Making Research Both Available and Accessible: Going Beyond Open Access
The number and scope of journals have exploded since the 17th century. Thousands of new papers are published daily, and the rate of publication is only increasing.
In the past, only scholars at well-funded universities or research institutions could access the full breadth of published knowledge. The Internet has facilitated new channels for information, scientific publishing has become primarily digital, and open access (OA) has challenged the traditional publishing model.
Open access research and its advantages
In OA, articles are published online completely free for readers, helping articles reach broader audiences than ever. Since OA became popular, fully OA publishers such as BioMed Central have appeared and major traditional publishers such as Elsevier or Springer Nature, and even the US government have begun to embrace OA. Together, these developments signal that OA is becoming the new paradigm in scientific publishing.
Overcoming walls beyond paywalls
Despite its advantages, OA is not the end of the story in accessibility. The general public and citizen scientists are becoming increasingly engaged with scientific papers. Despite this, summarizing papers in an easily understandable way is usually an afterthought.
Discoverability: Finding a needle in a stack of needles
If you have ever published something non-scientific, you’ll know that you can’t simply put something online and get thousands of clicks without advertising, social media strategy, or search engine optimization. Journal articles are similar. The number of published papers has risen 8-9% per year for decades, which makes staying abreast of the latest research harder than ever. Researchers spend more time searching for papers than they spend reading them. Making sure that your paper reaches people is challenging, which highlights the importance of presenting information in noticeable, shareable forms.
Clarity: Plain language is essential
Increasingly, laypeople are turning to scientific publication. One 2018 study found that journal articles are now the third most important source for patients seeking medical information. Most researchers are thrilled when their work reaches more eyes. However, OA does not make an article useful to all who see it, and most readers are unfamiliar with the structure and often-complex language of these articles.
The language barrier is another consideration. Most scientific publications are in English, yet most authors and readers are non-native speakers. For example, China has many researchers, but they usually speak Mandarin Chinese as their first language. Researchers—or indeed laypeople—who lack confidence in their English may struggle to read articles with complex grammar and long sentences.
Therefore, even when the subject matter is complex, providing clear, plain language summaries of research is vital to ensuring that research is useful to the greatest number of people. Making research accessible and understandable across audiences is particularly important in fields that directly affect people’s lives and livelihoods, such as the health and environmental sciences.
Open Access and Climate Justice
Open Access Week 2022 focuses on collaboration in the climate justice movement and the importance of freely sharing environmental and climate research. Many in the public still question the very existence of climate problems, which disproportionately affects the Global South. It is vital that the public is empowered by access to accurate information that will allow them act.
Citizen scientists are increasingly vital to gathering data and disseminating information, particularly in climate science. One well-known citizen scientist project is the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network, which crowdsources precipitation data. This project, which is sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation of the USA, fills in crucial gaps in data to improve climate modeling.
In brief, with climate justice becoming increasingly important, research on climate issues needs to be disseminated to the widest possible audiences. Summarizing a research article for lay audiences should not be an afterthought—it is becoming an increasingly vital aspect of boosting scientific literacy among a broader audience and ensuring that the research has the maximum possible impact.