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IVORY-BILLS  LiVE???!  ...

=> THE blog devoted to news and commentary on the most iconic bird in American ornithology, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (IBWO)... and... sometimes other schtuff.
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"....The truth is out there."

-- Dr. Jerome Jackson, 2002 (... & Agent Fox Mulder)

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

-- Hamlet

"All truth passes through 3 stages: First it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident."

-- Arthur Schopenhauer






Friday, February 26, 2010

 

-- Open Access Science --

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For decades many feared that if the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was found it would create a mass crush of birders, scientists, news-folk, and curiosity-seekers into an area, disturbing the bird further. But IBWO sightings in recent years haven't resulted in such a trampling horde of humans. Indeed, at this point, it's more likely that any IBWO claim will be greeted with a yawn, than with frenzy. Thus, one major reason for much secrecy around Ivory-bill sightings seems no longer to hold, if it ever did. The off-the-beaten-path areas where sightings occur, usually are not even amenable to casual weekend birders or naturalists visiting on a whim.

When IBWOs were discovered in Cuba in the late '80s, another group took over that search, and held their cards closely, just as the broader confederation of agencies involved in the current 'recovery' effort has done. The underlying fact (that everyone realizes) is that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a cash-cow for anyone who can corner the market on proof of its existence. Early on in the Big Woods effort the very harshest critics/skeptics accused Cornell/Nature Conservancy of a 'hoax,' or at best an exploitative P.R. scheme for funds and attention. As ridiculous as those charges were, the reason they stick at all in some people's minds, is because of the appearances that officials have permitted to go forward, by virtue of secrecy, silence, and confidentiality (and appearances are important).

As recently as three years ago I couldn't see the value or practicality of "open access science," but over time have become a convert to its value, efficacy, and need (and, it IS the wave of the future). The Ivory-billed Woodpecker saga is a glaring example of why the slow, inefficient, old ways are breaking down and becoming obsolete, in favor of openness, in the digital age. 'Open access' doesn't mean EVERYthing has to be laid out on the table, just a whole lot more than we've witnessed in this instance.
[...p.s.: may be worth noting that Cornell University was itself at the forefront of open access "arXivs" for physics, math, and computer science papers].

A few germane articles/links (on "open access" science and "science commons") :

http://tinyurl.com/qovbgn
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=science-2-point-0
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_Commons
http://sciencecommons.org/about/
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Comments:
I certainly concur that open access is the wave of the future and is beneficial to the advancement of science.

When conservation biologists of the future review the way that the "rediscovery" of the IBWO was handled, I believe the areas that will come in for the harshest criticism will be the extreme secrecy that surrounded the search effort, the apparent lack of cooperation and consultation with other experts in the field, and the unwillingness to share information with the public (except in a way to enhance the reputations of certain individuals and institutions).
 
..all of which are Standard Operating Procedure in Academia. As long as there is tight competition for research grants and a publish-or-perish standard for career advancement, how can you realistically expect university scientists to behave in any other way? No publish, no job... no grant, no publish... no self-promotion and dissing of rivals, no grant. As a long-time former academic, I saw nothing at all unusual in anything about the way any of the university folks have behaved here. It just looks freakish and disfunctional (which of course it is) to the mainstream world whenever it gets dragged into the spotlight. The fact that Academia is also an Aspergers convention does not help much either, of course.

Open access science and happy-happy-joy-joy free cooperation with everyone will never be the wave of the future as long as research funding remains intensely competitive. And there's no hint at all on any horizon that this is likely to change.
 
One issue that has never really been resolved, and I think is unlikely to outside of a courtroom, is whether the results of federally-funded IBWO research are in the "public domain." This is strongly implied in some of Cornell's fact sheets, yet they seem to have behaved otherwise in most respects. In my opinion, the public's right to access under federal "right to know" law has been severely compromised by the actions of the Bush administration, and it remains to be seen whether this will become the default. Make no mistake, there are strong forces at work to restrict access to all kinds of information, the connectivity of the internet notwithstanding. In my experience, a great deal of information on endangered species has long been kept hidden as a matter of course, for better or worse. But I have my doubts that such secrecy would stand up in court under a forceful challenge.
 
The federal right-to-know law has nothing to do with published (or unpublished scientific research). It pertains to the release of toxic chemicals under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know
Act.

Next - open access is a policy that pertains to published research that was funded by a federal agency. So far, it is limited to research funded by NIH, but the White House Office of Management and Budget is looking at extending it to other federal agencies. But unless there was federal funding involved, there is no legal basis for the federal government to require what is not actually OPEN access - it is FREE access. Anyone can access published research by going to a library or paying or it. This is about FREE access.

The concern on the part of researchers is that "OA" shifts the cost of publishing to the researcher and that eats into already limited research funding, assuming that the grant terms even allow it to be used for page charges in the first place (some don't). And it actually discourages publishing, because the more you publish, the more it costs.

The other concern is the impact on the journals and the scientific societies that publish them. I won't get into details here.

There is a real tension between intellectual property rights (which like or not are important), impacts on research funding, the continued existence of scientific societies and the journals they publish.

So not suprisingly, it is a more complicated situation than you seem to realize. See this recent report by the House Committe on Science and Technology and the publishing and scientific communities if you really want to understand the situation: http://www.aau.edu/policy/scholarly_publishing_roundtable.aspx?id=6894

Finally, realize that "OA" pertains only to published papers. It does not pertain to ongoing research, underlying data, etc. There is a different law (Shelby) that in some limited circumstances would require disclosure of unpublished material, but none of those circumstances pertain to this situation.
 
My sloppiness, I was referring to the public's right of access under the Freedom of Information Act, which reinforced a general "right to know" principle, and which, again, I consider to have been seriously compromised by the previous administration.

Saying that "Anyone can access published research by going to a library or paying or it" is in my opinion much akin to justifying a poll tax. Millions of Americans live many miles from a decent university library. As with many issues, I see this one as very complex in the fine details and rather simple in the big picture. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a thorough study of any issue. But I can't help but believe that there was much discussion of the minute details of various rationalizations during the long year of disenfranchisement of large segments of the American population. I think we often get bogged down in "understanding" the details of competing "interests" and end up getting no resolution on important issues. Events such as acts of Congress or major court cases (or sometimes, memos from Attorneys General), for good or bad, seem to have a way of rather adroitly cutting through the "complexity." I will leave it at that.

The question remains whether the results per se of federally funding IBWO research are in the public domain. This specific phrase has been used by Cornell to discourage others from "hoarding" results obtained by using equipment on loan from them. Of course the use of such language in a Cornell fact sheet tells us nothing about the legalities, let alone the politics, of the matter. The big issue remains unresolved as far as I can tell.
 
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