Posted tagged ‘Science’

Is that right? How do we know?

September 24, 2011

Yesterday a story suggesting that “Einstein may be wrong” hit the headlines. Apparently scientists at CERN have done some experiments whose results can only be explained by relativity theory being incorrect. Or by their experiments/interpretation/understanding of results being incorrect/flawed. But they’ve repeated the experiments many times and now they don’t know what to make of it all.

Presumably, being world-class scientists employed at a reputable institution, they’ve tried to find every other possible explanation apart from the one now hitting the headlines, and this is why they’ve opened their results up for debate by the wider community. Saying that one of the kings of physics may have been wrong is one thing, but contradicting a theory that explains almost all that we “understand” of physics is another. Apart from anything else, how embarrassing if they are wrong!

Some people have suggested that of course the CERN scientists must be wrong. But this is hardly a scientific viewpoint, rather, to me, it smacks of the kind of inviolable faith that we see normally in religion; belief despite the evidence or lack of it. I’m not going to talk about science and religion today except to say that when discussing science we should look at it in a scientific way, not a faith-based one.

I certainly don’t know if the experiments concerned are flawed or not, and I never really understood relativity theory anyway. But part of me hopes that their findings cannot be explained by using current theories, and that this is not due to any flaws. After all, this is how theories are improved and science is advanced.

When I was in school, I learned that scientific method consists of first observing, and recording accurately what you observe. You must then try to make inferences about what is occuring based on your observations and then form a hypothesis which can be tested. If your hypothesis stands up to experiment then your theory can be considered adequate, until a new set of observations which do not fit with the theory. Therefore, I’d argue that the only ways in which you can be wrong in science is to incorrectly record something or to hold blindly to a theory which does not fit the observed results.

This discussion is also pertinent to a group of Italian vulcanologists currently being sued for negligence because they failed to correctly predict a catastrophic event in which people died. If you think about it, they are being sued because their theory was incorrect. But if it was based on the best available evidence at the time, then how is this fair? They were surely only negligent if they failed to take into account information that could have been relevant and even then, it would have to have been evident to a third-party expert that the information was relevant as it’s often necessary to exclude outliers and noise in order to formulate an initial theory effectively.

It seems that people expect science to provide black and white answers, whereas in fact all we can ever do is give our best current opinion based on the available evidence. It may be that this fact is not adequately conveyed to the public, in schools, etc. Learning science is not like history, where you learn a set of known events and dates, nor like a language, in which lists of vocabulary and grammatical rules can be learned, along with the exceptions to those rules. Rather it is a way of thinking and understanding things.

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A Wild Night Out – Uncaged Monkeys in Cambridge

May 17, 2011

I can’t remember where I first heard about Uncaged Monkeys and their visit to Cambridge. I do remember that I had never heard of the Radio 4 comedy Infinite Monkey Cage on which this live show is based. And a good job too – generally I don’t like R4 comedy so this might have put me off.  I just saw the announcement of the line-up headliners: Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh, and Brian Cox, and thought that this muct be a fantastic opportunity to see three top speakers locally and in a great venue (I love the Cambridge Corn Exchange and its odd-shaped roof which invokes so much history). My husband had even less idea than I did what I was dragging him along to, not having bothered to read past “Science show”. I can safely say that we were both pleasantly surprised by what we saw.

Robin Ince was the host and warm-up act for the evening. He is also the main presenter of the radio programme but this meant nothing to me at the time. His comedy was focussed largely on his small child’s understanding of the world and other, less scientific jokes. As a warm-up act he worked well, though I would not go and see a show that sold itself purely on his humour.

Professor Brian Cox was pretty good. I have to confess here to having a personal and irrational  dislike of him, though I do think think that a lot of what he does it good science communication. And he didn’t flick at his hair once during this show, so perhaps someone has told him how annoying that habit was! But he was funny and covered some really hard-core science which almost had me believing that it is worthwhile spending money on the LHC (just not such a big proportion of the science budget) to allow us to find out more, not only about how the universe started, but how this might apply to and affect our everyday lives now.

Dr Ben Goldacre I’ve heard speak before, and read his Bad Science book. While he’d obviously modified his talk for this event, it did not contain a lot that was new to me. I did learn, however, that he started life as an epidemiologist, which perhaps explains his love and deep understanding of statistics. I am a fan and regularly read his column in the Guardian/blog etc. However I do wonder if it is really so well named. At the risk of being pilloried for quoting Bon Jovi songs, Bad Medicine might be a better name for his work as most of it is medical or health-related. Which is fine, he is a doctor and should talk about what he knows. But it would be nice to see someone else covering the rest of science – maybe he could bring in some guest writers.

Simon Singh probably needs no introduction either to anyone reading this. For me personally, his talk was probably the highlight of the show, though I did enjoy all of it. He concentrated on codes and codebreaking, as per an early book of his. However he clearly knows a lot about a lot of things, as seen in the Q&A session. If you’d read his book I suspect you wouldn’t have gained too much from what he said, but I had not. He started his show by busting the myth about music played backwards having secret messages in it, in this case “Stairway to Heaven”, and continued by pointing out that people who find hidden messages in e.g. the Bible are just finding what they already know and want to believe. All good points, and fairly obvious really when you think about it. I am not sure that he would have convinced the message-finders though, as they will believe what they want anyway.

Helen Arney is a self-styled geek rocker, the musical interlude of the evening. Her songs mostly contained jokes for scientists rather than science. I don’t know how much she will be able to sell as I felt that once I’d heard and laughed at the songs once, I wouldn’t need to do so again. But as a slot in this show she was a welcome change of pace and fitted in well with the mood of the evening.

Adam Rutherford is apparently also a TV presenter, amongst other things. I’d never heard of him and was amazed at how young he appeared. His show was entertaining and educational and covered genetics but it seemed unnecessary to poke fun at people from Norfolk in order to get laughs.

Professor Steve Jones  was the “guest” speaker of the evening. As Rutherford admitted that Jones was his ex-supervisor I was not clear why both of them were invited to talk. Jones seemed to be the epitome of a slightly absentminded scientist although he’s clearly spoken in many prestigious quarters and now appears to have taken up broadcasting too. His delivery was more scientific and less comedic than Rutherford’s, which for me personally provided some balance to the evening.
The Q&A session part way through was probably unnecessary. It was in any case only applicable to those on Twitter as this was how questions were posed. And given the mixture of people in the audience I’d say that less than half the audience was Twitter-enabled. The questions were mixed and although it provided some humour, most of it wasn’t of a very high level. Cox was the only one of the questionees to take a very simple question and inject some deep fundamentals as well as clear explanation into his answer.

I may be biased, though I felt that the range of science covered could have been more comprehensive. We had a lot of biology (Jones, Rutherford, Arney), physics (Cox and Ince), maths (Singh) and medicine (Goldacre). But what about chemistry? Perhaps there are no chemical comedians…
Overall I would highly recommend this tour to anyone who has not yet been. Beg, borrow, or steal tickets wherever you can. Individually the speakers would also be worth seeing, but the chance to catch all of them at once should not be missed. I will also be tuning in to the Infinite Monkey Cage in the future, at least to see if it is better than traditional R4 comedy.

Chickens and eggs

March 4, 2011

Which comes first, the love of science or the understanding of it? In my opinion this is a bit of a chicken and egg situation. If you do not appreciate and understand how amazing science is, why would you want to learn more about it? And if you do not learn about it, how can you appreciate its true wonders?

I recently had a discussion in which I defended the importance of scientists going into teaching. I’ve also been doing quite a bit more in the way of public engagement type activity, as some of you may have noticed from my last post about the British Science Association event. I started this because I think it is important to ensure scientific literacy and appreciation in everyone, kids and adults alike. My experience and observations doing it have been great, and they have been thought-provoking.

Many of the comments we’ve received during the science-busking events we’ve done have gone along the lines of “Better than science in school”, “I’m really into science and this is great”, “Why don’t we learn about this in school?” Many adults assumed that the event was aimed at their kids and not for them, because “Science is for kids, it’s something you learn in school”, which is a shame because what we are trying to show is how vital science is for everything that you do, it surrounds us and is integral to our lives. Now you can argue that the busking is not the best way to reach the adults, and this may be right, but the attitude still persists and must, I feel, be addressed.

Science teaching is really important because it contains the message about the significance of science in everything. But the way that science is taught in many schools (especially due to over-zealous health and safety concerns) means that the wonder and amazement is difficult to convey. I’m not an expert in education and I don’t have direct answers to this, but I am sure that is would help if impressionable minds could be impressed with amazing things that science can do. It would also help if parents believed that science was important and conveyed this attitude to their children. It might help if science was not just one lesson in a list of english, maths, french, science, PE, etc. Science comes into all of these subjects and could be demonstrated in all of the lessons rather than as a rather abstract thing to be  learned by rote. There have been various attempts to do this and I am sure that some of them are successful. As I said, I’m not an expert. But you can tell by the state of society today and the media in particular, that many people have no interest in or understanding of science. So what’s going wrong?

Instead of targeting the kids, we could start with the people in charge, those with the power to make a difference. Ask them to promote the importance of science, and the importance of having a future generation as well as a current generation of scientifically literate people. They don’t all need to be scientists, but understanding the scientific method will help in so many ways in different parts of society. But if science continues to be taught in a way that makes it difficult to be enthusiastic about it, none of this will have much effect. We will just be imposing dull lessons on our kids, who will probably then hate science forever.

And how do you convince the policymakers etc. of the importance of something that they have hated since childhood and that only a minority wants to study?

As ever I would love to hear what you think – do we aim to start with the chicken or the egg? Or something entirely different? And what is the most effective way for one person to make a difference in this regard – should I write to my MP (who seems most uninterested in scientific questions in general) or go into teaching? (this is not a serious career-change question as I would make a terrible teacher but as a means to make a difference it certainly has potential).

The future of science in parliament – a review

November 20, 2010

I attended the Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy 4th Distinguished Lecture,which was actually a joint presentation between Dr Evan Harris and Dr Julian Huppert. As some of the few scientists in (or previously in, in Harris’ case) parliament, they have a quite unique view of certain things. Some of the events described are almost too shocking to be believeable, and yet you know they are true because of other similar events already well-known and publicised.

A large part of the entertainment value was provided by Harris and Huppert relating stories of how this or that other unfortunate politician (George Bush Jr., Patricia Hewitt, Alan Millburn, and some nameless but doubtless influential politicians) had said something that was quite clearly laughable to anyone with a vaguely scientific background. Paraphrased examples include the following (if you can’t see what’s wrong, you probably aren’t reading this blog):

“By next year all doctors should be performing above average”

“Home childbirth is safe, and we’ve commissioned research to prove it”

“You shouldn’t care about evidence, you should just know what’s right”

“Why would we need a Chief Scientific Advisor?” (from a Treasury official)

Ultimately there was very little content that was new to me but it was interesting to hear Harris and Huppert’s respective points of view on what could be done about the state of things and where to start.

Harris:

  • We need to ensure that politicians understand (or at least respect even if they don’t understand) the need for policy to be made based on evidence that is peer-reviewed and published rather than just commented by an individual.
  • We as scientists should do more “front-foot” campaigning i.e. positively acting on points of mutal concern.
  • Politicians should understand the consequences to them politically in not taking a rational/evidence-based approach (i.e. let your MP know what you think of their actions).

Huppert:

  • Some M.P.s are actively anti-science, but you don’t need a PhD in science in order to get why it is important.
  • Despite the recent cuts, the 4 NHS-funded homeopathic hospitals continue to receive funding.
  • The government are currently having an active “anti-chemist” campaign (the word chemist being associated with one who makes drugs).
  • Science is Vital was successful because everyone worked together – there needs to be more of this from the scientific community. Despite this, until the Sunday before the Spending Review took place, science was still going to be cut.
  • Shortage of science teachers is a real issue.
  • Make sure science is heard, understood, and available.

See also an article by Huppert and George Freeman, M.P., on how science and innovation can save the UK.

In all, the discussion shocked me slightly; it is just hard to believe that there are so many people in the world, especially ones in positison sof power, that understand so little about the world they are in. Science for me is something that is all around and contributes to pretty much anything you care to mention. I just can’tget my head around the Nadine Dorries and David Tredinnicks of this world and their mistaken beliefs, let alone the fact that people actually vote these people into parliament. I mean, I know it is true, but how can it happen?

I did come away feeling a bit more convinced that it is possible to do something to rectify the situation by e.g. speaking to or writing to your M.P. though I still think that the long term answer has to lie in better education for all in this respect. Perhaps science should not be taught as one of an array of subjects that kids learn in school,but rather as an underlying principle running through all of them.

Taking sides – review of debate on science journalism taking sides

September 24, 2010

This was a not-very-well-advertised debate about science journalism,organised by the Times‘ Science Editor Mark Henderson (sorry Mark, due to The Times’ policy of charging for content you don’t get a proper link) at the RI. It was chaired by Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre and the speakers were Henderson, Ceri Thomas (Editor of the BBC radio 4 Today programme), Prof. Steve Rayner (Oxford, Science and Civilisation) and Ed Yong  (Information Manager at CRUK and famed science writer/blogger).

Enough with the links….down to the content…..

The RI debate format seems pretty constant as it was the same at the last one I attended – each person gets five minutes to state their position, Fox asks some questions then opens the debate up to questions from the floor. Personally I found her method of taking 4 questions from the floor then asking for answers quite irritating as it means most people have forgotten the first question by the time it comes to be answered. Anyhow here are my summaries of the 4 positions of the speakers:

Henderson: The traditional view of impartiality and fairness is impossible to achieve. Correctness/accuracy and transparency are more important than being balanced. It is the journalist’s duty to evaluate competing claims and provide evidence, uncertainties must be acknowledged.

Thomas: Science is no different than any other subject, shouldn’t be treated differently (NB Thomas was the only speaker who was not a specialist science editor/reporter which may have something to do with his position!).  Shouldn’t take sides and it’s ok to put peoplewho are “wrong” on air. Though reporters should take the side of reason and evidence, it is important to remember that these are not the only important things, most peoplemake decisions based on emotions and irrational thoughts so these need to be acknowledged too. It’s important to represent views not “liked” by scientists where these exist to show they are out there and so they can be held to account in public.

Rayner: Mostly thought that the debate was about science policy rather than science. Scientists shouldn’t have the last say in policy debates because the debate is not about the science itself. When scientists are called on to make judgements about subjects outside of their expertise they are no better than any other layperson. Dislikes polarisation such as the portrayal of “climate deniers” as he feels this stifles debate about the real problems and the ability to reach an inbetween position.

Yong: Many reporters are lazy, don’t investigate enough. The term “scientists have claimed…” is a get-out that allows lack of investigation and lack of endorsement. Reporters must provide a context and analysis as if they don’t, in the internet age, someone else will. Shifting the necessity to make the decision onto the reader is tricky because the reader has less resources (and will) to make this decision than the reporter. All choices are subjective including what we choose to write about at all and how it is written. Overuse of quotes and getting others to tell the story for you is a problem. Reporters shouldn’t take sides with a specific scientist, theory, or science, but always take the side of truth. Journalistic practices are not always compatible with this.

This was an interesting debate as ostensibly all of the speakers were on the same side (i.e. take the side of truth) but all had quite different approaches to it. I did disagree with a few of the comments that were thrown out there. For example, Henderson said at one point that if something seems too good to be true it usually is, and it is up to jouralists to get to the bottom of things and find out about this. Which is all well and good but if the work has been peer reviewed (as in the example of the Woo Suk Hwang fraud he used),what makes journalists qualified to discover this when several peer reviewers and trained editors cannot? Because they are not experts in anything, journalists are only as good as their sources. And someone else also made the point that we all know scientists who will say certain things on certain topics, so you can pretty much always find someone who will say what you want to hear.

I also disagreed with Thomas’s position that science should not be treated differently from art or politics. In these cases, opinion and point of view actually shapes the outcome. If enough people think something, this will inform a policy or a perception of quality. But in science, there are specific rules and ways of working that define this and they are not subject to opinion, they just are. Obviously interpretation of results is variable, but  even their interpretation is based on context within science and models etc that non-scientists cannot hope to understand. If you let unscientific minds try and interpret results they won’t know where to start and you end up with the kind of statements that say that you don’t need evidence for something, like God or ghosts or the Holocaust, because you (want to) believe it so it must be true.

Rayner’s insistence through most of the debate that discussions about science in the news are mostly about science policy not science itself was interesting, but I think ultimately wrong-headed. Yes, I agree that this does happen and there is no point only taking a scientists’sviewpoint on whether stem-cell research should continue or what kind of drugs should be legal, because scientists are not equipped to pronounce on the societal concerns and consequences of the science. But they do need to be a part of the debate. If you don’t have a scientist to tell you about their research then how can you hope to anticipate the societal consequences?

There was a long-running point introduced by Fox about what “her Mum” (read non-scientist member of the public) would understand on reading news pieces. Not knowing Fox’s mum, I imaged my equally scientifically illiterate and disinterested Grandma in this position; you can insert your own beloved relative or neighbour for ease of imagination. This person is not interested in investigating something they are told further. They want to be told in words of a few syllables only what the news is, and why it is important, not to be expected to make up their own mind. They need a clear message not a balanced piece as there is a danger they will only read half of a story before boring of it, thus missing the other half of the argument. If they don’t like what they read, they will go somewhere else where they can get what they do like. When faced with this sort of person, “Joe Public”, how realistic is it to publish a balanced piece in which the scientific viewpoint challenges general beliefs, and then expect that the reader can really make up their own mind in an informed way? Discuss.

Another much-discussed point was the differences between different  media. People may expect opinions in blogs and that’s where they go to get opinions; this is where you get communities building up that agree with each other. There may be a place (and I personally think there is) for straight reporting that gives bald facts and doesn’t try to dress it up too much; information rather than propaganda. There may also be a place for the more opinionated commentary on these facts. But it should always be made clear which is which.

For the avoidance of doubt, this blog is a representation of my opinions which I am justifying with facts where possible – if you want pure scientific facts read a journal paper, discard all the interpretation, and hope that the data is not fabricated. Pure facts are pretty hard to come by these days.

Who should be allowed to dictate what research is carried out?

September 2, 2010

Here is an interesting question. If someone gives you money to do research, to what extent do you and they expect to be able to dictate what direction the research goes in, and who owns the results?

When I was doing my PhD it was quite straightforward – I got some money from a CASE award and any publications had to be run past the company first, to ensure they did not want to patent the results. If they didn’t patent the results, the university could choose to do so if it wished. In any case nothing I personally discovered was of any interest to the company or even for the university to patent, so I just got two papers and one thesis out of it. Possibly the company were disappointed but it is impossible to ask them as they now no longer exist. Basically I got just over half of my funding from them, and they had first dibs on my research.

If an academic researcher is given a grant award by an government agency they get it for a specific project, and they have to at least try to do that project with the money they get. There are usually a few projects running for which there is no official funding, and these are sidelines which the researcher personally finds interesting but can’t convince anyone else of, or are at too early a stage to be able to do so. These will be funded by nonspecific grants or money from the university, or simply by using bits of time/resources not required by the formally funded projects. So in that respect academics are basically bound to do what the grant-awarding agency has awarded the grant for, otherwise they won’t get any more cash from that source. Grant proposals are assessed by peer-review (more on that some other time!) and decisions made on the basis of priority and past reputation of the applicant (in some cases). So the decision could be said to be made by the community or by the government of the day and its determining policies (feel free to argue this point!).

In industry, of course, no-one expects that they can just go and work on something “because I find it interesting” – time must be spent on potentially profitable projects for the company who is employing you. Some companies allow more leeway than others in this respect, and probably those with the most leeway have the longest-term view of research. But a justification of some sort of is always needed. In this case, the company clearly owns the research and often employees contracts are such that the company may also have first claim to any inventions that the employee may make in his/her spare time too. We pay for your time, we own your results, we decide what direction those results will go in.

So what happens if the money comes from another source? This may be less likely but there are e.g. large charities that fund research, and there is also the American model of endowments. The likes of Craig Venter, Bill Gates, and a few other millionaires are fortunately interested enough in science to want to support it financially. But what do they expect to get for their money, and what is it fair to allow them to have?

 I ask this question because there have been a discussions about this recently in different places.

For example, (and I have not been able to verify this) it is claimed on Wikipedia and with a reference to a magazine, that the original project to sequence a human genome carried out at the Venter Institute was intended to be an average of several people’s DNA, but that part way through, Venter intervened and substituted his own DNA alone. If this is true, did he really have the right to do this simply because he was funding it? It could be argued that an average would have provided more useful information for the world as a whole, and I am guessing that the researchers doing the science may have felt this way.  Or maybe they were just grateful to have received enough money to be able to finish the genome. From Venter’s perspective, he was paying for it and so if he wants his genome sequencing he can have it. That information is probably more useful to him personally than a more generic solution. Apparently he has changed his lifestyle as a result of several disease markers that showed up in the sequenced DNA. That could have been an investment that prolongs his life.

More recently, I have been speaking with friends at the Adolphe Merkle Institute (AMI) in Fribourg, Switzerland. The erstwhile Director recently left his post (see press release here). Differences of opinion in the definition of autonomy were cited as his reason for departure. Now if you read the blurb on the AMI homepage they claim to be an “independent center of competence” and to aim to “to stimulate innovation, foster industrial competitiveness and more generally, improve the quality of life”. The AMI was set up following a generous donation from Adolphe Merkel himself but researchers working there are also expected to acquire external funding e.g. from industrial partners and from the state. So to what extent do the foundation running the AMI have the right to dictate the direction that research carried out there will take? Without the initial donation, the institute would not exist and the researchers there would not be able to function. However the money for most of the ongoing projects being carried out by the researchers is provided by other sources. Add in to this the fact that most of the researchers there were top people recruited from elsewhere, and you cannot argue that they would not have been able to do their research at all if it were not for the institute. These top scientists did have jobs elsewhere and could easily get jobs somewhere else again with their reputations. But they did choose to go and work at the AMI, so you have to assume that they accepted the conditions, whatever those were. What happens when the direction that the endowment holder wants to go in is different from the direction of potential funders? Who decides which partners will be acceptable to the institute and where to go for funding? One of the reasons for employing an established scientist is usually because they have a good ability to attract new funding. If you have chosen to employ that person, can you then define where they will go for that funding?

This specific example has not yet shaken down but the question as a whole remains over who has the right to decide what research is done by any single scientist. What is clear is that it is not the scientists themselves as individuals who have that right, and nor should it be. Though most scientists will claim to be working for the greater good, and believe themselves to be doing so, allowing many individuals to make that choice for themselves is chaotic and may well result in wasted time and resources. So someone somewhere needs to have an overview. Each funding agency will have its own priorities and thus its own overview, again this is fair as they have to consider what the money they hold on behalf of their stakeholders is being used for (whether these stakeholders are the taxpayers or a private foundation or individual). But most academic researchers don’t get all their funding from one source, and this can introduce problems. What happens when funding sources conflict in their views and priorities? The individual researchers end up caught in the middle.

One thing I am sure of. I respect and admire the ex-Director of the AMI, Peter Schurtenberger. He is not the sort of person to quit a job half-done and he will have tried to resolve the situation. I believe that he was a victim of a conflict bigger than this single institute; put simply, too many people pulling on the purse strings of research and wanting a piece of it. Whether this sort of model can ever work I do not know. This sort of situation can only become more frequent as government cutbacks force researchers to seek funding from new sources with more of a vested interest in the outcomes.  

Chemistry World have also covered the topic of endowment funding recently here (unfortunately as I write this the content is member-only though I believe that older content becomes free). See what they have to say on the subject too.

Open all areas – thoughts on OA publishing

August 4, 2010

I’ve had quite a few conversations about open access publishing recently, which is odd because I would have thought that I would have this conversation less now that I am not an editor. Funny how things work out.

Perhaps the reason why this topic has come up more recently is because I was working in chemistry publishing, which apparently has the lowest take-up rate of open access (OA) of any discipline (sorry, not sure where I read this so can’t provide any verification of it – anyone who can that would be welcome – my experience is certainly that it is less popular in chemistry than in other related sciences). Now I’m trying to take a broader overview of science in general it becomes more of an issue.

  So what is OA publishing? Basically it means that an article, when published, is free for everyone and anyone who has internet access to read and maybe download. There are various models for doing this. One is that advertisers pay to appear on the site, and no-one else has to pay to publish anything on there. All OA sites can be peer-reviewed or non-peer-reviewed; for ease of discussion I am going to stick to peer-reviewed sites as anything else is effectively not much more credible than, frankly, a blog (yes that includes mine), i.e. it is unsubstantiated, unchecked opinion. You can discuss this if you like, but for me that’s another blog post, another time. Maybe I’ll get around to it soon, if anyone is interested.

An extension of this type of model is the one whereby a government funds the publisher directly so that no-one using it has to pay. PLoS is an example of this model. Note that a source of money is still needed or the publisher would not be able to operate the site.

Another model of OA is that those who wish to publish pay for the paper to be made accessible to everyone (as opposed to just subscribers) when the article is accepted for publication. Many reputable publishers, including those in chemistry such as RSC and ACS, use this model alongside the subscription-only model in a so-called hybrid system; that is, authors are offered the choice to pay only at acceptance of their article. If they don’t choose to pay then the article is accessible to subscribers of that journal only. The cost of funding this would then come out of an author’s research grant, rather than out of library funds, which is where traditional subscriptions come from usually.

Depending on your exact definition of OA, you could also include things like pre-print servers within open access; these are repositories for articles and discussions about them before the article is published, but the article often remains on the pre-print server in some form even after publication. A popular pre-print server I have come across a lot in my work is arXiv, which is run by Cornell University Library for specific communities such as physics, maths, etc. I’m not sure how this is funded but presumably it doesn’t require so much funding as it is so author-driven and no value (formatting, peer review, enhanced HTML content, etc) is added to the content before it appears.

So far so good then, hopefully you understand how the different models can work. And that if value is to be added, a source of finance is required. Even if no value is added, most researchers want to have their work, once published, held on a secure server that they know will be there “forever”. Even those who use pre-print servers generally still strive to get their work published eventually. And then there is the question of the mark of quality provided by peer review and publication in a respected journal.

There is a movement out there that says that as research is funded by taxpayers, then taxpayers aka the general public should have access to it. Again I think this is part of a larger discussion about who should have access to data – everyone wants to or just those qualified to understand it and use it correctly? But I can certainly see the argument for greater availability of information. Strictly speaking, of course, this means that only research funded by the UK government would be available to UK residents. They would still have to pay to access US-funded research. Not quite what this group are after, probably, as the majority of the world’s research is carried out outside the UK, though arguably the UK may lead the field in some areas.

Then there are some companies and organisations that are quite keen on OA. The Wellcome Trust is a notable example of this. They actually fund research as well, and they do make extra funds available to researchers to allow them to publish their work on an OA basis. But what about those more commercially oriented companies? They may or may not fund some academic research. They certainly would not allow any of their company secrets to be published in the open literature, pay-to-access or not. But it would be of great benefit for them if other people’s research in fields linked to their own were made freely accessible – they would save a small fortune in journal subscriptions, and would not have to pay any publication fees as they do not publish their own research anyway. Perhaps you can see why they would be keen on OA?

My opinion is that if funders want work to be made publicly available then they need to provide the money to allow this to happen, directly to the researchers who can tie the money to the work in question. Otherwise they can’t really object when charges are made for access to the information.

Partly this can be achieved through government research funders allocating a publication budget to sit alongside the research one. This should not be given directly to any single publisher (this will create a monopoly whereby people funded by that government can only publish with a certain publisher or small group of publishers) but should be made available to the researchers or universities themselves.

Another approach to combat the exploitation of OA information by big corporations would be for a government to impose some sort of research tax on any company within its jurisdiction admitting to performing research and development (R&D). This money could then be used to pay the publishers and authors whose work the companies are using. This would not be a popular choice, and I doubt it is one that most governments would hurry to introduce. But where else is the money going to come from?