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Archived Comments for: Ethics of open access to biomedical research: Just a special case of ethics of open access to research

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  1. From "publish or perish" to "fresh or perishing": the potential impact of online publication and commenting on how science will be done

    Yuntao Wu, George Mason University

    3 May 2008

    The open access online publication with its numerous new features such as online commenting has opened a new avenue for rapid dissemination and exchange of scientific information. In particular, the "online comments" feature provides a new tool that allows a continuous and evolving life-time peer review. This has never been achieved before. However, this new comment feature appears to be "vastly underutilized across all open-access journals" (Dr. Michael Schwartz, personal communication). There may be several hurdles that could discourage commenting. In some cases, this may be related to obligatory relinquishing of anonymity. Although in some academic fields there appears to be a slow relaxing of anonymous review, in many others such as my own field, anonymity is important and every paper published has been peer-reviewed anonymously. The online comments require a user identity. This presents the same difficulty as a non-anonymous peer-review.

    Perhaps every online journal should have a moderator in charge of the comment section, in addition to the editor. People who make comments should reveal their identity only to this "comment editor". Short comments are welcomed, read by the comment editor, and if appropriate, instantly posted.

    Perhaps each online journal may also adopt a rating system for published articles.

    Once when I took my 12-year-old daughter to see a movie, she suggested a quick online check for the "freshness' of the movie on a website ( For those who have not been to the site, it is essentially a database of movies reviewed and rated by moviegoers. Through my daughter's education, I was amazed to realize that every film (the tomato) has a rating, either "fresh" (highly rated) or "rotten" (not recommended). For example, you can type in "The Scent of Green Papaya" (1993, director: Tran Anh Hung), and you will see a 100% freshness, a highly recommended foreign film even after many years. You can also type in "Half Past Dead" (2002, director: Don Michael Paul), and you will see only a 2% freshness left. The "tomato" certainly got rotten after a short time.

    To apply this model to the scientific community, the peers would also be the audience. The online commenting reflects how your peers will treat your publication both initially and in a long run. I believe that in the future, the current peer-review system will be replaced by the new online review and comments. It will certainly foster a better way of doing science, promoting quality (freshness). Speedy publication may not matter as much as the quality of a "fresh" manuscript which will have a lasting impact. Only truthful data and good science will survive and will be respected by a large pool of peer audience. Additionally, allowing the whole community to watch and join the reviews and responses would make the entire process of peer review more transparent, thorough and honest.

    We are coming into an era of information explosion. Crossing boundaries between disciplines unavoidably makes it difficult to define who is your "peer". The traditional peer-review by a few selected will face the growing limitation of finding the right person who can truly appreciate the novelty of innovation. With online social networks booming, the younger generation is far more adapted to the web than we are. The internet is changing the way of scientific communication. This will eventually impact how science will be performed.

    Sincerely yours,

    Yuntao Wu, Ph.D


    I thank Michael Schwartz, Anqi Wu for discussions, Jeremy Kelly for editorial assistance.

    Competing interests

    None declared

  2. Comments on Stevan Harnad's “Ethics of Open Access to Biomedical research: Just a Special case of Ethics of Open Access to Research.”

    Lisa Hussey, BioMed Central

    22 July 2008

    This comment has been posted on behalf of Dr Jean-Claude Guédon, Professor of Comparative Literature at the Université de Montréal:

    Stevan Harnad's argument rests on the premise that the world of research is largely separate from the rest of the world, and that researchers write primarily for researchers. This is false, of course because researchers, whatever their conscious motivation, also write for non-researchers. In fact, most researchers actually welcome writing for wider audiences because they feel that it makes their research generally more useful and valuable. In short, any scientific article can be safely assumed to reach beyond the boundaries of research (if such boundaries do indeed exist) and to take its full meaning (cognitive, social and institutional) only from the combination of research and non-research recognition.

    This said, Harnad's argument that Open Access to biomedical research is just a special case of Open Access to research is correct, except that my interpretation of “special case” will lead me to reach a conclusion that is exactly contrary to Harnad's. Any scientific and scholarly article is more widely read, and better recognized and acknowledged (for example through citations) if it is in Open Access. It must be remembered that acknowledgment is the product of both research and non-research readers and that it cannot be limited to citation counts in subsequent research articles (impact).

    Although a mere special case of scientific research, biomedical research is particularly striking in this regard. It is crucial for practicing doctors who need access to the most recent research papers to treat their patients optimally. Medical researcher know this and they write also for this particular group of readers. In so doing, they remind everyone that their work feeds both similar work (research) and other kinds of work (curing patients). Harnad does open the door to practitioners, but he does not seem to see that the argument applied to practitioners would apply also to teachers – imagine doctors being trained by doctors that do not have access to the current literature. Finally, patients and their parents and friends can also make extremely good use of the research literature and the practitioner argument recurs in this context as well. Knowing about these extended audiences would certainly please most researchers and may even constitute an important source of motivation for their work.

    The world of research is not an isolated ivory tower. Neither should it be treated as if it were. Research is supported in large part by public money. It is not surprising that its uses extend beyond research itself, and, in fact, are expected to do so. This situation, far from being deplored or downgraded, should be welcomed. It does not hurt research in the least to find itself located within a continuum extending from the most rarefied, theoretical and intellectual realms to the very applied sectors that come close to development, and to education and public interest. In the latter case, Open Access may end up redefining the meaning of “popularized science”.

    It is not reasonable to ask of Open Access what is not asked of science or scholarship. The primary rationale for Open Access obviously encompasses researcher-to-researcher access, but it also includes practitioners, teachers and the wider public. It is not possible to declare research a public good and simultaneously treat it as if it mattered only to researchers.

    Competing interests

    Dr Guédon declares that he has no competing interests.

  3. Greening the Ivory Tower

    Stevan Harnad, U Quebec a Montreal & U Southampton

    23 July 2008

    I said that researchers write primarily for researchers. Jean-Claude Guédon commented: "This is false, of course because researchers, whatever their conscious motivation, also write for non-researchers." (Does that contradict what I said?)

    My point was that the rationale for providing free online access (Open Access, OA) to research is that it makes research accessible to those users for whom research is primarily written: the other researchers worldwide who can use, apply and build upon it, leading to further research progress and applications, for the benefit of the general public.

    Of course OA makes research accessible to the general public too, and to the extent that non-researchers want to access it, they are welcome to do so. (But apart from some fields of health sciences and a few other special fields, public interest in research is not very likely.)

    And non-researcher access is certainly not the primary reason why research urgently needs to be made OA; nor is it the primary rationale (conscious or unconscious) with which to persuade researchers to make their research OA, nor is it the primary rationale with which to persuade researchers' institutions and funders to mandate that researchers should make their research OA.

    Guédon writes "The world of research is not an isolated ivory tower." True. But that welcome fact is not going to get us OA either.

    Competing interests