In a world faced with global crises, political agendas, and copyright issues, an obstacle emerges between the public and the scientific community: the gatekeeping of information. Ramon Castañeda explores the impact of open science and its potential to make scientific knowledge more accessible.

Research requires more than just technical knowledge and skills. It also greatly relies on the abundance of creativity, persistence, and resourcefulness to introduce something new. When combined with an inquisitive mind, these characteristics could meld together perfectly to kickstart an innovative study or project. The ultimate success of such an endeavor could, however, ultimately hinge on one crucial element: access to information.

As a key factor in scientific undertakings, access to information is a concept linked to the modern methods of disseminating scientific knowledge by sharing it through periodicals and journals, whether in print or digitally. Through these publications, scientists and researchers publicize the findings of their studies. However, the measure of how “public” these are can be debatable as ironically, not all these publications can be easily accessed. In fact, accessing some of them comes at a hefty price. And in other cases, for researchers who want their studies to be openly available from the get-go, the cost can be even more.

While the scientific community strongly backs open science, they do not fully control the accessibility of their studies once they sign contracts with publishers. It is a misconception that scientists and researchers refuse to acknowledge that everyone deserves to be in the know. The community is very much aware that the people who most need technical information are sometimes the people who cannot afford to access it. This is why scientists and researchers try to come up with solutions and answers to the problems and questions the world currently has. Once they find these, the goal is always to share such findings.

But it is this challenge that remains unsolved: how can scientists and researchers make scientific information available as widely possible without incurring the costs associated with open access publication in reputable scientific journals? While this barrier persists, the lack of access to information will continue to lead to a broader distrust in the scientific community. In fact, the problem goes beyond research, extending to the gatekeeping of crucial information amid rampant mis- and disinformation across the globe in times of crises when information should be shared.

“This is especially important in areas where scientific research may be under undue and ill-informed criticism of the scientific consensus,” comments Luke Kirwan, open science coordinator of the IIASA Library and Knowledge Resources Department.

Kirwan cites the COVID-19 pandemic and the misinformation and denialism of climate change over the last decades as examples of times that transparent, accurate information was and continues to be crucial. He suggests that the most effective way to combat this is to make accurate information as widely available as possible.

Access to knowledge is a “global and moral imperative,” as Kirwan puts it. But the question of whether efforts are enough is still unresolved.

At IIASA, efforts to contribute to the open science movement have been in place from as early as 2003, with the institute having been a signatory to the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in Science. Kirwan explains that as part of this declaration, IIASA introduced its open access policy in 2016, requesting IIASA researchers to provide complete versions of their peer-reviewed research articles for the institute’s online repository, PURE.

Since the launch of PURE, about 80% of peer reviewed IIASA articles have been made openly accessible. Non-peer reviewed items, such as IIASA working papers and reports, or conference presentations done by IIASA researchers, are also made available through PURE under an open license, which permits reuse and redistribution for non-commercial purposes.

Kirwan further mentions that in recent years, the focus for open science at IIASA has expanded from just publications to include research data. In 2018, IIASA also adopted an Open Access to Data Policy, requesting researchers to undertake data management planning for research data output and adequate data versioning wherever possible. He urges everyone to make the scientific endeavor both more reproducible and transparent, thereby improving the trustworthiness of scientific output in the face of disinformation and aiding in the creation of new scientific knowledge.

Still, despite the proactiveness and willingness of the scientific community to further open science, the publishing industry must realize that they play a part in this too. They are maintaining the gates that keep knowledge out of reach. Sooner or later, they will have to make a choice between sharing scientific knowledge through the publications they produce or financial interests. While these two points are not mutually exclusive, one is definitely more important to society at large.  

Openness and willingness to be of help to everyone will help address current inequalities in access to information. Open access also ensures that people in the Global South have access to research by organizations like IIASA. Science should be for everyone, not just for an exclusive circle—not only for those who can pay. After all, everything that we encounter, engage with, and undertake can benefit from scientific knowledge. We should lessen the gatekeeping of science and start acting like it’s everybody’s business.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the IIASA blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.