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The Popularity of Open Access Journals and the Media

by Eva Amsen

Hundreds of scientific articles are published every week. Most of them are so specific that only someone working in the same field can understand them. Breakthrough articles that are expected to draw an interest among a wider audience end up in the most prominent journals and from there are picked up by the mainstream media if the topic can be translated to non-scientific language.
Other topics that end up in mainstream media are the weird and funny stories. Hardly anyone outside of certain fields of biology has heard of the worm C. elegans, one of the easy to handle model organisms in biology labs, but it made headlines when it miraculously survived the space shuttle Columbia crash in 2003.
The small number of science publications that receive mainstream popularity are not necessarily the most interesting ones from a scientific point of view. An editorial in the current issue of PloS Biology talks to the author of their most-downloaded paper “Ultrasonic Songs of Male Mice”. This article was mentioned in international newspapers and sent around the internet, but the author remained humble: “[W]hile I’m proud of the work, it’s certainly a disproportionate amount of attention given how many other interesting things there are in science.”

While I don’t want to downplay mouse communication, I’m afraid he’s right. This article received a lot of attention because it’s cute, because people with no scientific background understand the concepts of mice and singing, and because it was easily accessible in an open access journal. Many scientific publications are hiding behind a wall of expensive subscriptions. No casual reader will ever pay a fee to download an article for fun. This means that open access journals such as the ones published by PloS are far more likely to attract non-academic readers than paid journals. Right now this skews the reporting of science in the media: an accessible article has a better chance of making the news. There is still some hesitation among scientific publishers to go open access out of fear of losing credibilty among acdemic peers. Once more and more existing open access publications will be referenced in publications by subscription-based journals, this fear will hopefully subside. Ideally, all scientific articles should be equally easy to access, not just for scientists but for the public as well. This gives the media a bigger choice of what to report, and we might have found that singing mice were, in fact, not the most interesting science news last month.

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Ewen Callaway March 1, 2006 - 6:44 PM

You’re correct in recognizing that a lot of the stories covered by the media are not necessarily the most impoartant ones. I cover science news for a public radio station, and I am unlikely to report on an important, but highly technical journal article.

I have a background in molecular biology, so I can understand a lot of technical papers, but I have to decide whether my readers would be interested in a story or not.

The job of a science reporter is to recognize both what’s important and interesting in the literature and present it in a light that allows his or her readers to understand its significance and still want to read on.

I would disagree with your assertion that open access has an impact on what gets covered by the media. PloS is the only major journal that is entirely open access, and its article s are not nearly as reported as Nature, Science or even PNAS.

Eva March 1, 2006 - 10:45 PM

Thanks for your comment.
I think that from the perspecitive of individual readers, a link to a PloS article is easily forwarded or linked at link-sharing sites like Digg or del.icio.us and any other items have to first be published in a regular, accessible paper before they can be seen by anyone.
I suppose my point is that as far as non-open access journals go, people are dependent on science journalists like yourself, but anyone can go to the source of an open access journal.

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