Getting light right

The only thing I know about the speed of light is that it comes too early in the morning (which apparently is a quip from American disc jockey Danny Neaverth).  I used to think that I also knew that nothing could travel faster than the speed of light, but my store of certainties has been reduced by one.  There is now considerable debate about whether or not an experiment performed a CERN has shown that a subatomic particle can travel faster than 186,282 miles per second.  The variation from that speed is quite small, and it is only one experiment, but it is so significant that it has received a lot of press.  There are New York Times stories about the article here and here, for example.

One noteworthy feature about this spate of attention and speculation is that the article itself is available for anyone to read, on the repository for high energy physics called Arxiv.  Having the article available for open access is often important for researchers in this fast-moving field, since advances and discussions now typically move faster than the speed of traditional publications would allow (although not as fast as neutrinos).  But I want to stop a moment and consider what open access means for the rest of us, at least around a high-profile but highly technical article like this one.

One of the things open access advocates hear a lot, both from authors and from publishers, is that many articles are just too technical, and most people cannot understand them.  The handful who can, this argument goes, will see the article published in the expensive flagship journal in the field, and that is all that matters.

Putting aside the questionable assumption about whether everyone capable of understanding a specialized scientific article really does have access to all the journals — my experience as a librarian makes me think this is false — what value is there in making articles available to those who would struggle to understand them?  One set of advantages can be seen clearly when an article suddenly becomes the subject of media reports, as happened here.

First, when an article is available in open access, reporters are more likely to find the research and write about it.  And faculty researchers here at Duke have told me that the reporting about research made available openly tends to be more accurate, since reporters can check what they say against the original.  News like “breaking” the speed of light would be reported no matter what, but other research breakthroughs, often reported on our institutional websites, are more likely to get into the mainstream press, and to be well described, if the articles are freely available.

Second, when reporters are looking for sources to comment on a published experiment or discovery, they often turn to other scientists.  When they do, the ease with which those experts (who really may not be a institutions that subscribe to everything, since no institution does) can see the original work improves the quality of their comments.  In cases like the speeding neutrinos, pretty much everyone agrees that the results will need to be confirmed on refuted by many more experiments.  Replication of the result will be a long and expensive process, limited to a very few, but even those who cannot actually work with a particle accelerator will be in a better position to understand the results, contribute insights and help interpret nuances about what is discovered, especially if the process continues to occur in the open.

Finally, even for laypeople like me there is an advantage to actually seeing the paper.  I admit that I struggled just to comprehend the abstract.  Yet it is salutary, I think for folks like me to see how real science is done and reported.  Looking at the original paper is an antidote to all the “Einstein was wrong” journalism; those who click through to the original see modest claims being made very carefully, and scientists who are open to others proving them wrong.  The calm, methodical and qualified nature of the claims provides an important balance and a healthy glimpse of what science should really look like.

We often hear about “junk science,” and it is not clear how well the news media determines the quality of a scientific claim.  Too often it seems based on who is being the loudest or make the most attention-grabbing claim.  By having their work available in open access venues, scientists can counteract that tendency just a bit.  Besides, if valid science is all behind subscription barriers, we have no cause to complain that the media primarily reports on the junk, or at least fails to make judgments about quality.  Far better for the scientists and for society if the valid work is also out there in the marketplace of ideas, with an equal claim on the attention and critical judgment of the public.


One thought on “Getting light right”

  1. Thanks for this post, Kevin. It brought to mind a favorite quote by John Willinsky in The Access Principle… “I would argue that proving that the public has sufficient interest in, or capacity to understand, the results of scholarly research is not the issue. The public’s right of access to this knowledge is not something that people have to earn. It is grounded in a basic right to know.”

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