With the tragic death of Aaron Schwartz, the open-access movement has entered the public consciousness with bittersweet abruptness. For those that have not followed the story, Aaron is a bit of a folk hero (now martyr) in the open-access community. As a teenager and veritable prodigy, he helped develop RSS 1.0 (the web feed used in publishing and accessing frequently updated information, e.g. this blog). Later in his young life, he became a co-owner of Reddit and a fellow at Harvard’s Center for Ethics. Aaron believed in the free and open exchange of information. In particular, he (like many other proponents of the open-access movement) believed that academic journal publishers should make published articles freely available to the public. The logic being that much of this research is funded through tax payer money (NSF, NIH, etc.), and that tax payers should have access to such findings. In 2011, Aaron allegedly hacked into JSTOR (an online archive of published academic journals), downloaded 4.8 million documents, and released them to the public. With his trial set for later this year (and facing decades in prison), Aaron took his own life last week. In memoriam , many scientists have bucked publishers by releasing their articles for free through a “PDF tribute” on Twitter (#pdftribute).
Just prior to Aaron’s suicide I had a conversation with a member of my committee on the pros and cons of open access to scientific journals. I told this person that although I would like to publish much of my dissertation in open-access journals (PLoS Biology, the PeerJ, eLife, etc.), I often feel handcuffed by expectations of my committee and brand recognition of “high impact journals” among peers and future colleagues. None of my current papers are published in open-access journals, however I’d like to change that for the remaining parts of my dissertation. Over the next few weeks, I’ll have to get my committee on board.
The discussion with my committee member and Aaron’s death prompted me to do a little digging into the open-access movement in science. Open-access is just one branch of a growing “open science” or “science 2.0″ movement. The “open science”movement’s credo: can be summarized as this: “open source, open data, open access, open notebook.” For a full description see this entry from The Open Science Movement. As a primatologist (and more broadly a behavioral ecologist) finishing a Ph.D. and defining my future research program, I often ask myself, “How do I make my research more open? More importantly, “How do I help advance the field (primatology/behavioral ecology) through openness in methods and dissemination of results?” I established this blog several years ago to serve as a bit of a field journal, but I’ve been pretty mum about many of my preliminary results. I am an R (an open source statistical computing language) user, but I haven’t openly posted any modified code I’ve written or worked on. These facts, coupled with my publication record make me wonder, “Am I engaging in open science, or just thinly veiled science?”
To my readers (especially field biologists and primatologists), how do we as a discipline create “Primatology 2.0?” Many of the great long-term primate field projects have many more years of pre-”open science” than post. As a result, attitudes towards “openness” will not easily be changed. For many primatologists (and other behavioral ecologists working with long-lived animals), data collection can take years to decades in order to acquire a sufficient sample size. Thus, data are closely guarded and publications are rare compared to other biological sciences. However, this does not mean that primatologists should not embrace most aspects of “open science.” Newly developed field sites and projects have the unique opportunity to integrate scientific methods and engage the public in ways not previously possible. From crowd-funding to citizen science projects, the possibilities are endless. We just need a place to start.