The “Closed Science” Pandemic: How COVID-19 Has Shown that Science Isn’t Accessible
Melynna Duong, Austin Mardon
“What is an mRNA vaccine? Will the government be able to track me if I get the shot? How could a vaccine be made so quickly? What is spike-protein? Do I really need a booster? Should I wash my groceries with soap and water? Do masks really work? Should I double-mask?”
There were many questions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. It seemed as though for the first time the general public were being exposed to the world of scientific jargon and scientific research. Mass media companies reported on the pandemic; on this viral virus that had taken the world by storm, on the elusive mRNA vaccine that seemed to come faster than many expected, on the idea of booster shots, on herd-immunity - and expectedly, many countered all this new information with uncertainty, with fear, and with conspiracy.
COVID-19 has shown much about the depth of humanity and how a global world can come together in a time of hardship and dubiety. It has shown kindness, ignorance, unity, defiance, but significantly, the pandemic has shown a lack of communication between the world of scientific academia and the general mass - it has shown that science is not open.
What is Open Science?
Open science refers to the the practice of carrying out scientific inquiry and research in a transparent manner (Watson, 2015), of making the scientific findings available to everyone (Watson, 2015), and being able to communicate the research to the general public in a responsible and comprehensible way (Brownell, Price, & Steinman, 2013). The goal of open science, when it was first introduced, was to make everything in research discovery fully open, available, and transparent, and to drive further discovery by allowing others to build upon, critique, and develop existing work (Watson, 2015). Six pillars exist for open science: open data, open access, open methodology, open source, open peer review, and open education (Watson, 2015). Open data is the process of releasing both raw and processed data from empirical research to allow others (oftentimes fellow researchers) to critically analyze the findings of an inquiry without restriction (Watson, 2015). Open access is the idea that empirical papers should be available for anyone wanting to read, without asking for payment (Watson, 2015). Open mythology involves presenting methods of research with sufficient detail and description; enabling proceeding researchers to repeat the work and apply it elsewhere (Watson, 2015). Open source refers to ope and free access to the blueprint of a product, applied software, source coding (Watson, 2015). Open peer review focuses on the publication process; emphasizing the idea that research and science is collaborative (Watson, 2015). And finally, open education refers to the open and free availability of education resources (Watson, 2015).
Aiming for open science is honourable, in all sense of the meaning in academia, and for many open science is not just a movement, but rather simply, “good” science (Watson, 2015. Openness and transparency are both essential characteristics for maintaining ethics in science (Watson, 2015). The movement into open science truly pushes the collaborative undertone of the scientific world - it allows for idea-sharing, for development and innovation. There seems to be no wrong, no fault, in the movement of open science. But we aim to view science in a different perspective; one that includes the general public and the academic population. We look at the theory of open science and how advancements in technology have changed the way research has been communicated to the general public. We look at how the general public accepts and understands science and how the internet and surge in the growth of open access publications among academics and non-academics has changed the once-prestigious and perhaps, elitist, nature of academic publication. It has introduced a new dilemma, of sorts - one involving out-of-context research, “click-bait” article titles, and the dangers of ignorance.
When Science Meets Public
Throughout the pandemic, we saw that much “good” science has either inaccurately reported, presented out of its scientific context, or even secured behind a paywall. The majority of research and publications today still remain behind a paywall (Watson, 2015). Only those in the academic world with connections to academic institutions, or the money to pay for the research could easily access any new papers and findings about topics related to the novel virus and its treatment vaccine. This brings into question the elitism and inherent classism in science and academia. Why is it that scholarly articles filled with indubitable knowledge and analysis are essentially barricaded from the general public behind pricey paywalls (Berlatsky, 2014)? By doing so, it prevents a very large population of the public to avoid seeking and viewing these publications - instead, they look towards free sources of information.
Misinformation is rampant in free information sources. The repercussions of misinformation are extensive; it prevents effective problem solving about public health matters, social inequality matters, and other concerning issues like the pandemic or climate change (West & Bergstrom, 2021). Yet, misinformation - fake news - is highly consumed by the general public. Nearly 40% of Americans viewed content - found their information - from untrustworthy websites during the 2016 United States election (West & Bergstrom, 2021). Misinformed science is oftentimes written in lay-person terms, it is “clickable”, and preys upon the ignorant with fear-mongering tactics and so, empirical-based, jargon-riddled publications compete with information sources that produce emotional responses, curiosity, and anticipation (West & Bergstrom, 2021).
Other factors have also changed how the public interact with science and research. Hype and hyperbole has changed which types of information sources are consumed (West & Bergstrom, 2021). “Click-bait” headlines are the primary characteristic of this factor. As seen, during a crisis, “science can be forced into the media spotlight” (West & Bergstrom, 2021) and so the media often exploits science for views and clicks. False narratives can be easily published, particularly when the imposed process of publication is by-posed by open access publication and lack of peer revision and collaboration.
Moving Forward in Science
What we wish to emphasize is not that open science is not good or that the general public is inherently ignorant when it comes to the academic field and research, but rather that there exists a sort of marred glass barricade between the two populations and the effects of this barricade showed itself during the pandemic. The gap in knowledge and prevention from accessing accurate science lead to many ill-informed social movements that could have otherwise been prevented if there was a change in how privatized and “closed-off” science feels. The general global population is vastly different from the population of those in academia. Many do not understand the medical/scientific jargon that exists; nor do they comprehend the complicated language that researchers continue to use in publications. This lack of understanding is not one that many want to feel and so oftentimes, individuals avoid seeking and looking at research that is accurate, that is worthwhile, and important for the public and instead search for information sources that are digestible and written in ways that do not make them feel inferior. However, seeking these information sources oftentimes leads to a deeper cycle of ignorance because many of these information sources aim for “clicks and hits”, leading with fear-mongering, with hyperbolized conclusions, and out-of-context references.
Open science should not just be based on the idea that science is open and transparent between researchers, but rather open science should include the idea that the general public - that the regular everyday citizen - is an included perspective in consuming research. Science moves forward when knowledge is transmitted effectively, is built upon by a diverse and immense team of question-askers and learners, and understood by and includes all those that the work involves.
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Brownell, S. E., Price, J. V., & Steinman, L. (2013). Science Communication to the General
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Watson, M. When will ‘open science’ become simply ‘science’?. Genome Biol 16, 101 (2015).
West, J. D., & Bergstrom, C. T. (2021). Misinformation in and about science. Proceedings of the
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