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 The SVPoW crew have become part of the much larger movement in academia to dispense with this outdated mode of information distribution and for scholarly works to be all published in some sort of open access model.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.