Thursday, December 17, 2009

An Open Letter to the President of the United States

Greetings Mr. Obama,

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to sound off about open access to scientific research, a subject that I consider near and dear to my heart. I know that you are planning on boosting public R&D funding up to 3% of US GDP, which is an effort that I laud. The following are some thoughts that I think could help scientific progress without spending much additional money:

1) All data should be made completely public, in simple text format, so that it can be easily used with the best open access statistical software, R. This is not being discussed but it would be a non-trivial improvement. It will make meta analyses about a million times more effective and trustworthy (p<0.0001), and it will improve the pace of science via crowdsourcing. Suddenly everyone with internet access and half a brain will be able to contribute to science. Many scientists themselves are unlikely to support this--it would decrease barriers to access and thus hurt the mystique and possibly prestige of scientists. Be not weary of the ruthless hand of creative destruction, lest ye fail to grab the low hanging fruit.

2) Somehow, posting science info to Wikipedia should be incentived to yield higher social status, especially within academic circles. There are huge positive externalities. Scholarpedia has some OK article but it smacks of unnecessary elitism. Perhaps NIH funding and promotion decisions could be made in part by looking at the Wikipedia update history of the applicant, in addition to more formal publications. Uni's would likely follow suit.

3) All publically-funded research, and moreover research from any source that will be considered reputable, must be registered *before* it begins. In this way null results or fangled results due to high intrasubject variance are to be taken just as seriously as positive results, and published somewhere on the web with a link from the central depository of PubMed. Viola, no more publication bias.

4) It should be made more explicit what bloggers are allowed to reproduce on their websites. This is an issue I worry about on Brains Lab and it's a dumb one--I shouldn't have to waste any mental effort on it. PLOS One's model is money. Everyone should be able to take figures and reproduce them if the funding for the research came from a public source. Private sources should of course not be forced to do this, but they should be shunned and possibly blacklisted for their insolence.

5) In the ideal world, non-national security-dependent research would be made public right away so that the world could begin reacting to it without the distilling process. In the world we live in, it should be made public at the latest six months after its publication, following the Journal of Neuroscience method. Voluntary encouragement to self-archive articles doesn't work... only about 15% of scientists comply. If it is mandated 95% comply. Fact is, creative destruction is a beautiful thing. If a business model is no longer viable or necessary, then that's all there is to it.

Yours Affectionately,

Andrew Thomas McKenzie