… “it was a very big year, I think, for open access”
Stephen Curry is a Professor of Structural Biology at Imperial. We spoke to him about blogging, open access and what you need to be a science communicator…
You started blogging a few years ago, what prompted you to start Reciprocal Space?
I saw it as a way of fulfilling my duties to get involved in public engagement. One of the things you have to do when you apply for a grant is outline what are you going to do to tell the public about your work if you get this money. And I never really knew what to put in those sections. So science blogging seemed a good way to fulfil that aspiration. I always thought it was important; I think that as publicly funded researchers we have a duty to give a good account of ourselves and to make our work accessible. But in practice it’s hard to do and this seemed a fairly effective way. You could build an audience and write about your work.
Are there risks associated with blogging?
I think the reputation of blogging has improved over recent years but certainly when I started it was regarded as a slightly shifty activity. And then there’s the concern about audience – it’s all very well writing a blog but who’s going to read it? Also, if I was going to write about our current research, I obviously wouldn’t want to give away details that would give an advantage to our competitors, would undermine our ability to publish our work or would undermine the careers of myself or my research group. So I did think about it for a long time before starting, but eventually I started in about September 2008, but it’s been good.
And from there you’ve done some work for the Guardian as well?
I initially made contact with the Guardian over a piece that Simon Jenkins had written. Myself and a colleague, Bill Hanage, had a chance to write a rebuttal. That was kind of a first contact and after that, I had a few other opportunities to write for them (they got in touch with me over the issue of open access). Now they’ve expanded their science blogging network, and it’s an interesting innovation. All newspapers are struggling financially and the Guardian has gone for a fairly open model of journalism whereby they invite a lot of people to give comments, and as part of that they have expanded their science blog network. And so the particular group that I write a science blog with were invited to join up with that in the summer last year. So we’ve been going at that ever since.
Open access has featured a lot on your blog, can you tell us a bit about this?
Well I’ve been writing about it for about a year, but it was the major theme of my blog last year. It might have put off some readers, or bored some of them to tears, but it was a very big year, I think, for open access.
And why is it so important?
It comes back to this principle of the public duty that scientists ought to feel towards their paymasters, which ultimately in many cases, is the taxpayer. Through our current model of scientific publishing, they are often excluded from access to work that they have paid for. Cultural changes have been wrought by the rise of the world wide web, changing perceptions about how information can, and should, be distributed and disseminated. Critics liken open access to the file sharing of music and videos, which is infringement of copyright. But it’s entirely different because in the case of scientific publishing, the vast majority of the cost associated with producing, reviewing, editing, and scientific literature are largely paid for by the work of publicly funded scientists.
At the minute, we have a system generated from when publishing things in printed journals was the only effective means of distributing the information. That then led to the rise of many private companies. As part of insuring their business model, publishing houses then demand the copyright of the final articles printed in the paper, which is basically conceded to them for free by the authors during the publication process. The publishers’ view is that they add a lot of value to the enterprise; they organise peer review, copy edit, present information in a nice way, archive it all, and some of them have also developed web interfaces. I think the difficulty is that they have an inflated sense of the value – the vast majority of the value comes from the authors and the reviewers and the editors. There’s another pressure the growth of science. There are more scientists around, more articles and more journals. We are getting to a stage whereby the system is unsustainable and few universities can afford to pay all the subscriptions for all the journals that people would like to access. People don’t really know how much they’re paying.
How much does, Imperial College say, pay per year?
In the order of five million pounds. In total in the UK, the higher education system pays about £150 million per year, and that cost has gone up and up. And it’s effectively unsustainable. Partly it’s gone up because the market isn’t very transparent and it’s dominated by a few key players. I see open access as a way of having a more transparent market in the long term and helping to drive down the cost of publication. But also, at the same time, of releasing the information, enabling it to be shared more rapidly worldwide and with the general public.
Obviously you have come from a very strong scientific background, as a science communicator, do you this it is necessary to have such a strong scientific background?
That’s a good question. I don’t know… to some degree I see the rise of this profession of science communication as an affront almost to scientists because the presumption is that they can’t communicate science and therefore we have to train people specially to do it. You don’t hear of economics or history communicators and I wonder why that is – what is it about science? Now to a degree there seems to be a demand. I teach a science communication course within the context of a science degree and I would like to see it integrated more. I would like to see more scientists actually taking their responsibilities seriously in that regard.
But I do think experience in science is important. I think that’s one of the values that I can bring to an activity like science blogging because I’m a working scientist. So I think someone who has done an undergraduate degree in science and then maybe even a masters degree still doesn’t have much of an idea of how science really works. Obviously one can have a great deal of technical knowledge about the science but it’s the process and the politics that you don’t necessarily have an insight into. You start to get that, and I really emphasise ’start’, as a PhD student. As a PhD student you go in, there’s a project there, its funded, you do the project. It’s only later when you are a post doctoral researcher and starting to apply for money when you start to think how is it that you make a success; what’s a fundable project, that’s going to work, that’s going to produce papers, that’s going to help career progression. All those questions you don’t really face until you get beyond a PhD.
So, yes, at one level there is great value in having science communicators. I also feel very strongly that it’s a core duty of every scientist. Now not every scientist will necessarily be that enthusiastic about the activity but I think that many should at least be able to try. As a scientist, if you cannot explain your work to someone at a dinner party, I think that’s a deficiency.
Katherine Powell is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication and is one of the editors of Refractive Index.