecked fraud exists in some lesser journals is an alarming prospect because knowledge is built upon knowledge in science. If some of this latticework is corrupt, then many research studies may need to be retraced and rebuilt.

But there is hope. The open-access movement is one example. More and more research work is being made openly available without fees or copyright restrictions, although this is still the exception.

The system of peer review is also being scrutinized. Scientists are getting more communications training and support. Groundbreaking science collaboration and citizen-science networks are gaining traction, showing how great science can be conducted and shared without involving journals. And the historically close ties and mechanisms that link journals to academic promotion and tenure are being re-evaluated.

Will these measures help? Yes, but they will also unlock new challenges. Are we ready to become better-educated consumers of science information? Can we democratize science information without losing the benefits of peer review?

Will easier access to science result in better public policies and more discovery, or just more noise and misunderstanding? Can the intellectual-property rights that protect the bulk of science data be loosened so that sharing this data can benefit all of science and humanity?

The vast promise of science to humankind can and must be preserved. Journal publishing reforms will help. In the meantime, keep the faith.

Glenn Hampson is the executive director of the National Science Communication Institute in Seattle. Website: www.nationalscience.org



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