Fight Intelligent Design – Publish in PLoS!

I wrote this Op-Ed in response to the ongoing battles in Kansas, Georgia and Pennsylvania over ‘intelligent design’. The NYT, LAT, Washington Post and the SF Chronicle turned it down. Time to start a blog!

Now that a federal judge in Pennsylvania has ruled that intelligent design has no place in the classroom, the scientists who rallied to defend evolution will return to academia happy that science has weathered yet another assault. But this battle will not be won in the courtroom. Antipathy toward evolution is the natural consequence of a growing gulf between the scientific community and the public. Until scientists close this gap, much of the public will continue to dismiss Darwin’s theories, and we risk losing the broad public support on which science depends.

Rather than blame public ignorance, scientists must accept responsibility for this distressing trend. We go about our business rarely thinking of the public as an audience for, or interested party in, our work. We speak up when crises occur, but this is not enough. We can and should do more to engage the public on a daily basis, and if we fail to do so, we will face far greater problems than intelligent design being taught in our schools.

I propose a simple solution. We should give the public access to the peer-reviewed scientific journals in which we publish our ideas and discoveries. It is certainly the right thing to do – afterall, the public paid for most of this research, they should be able to see what their tax dollars have produced. But does the public want to read these papers? I believe they do. Many non-scientists whose interest is piqued by science stories in the popular press would love to learn more about the research directly from scientists who carried it out. People facing medical decisions would love to read the most accurate and up to date information about diseases and their treatments. When they do, they will find that much of the scientific literature is surprisingly comprehensible to a lay audience (and much more will be once authors know the public may read their work). And anyone who reads these papers will be left with a better understanding of how science works, and why we believe the things we do.

Unfortunately, the public can not access most scientific journals without paying steep subscription or access fees. Fortunately, scientists do not have to publish in these journals. The last several years have seen the birth and growth of “open access” journals that make their contents freely available to anyone with an Internet connection. These publications invite the public in, and they have responded – downloading, reading and even blogging about scientific articles like never before. Simply by choosing to publish in open access journals, scientists can honor the importance of public access and engage the public directly in their work.

But too many scientists still forgo this opportunity. Young scientists believe that success in their careers depends upon publishing in the ‘best’ (read long-established) journals, while established scientists find the allure of ‘prestige’ journals too difficult to resist. When scientists – many of whose salaries and research labs are funded exclusively by US taxpayers – are unwilling to take simple steps to provide the public access to the research they fund, how can we blame the citizenry for feeling disengaged from science?

It is incumbent upon scientists to change this dynamic. We must ensure that hiring, grant review and tenure committees give heavy weight to efforts (or lack thereof) to engage the public. But more importantly, we all must ask ourselves if that Science or Nature citation is worth furthering the dangerous divide between science and the public?

Non-scientists can help scientists engage as well. Next time you read about some cool new scientific advance, find the paper on which this story is based. If you can’t access it, email the authors and request a copy – and ask them why they didn’t make it available to you in the first place. You’ll be letting them know that the public is interested in what they do, and holding them accountable for their decisions. Maybe next time they will publish in a journal that reaches you.

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