Roll up! Roll up! The dawn of Open Access (OA) format has begun, thus making it possible (and indeed incentivised) for scientists to make their research freely accessible to all! This represents a historical breakthrough; research will no longer be the sole captive of subscription-only journals as was traditionally the case, with new guidelines ensuring that everyone can now access more research than ever, for free.
The OA policy published by Research Councils UK, which governs seven research councils with an approximate annual investment in research of £3 billion, suggests that making publicly-funded research available to the “general tax-paying public” is a central objective of this reform.
However, one could argue that merely making research available is not enough; research needs to also be accessible, i.e. easily understandable. It is my hunch that in some scientific fields the general public (myself included) would need a translator to be able to digest this material.
“Member of general public WLTM accessible Science w/GSoH. Seeking the uncomplicated and reliable. Willing to relocate. Will answer all.”
I could not illustrate this point more elegantly than to recall Marc Abrams’s speech (founder of the Ig Nobel Prize award for whacky research), at the British Neuroscience Association Festival of Neuroscience in 2012. In his talk he described a paper co-authored by his friend and colleague, the late Jerome Lettvin, the purpose of which was to amass and combine random technical jargon and formulae with the express purpose of writing nonsense. The outcome of this publication was a whirlwind of praise, invitations to speak and the receipt of many prestigious job offers: An illustration of the affliction of science. It seems that the more incomprehensible the content, the greater the acclaim – something that has contributed to the notion that to become a consumer of science one must be part of The Club. Happily though, this need not be the case as many researchers are now turning to blogging and the use of social media platforms to entice people back to the world of science in a friendly and, importantly, accessible way.
So how can we ‘get’ ourselves some science? Here’s just three of the ways I’ve found to be useful in finding and understanding new ideas outside of my field of interest, all of which require very little effort:
1. Read reliable blogs – if you’re already reading this then you’ve achieved point one on the list. Congratulations!
2. Follow scientists and science journalists on twitter – Science in 140 characters?! Yes Please! Perfect for those idol moments like standing in the lunch queue, or waiting for the bus; and often with links to more information if you want it. If you don’t know where to start, pick a scientist or science writer that covers broad topics, and see who they follow in turn. I saw a talk about science writing by Ed Yong (http://edyong.flavors.me/) whose blog is hosted by National Geographic (http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/blog/not-exactly-rocket-science/) and started following him. In turn I found similar writers whose style I liked. This method tends to cause your ‘Following’ list to grow exponentially, but fear not! You can use the ‘Lists’ option to organise the tweets you want to see at the appropriate times. I also comment on tweets and make sure to add my own hashtag such as #foodiegems or #neurogems. This effectively stamps the tweets I’m interested in for various reasons with my unique marker, and I can later retrieve all of these by searching for that hashtag. No, it’ll never be trending, but it’s a cool way to organise info you want to come back to. Remember to make sure it’s a very individual hashtag or else you’ll find yourself scrolling through unrelated tweets.
3. Go to events! There are a number of affordable or FREE public science events around Manchester, which are usually fairly informal and laid back. Combine a beer (or non-alcoholic beverage) with Science at Café Scientifique (http://www.cafescientifique.manchester.ac.uk/), or if you missed the Pint of Science Festival in May this year (http://www.pintofscience.com/) put it in your diary for 2015! Alternatively if you think that watching an awkward academic explain their topic and combine this with stand-up (and/or other performing arts), keep an eye out for Bright Club Manchester events (http://www.manchesterbeacon.org/members/172/Bright-Club-Manchester). And don’t forget SciBar on the last Monday of every month, held at The Salutation Pub, organised by Manchester Metropolitan University (https://www.theunionmmu.org/your-space/the-salutation/).
It’s clear that science can be somewhat out-of-reach at times, and that admirably, OA will provide a partial solution to this. However, in its current form it is still a little way off providing a fully viable solution to those of us from the general public who wish to engage with more science on a day-to-day basis. Access to science might be improving, but ‘getting’ it still needs a little work from all parties.
Post by Gemma Barnacle