Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Scientific Literature Access Debate: How does it affect us artists?

If you follow Saurpod Vertebrae Picture of the Week (SVPoW) you'll know they've been engaging a fairly meaty and important diversion from their usual fair lately. That topic is access to scientific literature. In particular how mainstream (for profit) publishers are exploiting their control on what should be easy to access to universal knowledge, by locking scientific papers behind outrageously priced paywalls. The SVPoW crew have become part of the much larger movement in academia to dispense with this outdated mode of information distribution and for scholarly works to be all published in some sort of open access model.

While not all aspects of this issue hit us palaeo-arts, it does have a very clear impact how and where we can get scientific information for our reconstructions. This to me is a huge one. Especially given many of the debates about accuracy in palaeo-art we've seen over this site's existence. To me while the paywalls lock up a lot of that important information we can't possibly expect accuracy in every piece of palaeo-art out there.

Mike Taylor was kind enough to invite me to do an interview on what I see a palaeo-artist's view on the restricted vs. open access topic to be. Please feel free to check it out.

 Here is a bit of an expansion on my points in this interview...

1. Open access is better for everyone!

While I didn't outright say it in my interview, as it is the whole point of that website, information is only valuable and important if people know it. Hiding, hording, and trapping information behind paywalls is a disservice to everyone! That is with no hyperbole intended either, I mean everyone. Ideas and facts should be allowed to flow and roam freely. Even attempts to keep it repressed tend to fail (just look at the rampant trading and exchange of palaeontology papers already existent within the community... technically it is illegal. Yet the information wants to flow...)!
2. Proxy for the actual fossils

There is no greater reference material for a reconstruction than the fossils themselves. However in most cases it is not possible to see the specimens firsthand. In addition to the lack of funds to visit all the collections you might like to (oh unless you're Gregory Paul), most of us artists wouldn't be permitted to openly roam an institution's collection  anyways (especially their type specimen section).

This is where papers are invaluable. They are a direct reliable reference/source to this material. The work in papers has been double checked by multiple palaeontologists, unlike anything in the popular literature. When we are getting information from a paper we know that at it has had some fact checking and vetting.
3. Literature could cause the Extinction of Memes!

If everyone can get their hands on the proper information and diagrams of the fossil material in papers we'll get better researched and referenced palaeo-art. At the moment this is not the case, so many people (even well meaning artists) are restoring to referencing other artists reconstructions as their primary resource.

As we know this can lead to art memes. While not the greatest threat in the whole world, to many in the palaeontologic community they are a nuisance. They do the opposite of what palaeoart should. Rather than connect people with prehistory, they create a false fictional version of our past world. Any idea in palaeo-art once is harmless, but repeated too much it takes on an implication of authenticity regardless of whether it is based on fact or not.
If we got more of the scientific literature out there than (hopefully) more artists could create more accurate or plausible palaeo-art. This would still improve the work of those who insist on just referencing other artists, as the overall pool of art they are looking at would be of an averagely higher scientific quality.
4. More Pictures and Diagrams in the Literature
While not a direct part of the free vs. limited literature debate, the issue of diagram restrictions on scientific papers comes up in an odd way. The traditional (for-profit) publishers still maintain restrictions on the number of diagrams a paper can contain, despite the state of modern publishing technology. Meaning that any paper published in a mainstream journal will likely feature very few figures or diagrams.

As an artist, and not a researcher, the most useful thing a paper can have for me are diagrams and photos of the fossil specimens in question. All too often I've gone to the trouble of tracking down a key paper on a topic in a mainstream journal only to find there is nothing of use in the paper for me to work with.
On the other hand new modern free access journals have no such diagram restrictions and as of such, I've found, these papers tend to be very diagram heavy. Exactly (or closer to) what I need...
Regardless of how the restricted vs. free access journal situation ends in our favour (otherwise I say we keep fighting!), I would like to see the emerging publishing system incorporate no limits on diagram and figure inclusion in papers!

What are your thoughts on the topic?

These are just the aspects of the issue I choose to bring up. I'm sure there are many more things artists can say on this. So please feel free to fire away in the comment section.


davidmaas said...

That response about the authors of school books needing access is - VERY interesting.

Craig Dylke said...

David- Yeah. It is sort of like palaeoart memes. I don't belabour them on here as their not art related.

Basically many of these books (more the general popular "science" books aimed at kids rather than textbooks) just read previous books and rewrite what they read there.

An example that caused me to cringe the other day was a book that insisted ALL fish were cold blooded. Had they just said fish were cold blooded in general terms I'd have been fine. Overall that is a safe assertion, but it was making a bold statement comparing fish to mammals stating not a single fish could generate its own body heat...

Thing is Tuna, Great White Sharks, Mako sharks, and many other fast swimming fish are being found to be something inbetween cold and warm blooded. They are not true warm bloods like a mammal, but their body temperature is higher than that of the water around them. Yet the book made no mention of that.

I was proud that one of my kids brought it up to me the other day (it is a book in our school library) and asked me (I'm the animal expert teacher in the school) "Mr. Craig I think I remember seeing something on TV about great white sharks being warm blooded. This book written last year says no fish can do that. Which is right?"

Score 3 points for me, 1. my kid is paying attention to the information around him (hopefully something I'm role modelling for him everyday), 2. he is critical thinking about this information 3. he looked at the publishing details in the books he reads to see how current the information is (er should be)... I taught him that last one in guided reading 2 months ago ;)

It is negative points to the book publisher. So while this fact is more widly out there, not all of them are. Paywalls giving (non academic) publishers an excuse to be lazy and inaccurate.

It is so unnessecary!!!

Nima said...

Basically the worst part about the paywalls is that they keep people who WANT to learn more from doing so. They are by default spreading ignorance by suppressing the flow of knowledge. And some bureaucratic NON-SCIENTIST publishers who for all we know couldn't care less about science are mooching 30-50% profits from subscribers.

Now if a small one-time subscription fee would give you access to a publisher's whole database of papers, or at least the paleontology papers, that's one thing.

But Elsevier, Wiley and so forth charge you for EACH ARTICLE! And there isn't even a free preview so that you can see if the paper is even worth your time and money. The paper is a mystery box. It could be a tiny 2-page thing with no illustrations and barely any new data. I'm not so hot about paying $40-$60 for that without even knowing what's in the "black box".

davidmaas said...

With eBooks, there's no reason why these things can't become dynamic. Imagine a book which which references papers, continued research, etc.

Such a 'book' would would reflect the way that science is a progressive process and not something that is written in stone, to be learned by repetition.

Tarchia said...

Nima - It is possible to purchase subscriptions to entire journals rather than purchasing individual articles at $30-$50 a pop. For example, you can subscribe to the Journal of Systematic Paleontology (via Taylor & Francis) for $171 USD/year. I'm definitely not saying that this is really affordable, but just pointing out that the publisher's business model does not, strictly speaking, require you to purchase only individual articles. Until the scientific publishing business moves towards open-access publishing, or the cost of publishing articles shifts from the reader to the writer/funding institution, a few carefully selected journal subscriptions may be your best bet.

And with regards to the 'free preview' - that's what the abstract is for. An abstract is a preview of what you'll find within the paper. Some journals even do graphical abstracts now, with figures instead of just text.

Craig Dylke said...

David- I would love to see those come into use!

Nima- Yeah I know it is crazy!

Tarchia- While those options exist, that price is a huge problem. I for one do not have the funds kicking around to subscribe to even one of those reasonably that alone more than one.

While I get that publishing (physical copies) of limited run things like technical science material is expensive, in digital formats it should not be anywhere near as bad. Its really more materials and logistics you pay for with a physical journal or book. Digital copies should be no where near as bad (especially considering the authors and editors are all essentially volunteers).

While they provide options in writing, they are not at all feasible in the real world and we shouldn't have to accept them. I'm totally behind the SVPoW boys and their war on the publishers.

Peter Bond said...

Excellent article, Craig. I know I would be browsing through articles if I could. It really is the most frustrating thing, not being able to access knowledge. I also support SVPoW's war on publishers.