As a research scientist I spend a great deal of time attempting to discover or clarify specific bits of minutia that most likely do not matter in the least. That's great! That's how science works. Occasionally someone discovers something really big and there's a flurry of new advances, but mostly it's just thousands of guys in labs across the world pushing the borders of knowledge forward a quarter of an inch at at time. I think the game minesweeper is a really good analogy. Sometimes you click a box and a large portion of the game board is opened up, but most of the game is placing flags or clicking individual boxes that don't gain you nearly as much knowledge of the board state.
Yet, for all the laboring that goes on (a great deal of it funded with public tax dollars) it's unlikely that you have access to it. Suppose every year one hundred studies are conducted. In my experience the public will have easy access to approximately ten of those. The remaining ninety will either not be submitted to be published, rejected by publishers or restricted behind an obscenely expensive pay wall. Let's look at each of these reasons why the public is refused access to research they've funded in turn.
The Study is not Submitted for Publication
At times research goes wrong, does not reveal anything of note or is flawed. If in the judgement of the researchers a study would not contribute to the understanding or advancement of a discipline it is generally not submitted for publication. It would be preferable if the study had not been conducted at all in the first place, however researchers make mistakes just like everyone else.
Here's an example. Suppose a researcher thought perhaps if you drove a DeLorean up to eighty eight miles per hour you'd travel through time. It's a pretty outlandish idea, but if he's right it'd be a rather large discovery. After a brief preliminary experiment he finds that such phenomenon are restricted to Hollywood blockbusters circa 1985. At this point he could write up his research and submit it to the journal of automotive time travel. But to what end? A paper informing people that DeLorean based time travel isn't possible tells no one anything they didn't already know. It's likely better to improve the signal to noise ratio within the discipline by keeping the results to yourself.
In summary, as long as researchers are honest and diligent this reason for research being restricted access seems prudent. To be clear however, by restricted access I simply mean not published. I do not mean the information should be hidden from anyone who desires it i.e. not published behind a pay wall.
The Study is Rejected for Journal Publication
There is certainly nothing wrong with academic journals restricting what they publish. After all, the entire purpose of journals is to highlight the most important and influential papers in a field. Unfortunately numerous studies have indicated that journals tend to have a significant publishing bias.
In general academic journals tend to publish studies which are potentially headline grabbing, novel, or controversial. This doesn't seem particularly unusual, however there is a subtle problem. As every researcher knows any given study has a potential for error. If a study gives an astounding result it is far more likely to be published, but it may also be incorrect. Follow up studies to reaffirm the hypothesis are subsequently less likely to be published (as they are no longer novel) even if they refute the original.
For example, suppose we conducted a study to test whether honey bees could understand human speech. We construct a box in which we place a bee and then give it commands while recording it's actions. Amazingly, after dozens of tests we crunch the numbers and determine that statistically the bee seems to be doing what we command most of the time. This study fits all three of our characteristics for publishing. It is novel, headline grabbing and controversial. Because it is controversial many labs attempt to replicate the study. All of course determine that bees do not in fact understand human speech. However, these studies are no longer novel, are not headline grabbing and aren't terribly controversial so are less likely to be published.
The end result is that for researchers seeking publishing credit it's often better to be associated with flashy pop science studies than with mundane research that actually advances the discipline. In other words if name recognition is your goal it's better to research something unlikely and hope to get lucky than to affirm what is already suspected.
Using journals as an information filter is useful. It highlights studies that are provocative. However, it also limits access to a lot of information that should be available. It would be preferable for studies to be published to an open platform that journals could then point to, rather than journals being themselves the source of reference for most people. Such a platform would allow journals to still serve their roll as information filters while permitting the public and academics alike easy access to refuting opinions when necessary.
Pay Wall Restriction
This is, by far, the most egregious offense in terms of information access. Publicly funded research, conducted by academics drawing their salary primarily from public funds, written by the same academics, reviewed by similar academics, restricted for the profit of private corporations.
Listen, I'm an economist. I'm all for companies making a fair profit. But this situation is akin to an oil company drilling for oil in Central Park, making millions of dollars, and when the public complains declaring "well how else are we going to pay for our oil drilling equipment?" Last year Harvard said they could not afford to pay increasingly large journal fees which in 2012 amounted to $3.5 million dollars. It's ludicrous that universities have to pay such costs for research for which they are a primary contributor. What is the service provided by the journals for this fee? They neither create nor review the studies. Essentially the entirety of their service is organization and printing, the latter of which is increasingly unimportant in the digital age. We are no longer in an era of specialized typesetters and printers. A variety of software very nearly automates these processes to the point that minimal training is required. So for over three million dollars annually journals; decide what to publish, put writers in contact with reviewers, and compile the journal. If major universities could simply get on the same page they could provide the same services themselves far cheaper and more efficiently.
The situation is even more dire if you're an individual not associated with a university. Want access to a three page paper published in a restricted access journal? Be prepared to pay a minimum of $30. Did you find that the paper didn't have the information you'd hoped? Tough luck, prepare to pay $30 more to try again. And thirty dollars is at the low end of fees. Access to some articles may run you as high as $125 or more. Do you just want to keep up with the developments in a particular field? Be prepared to pay hundreds of dollars annually for digital only versions and possibly thousands for print versions. Of course you are forbidden from showing others your journal articles as those prices are for individual use only.
I truly believe journals provide a valuable service. However, at this time I believe it's a service they're being over payed for when they're doing little of the work. Researchers are already payed (mostly by public funds) for creating and reviewing the content. Why are journals receiving such large rents for doing so little?
I will end my tirade there. Again, the above is entirely my one sided opinion and I'm sure that the journal publishers have their own perspective. Still it irritates me to no end that I have access to an endless sea of scientific research while the general public does not. Hopefully some day soon someone will reform this bizarre system.
Until next week, stay safe and rationale.