The Personal Blog of Stephen Sekula

Open Access to Science

I am a fundamentalist when it comes to open access to scientific information. In graduate school, when I learned that many disciplines give paid access to journals can run thousands of dollars, I nearly fell over. I had grown up in the era of the internet. To boot, I was training to be a particle physicist, which meant I made devout use of “”: – “the Archive” – to access the latest physics papers. The Archive is free, established at Los Alamos by a physicist and later transplanted to Cornell University. Most particle physicists simultaneously upload their paper drafts to the Archive when they submit to a journal.

Journal access is not free. If you’re at an academic site, or a lab, or if you have access to a proxy server at such an institution, then it’s “free”. Otherwise, you have to pay for access (to such journals at PRL, which, in my opinion, is full of itself) to read the latest physics papers.

It’s worse in other fields. In biology, the idea of an Archive-like system only emerged a few years ago. The “Public Library of Science”, or PLoS, is the bio equivalent of Unlike arxiv, PLoS requires the author to pay a fee when they print a result. To the reader, it’s free. This weeds out the kooks (unless they’re rich kooks) while supporting open access. The Archive, in contrast, simply requires a recognized institutional affiliation (which has “rubbed some fundamentalist Christians the wrong way”: [CrackpotSessionAtAPS], believe it or not) and charges no fees to authors or readers. It has a slightly higher kook-factor.

All of this was spurred by an “article on Wired Magazine about Harold Varmus and his quest to make open access to science”: It’s the dollar amounts pocketed by these so-called “presitigious” journals that shock me. Are we scientists, or robber barons?

.. [CrackpotSessionAtAPS] I saw a presentation by Gentry at the Denver APS meeting back in 2004. He spoke, along with other people who don’t require evidence to make claims, in what some of us jestingly referred to as the “crackpot” session at APS. See, APS will let anybody speak about anything they want at a meeting so long at that person has paid their membership dues – they CANNOT turn down an abstract. They do, however, appear to herd the looney abstracts into a single session, which was dubbed by many the “crackpot” session. You’ll find everything from political rants, to disproofs of the Big Bang (that never seem to be based on actual data), to abstracts that ramble for two pages before they stop. These people have a great command of PowerPoint and fancy graphics, but no actual data or even experimental apparatus. Mostly, these people are just scary. I’ve never been in a meeting with a real scientist who made me afraid that if I criticized them, I might actually be killed by a minion for blasphemy.

By the way, I’ve actually read the papers he tried to get on the arxiv (he managed to get them uploaded to the much less credible CERN “OPEN” system). They were basically a collection of mis-matched tidbits about the universe, most flying in the face of testable observations, which were merely used to try to justify his view about the age of the universe.

“Article on about the Arxiv/Gentry affair”: This is just funny because they use all the buzzwords that try to imply the credibility of the alleged scientist: “world-renowned” and “a recognized physicist with many scientific publications” (which just means somebody calls him a physicist and he’s published a paper here or there, which is really quite easy even if the paper is not itself of interest to the community).