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How Open Access Publishing can help to imprint science discoveries in our cultural memory

A guest post from Grace Kago, Ph.D. candidate in the Interdisciplinary Life Sciences Graduate Program (ILSGP) at the University of Texas at Austin.

The spread of misinformation about basic biology concepts has run rampant in the current Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic time, posing a significant barrier to managing the spread of COVID-19. Throughout the pandemic, one of the credibility-deflating factors in the global public-health institutional messaging has been the flurry of amendments and modifications of recommended safety practices.

For many in the world of scientific research, the idea of recommendations that keep changing and evolving is not so foreign, due to the iterative and incremental nature of scientific research. Each paper or discovery is often based on a cumulative body of observations, clever experiments, and sometimes contradictions. These all congeal together over time to pave the way to the understanding of a specific biological phenomenon. In contrast, many non-scientists engage with scientific knowledge in its final, polished form. Thus, the idea of knowledge and information as plastic and constantly evolving is in diametrically opposed to what is “expected” of scientists.

What does the concept of Open Access Publishing have to do with this conundrum? I posit two answers: First, that more access to peer-reviewed scientific research is one step towards dismantling the idea of knowledge as static, and secondly, that open access publishing provides critical resources to equip science writers, communicators, and journalists to help non-scientists stay abreast of new developments. For many science writers, communicators, and journalists, having access to primary literature makes it easier to curate timely critical discourse on published research. The more such conversations can occur, the better non-scientists will be able to engage and dialogue with scientific discoveries as they emerge, change, evolve, and grow. One of the facets of cultural memory in every country on the globe includes a certain level of fascination with the lives of celebrities like TV Stars, Musicians, and Athletes. The machinations that drive the relevance of the celebrity industry are based on access to the minutiae of celebrity day-to-day lives. We ingest carefully sculpted vignettes about their lives, aspirations, achievements, and challenges and imprint them in our cultural and societal memory. Are we not able to also market more scientific discoveries with similar enthusiasm and frequency? Can we not similarly imprint scientific discoveries in our cultural and societal memory? I wager that we can, and that a key piece of the puzzle is by making sure that those who can craft compelling narratives have ready access to primary literature. An increase in accessible and engaging content that is bolstered by primary research will in turn increase our exposure to a critical mass of current and relevant reporting of scientific discoveries.

One more example can be highlighted in one of the often-stated critiques about COVID-19 vaccine safety. There are critics whose distrust of the vaccine is hinged on the idea that vaccine development took place “too quickly”. A careful look at subject literature reveals that the tips and tricks used by structural biologists and immunologists to design stable immune system-stimulating molecules were developed in the design of vaccine candidates against infectious viruses like Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS) and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) several years ago (1). The technology necessary to deliver varied types of nanoparticles to cells is the subject of extensive scholarship that encompasses the fields of drug delivery, biomechanics, and biomedical and chemical engineering, to name a few. The feasibility of messenger-RNA (mRNA) as a therapeutic has been in contention for many decades (2). Thus, none of the pieces that facilitated the development of the COVID-19 vaccine are “new” per se. However, because our collective cultural and societal memory does not actively include research discoveries, it is hard to place these discoveries in their right historical context. So, my hope is that providing access to primary literature will support more science journalists, communicators, and writers to produce enough timely and relevant reports on scientific discoveries that can be included in our collective social and cultural memories.

  1. Cross, R. (2020, September 29). The tiny tweak behind COVID-19 vaccines. C&EN. Retrieved September 9, 2021, from https://cen.acs.org/pharmaceuticals/vaccines/tiny-tweak-behind-COVID-19/98/i38.
  2. Sahin, U., Karikó, K., & Türeci, Ö. (2014). mRNA-based therapeutics—developing a new class of drugs. Nature reviews Drug discovery, 13(10), 759-780.
Discussion
  1. Agree! I think we need to convey more information on research as it comes out and the historical facts and experiments that led to the present time achievements. In that way people will keep a memory of scientific development through time and will, perhaps, have more confidence in recent developments that are the result of years of research.

  2. This blog quite reasonably focuses on the way in which science has been received by the public during the pandemic. It suggests that many have become sceptical because of the change in findings and conclusions over a relatively short time, and that possibly quicker access to information through more open science might be a remedy.

    However, the scientific epoch covered by the COVID time window has not reflected how scientific communication generally takes place. There has been much more interest during this period in scientific results and a greater intensity of publishing on the COVD theme than would be seen in normal times – with a broad range of articles published in a relatively short period of time. Thus, what we have seen during this brief snapshot might more resemble what would usually play out with an approach where open science was more broadly embraced.

    If this is true, it suggests we need other remedies. One aspect of scientific communication that is more prominent when publication at a slower rate is the norm, is that more input is evident from expert groups, generally unimpeded by conventional politics. We saw very little input based on deliberations by broader scientific groups over the last year, possibly because the relevant information was being produced so quickly. What collective views we did receive were generally from groups auspiced by Government, which of their nature are unable to participate fully in ‘open science’. Possibly, a strategy that ensures more frequent outputs from apolitical scientific bodies would enhance a more credible public interaction.

  3. I think this is a timely discuss and should be further encouraged and propagated.
    It will certainly improve interest in science research and reading because it becomes less of an abstract to the lay public and even to science researchers who have limitations attending conferences on a continuous basis.

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