I recently quit my job as a postdoctoral scholar at UCLA. Or, more accurately, I was asked to leave because I was spending all my time asking people around the world about their experiences reading and publishing scientific articles. A simple question lingering as a nagging curiosity had grown into a passion and a revelation that consumed my career, and I haven’t looked back.
I have always hated publishing scientific manuscripts, whether it was in prestigious journals such as Science to newer more innovative journals such as Frontiers. It takes years to publish, 80% of your hard earned results never make the final cut, and paying thousands of dollars per article has never sat well with me. As awful as that experience sounds, I was actually one of the lucky few that never experienced the worst part of scientific publishing.
As I spoke with researchers from different backgrounds, at different universities, and from different countries, it immediately became clear to me that there was a much deeper, fundamental problem plaguing science. I had been drawn into the movement to change academic publishing because of poor design and friction filled workflows, but I soon began questioning the very foundation of scientific progress — the literature we publish and read to collectively advance science.
One of the researchers I spoke with was a polite, soft spoken faculty member at a small liberal arts college in the US. I listened, shocked, as she described how she tells her students to find “alternative” methods for reading the research articles they need to complete their projects. You could hear the intense, unfiltered shame of having to mentor illegal activities as part of learning how to be a researcher.
I also spoke with a graduate student from Europe who had no shame in having to use illegal methods to read the articles he needed to complete his PhD. What else was he going to do, not get his PhD? To use his words, “fuck that.” It was simply accepted that in order to conduct scientific research he also had to be a criminal.
In October of 2017, I went to a conference on scholarly communication where I chatted briefly with the keynote speaker, Diego Gómez. Diego is a graduate student from South America that posted a research article online. Unlike cat videos, blogs, and almost all other user generated content online, it is illegal to share most research articles. Unfortunately, he was prosecuted for that act of sharing. He was eventually acquitted, but it took three years and substantial time, money, and effort from a variety of organizations to defend his case. Still, it was a clear reminder of the cold fact that most publicly funded research results are privately owned.
The greater implications of these conversations convinced me to set aside my research and spend the rest of my career changing how scientists publish discovery.
We are living in an unprecedented era of support for scientific endeavors seeking to improve almost every facet of our society. We are curing diseases, understanding how our minds work, and sending intelligent robots to distant planets. This is our legacy and gift to future generations. Our great grandkids may not know what instagram is, but they will certainly benefit from the cures and other scientific advances we achieve today. It’s an amazing time to be involved in science, and the stakes couldn’t be higher for making sure we make the most of it.
Which brings us to the title and a new question that now keeps me up at night: What would you do with the world’s most valuable IP? If researchers from all over the world were giving you their best scientific discoveries, cures for cancer, never before seen images of our universe, and revolutionary advances in robotics, how would you rise to the magnitude of that opportunity?
Stay tuned for our next blog post about how we’re pursuing this opportunity in our own unique way at flashPub…