We are in the middle of a new political dynamic here in the US – one that has been building for over a decade. This new dynamic has meant that science and scientists are being viewed with a level of distrust – and even, at times, hostility – that is unprecedented in modern times, even as the advanced technologies that scientists create become more and more intertwined with everyday life. In this post, I suggest that while Open Access (OA) does democratize science to some extent, certainly for those who can understand the content, in isolation it is not enough and other actions should be considered.

Conspiracy Theory text typed on paper with old typewriter

There is an inexorable and healthy move towards open science, global scientific collaborations, and important advances that depend upon this openness – such as the development of vaccines with new mRNA delivery models, and the role of CRISPR and its extension to focused gene editing in potential treatment of some of our most pernicious diseases – advances that are squarely a product of global and public and private collaborations. So, clearly openness generally is a good thing, allowing the research ecosystem to flourish. But, in our rush to prioritize Open Access, have we left the world behind? Do we need to consider how to not just make information available, but how to democratize science and technology? How do we communicate an understanding of how science works, and what science may do for you in your life as a voter, a family member, a caregiver, and toward your ability to earn a living?

It is worth considering how we may have reached this point – a point where the scientific community is comfortable in its own elitist framework. The first place to look is in the political frame — a frame where liberalism has more or less defeated less democratic ideologies, but in its wake has left a distrustful and frustrated population. Think about the examples provided above. To the general public, “gene editing” has an ominous ring, and promises that such editing might be a boon to public health evoke only suspicion.

For now, the forces of moderation are in power, but there is an inescapable sense that democracy is no longer a given, and that significant swathes of the population are disillusioned with our political system. It is clearly happening here in the US, and indeed in the UK and beyond. I am sure I am not alone in asking why this is happening, and how could it possibly be that people in large numbers are turning away from substance to a more conspiratorial view that binds individuals together as a group that sees hope in conspiracy theories not constrained by evidence and fact. None of this is new. A wonderful and thought provoking book that I am currently enjoying, is entitled 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari. Harari begins his “lessons” by tackling some of these issues, not providing answers, but a narrative that encourages the reader to think, extend and extrapolate.

He contends that “The liberal story celebrates the value and power of liberty…However since the global financial crisis of 2008 people all over the world have become increasingly disillusioned with the liberal story.”

Harari points out that, “Both politicians and voters are barely able to comprehend the new technologies, let alone regulate their explosive potential.” Just look at how Brexit came to be. Essentially, Brexit is in force because voters expressed their frustration and confusion in the face of significant complexity, instead demanding that the UK be left alone to rekindle the halcyon days of independence from the rest of Europe – a myth, but a powerful myth.

Is it possible that as science celebrates the rise of new technologies such as genome editing, machine learning, and algorithms that automate production lines, we appear to make ordinary people and their lives irrelevant? Is science truly only relevant for elites that have a hope of understanding how they may apply to the world?

The psychological reality in the face of these pressures is to retreat and reject, with the fear of irrelevance boiling over into a rejection of fact. Michael Young, in his 1958 book (revised in 1994), The Rise of the Meritocracy, predicted all of this: he argued that the emergence of elites ostensibly based on competition and talent would not address issues of inequality: those left behind would still feel resentment and distrust.

One way to express power, then, is through rejecting facts and embracing fear — and you can see how this is a slippery slope toward embracing conspiracy theories. Many of us may say these beliefs are just plain crazy, but perhaps they may be understood as a reaction to the elites and increasing divides we have created. Why should I care about diversity, equity, and inclusion if at the same time I am feeling shut out of the powerful, unintelligible world of science?

Perhaps the last year has helped us turn a corner of understanding how science can be leveraged on behalf of us all. It is quite incredible to see the level of global collaboration on vaccine development, and how information on the COVID-19 pandemic has been democratized. Yes, there will always be extremists who reject vaccines, but the world has been included.

In summary, perhaps now is the time to focus on enabling the democratization and relevance of content for all. As we discuss an infrastructure for openness in our research and publishing ecosystem, let’s allow room for showing how science and technology may be directly relevant to our lives. How do we explain what we do so that science is not something to be afraid of?

I do not provide answers to these questions. What I ask is that we focus on the democratization of science as a priority in a bid not to further alienate an already fearful and suspicious population.

Further reading:

Intellectual Access — It Takes More Than Accessibility

Robert Harington

Robert Harington

Robert Harington is Chief Publishing Officer at the American Mathematical Society (AMS). Robert has the overall responsibility for publishing at the AMS, including books, journals and electronic products.


14 Thoughts on "Open Access, Conspiracy Theories and the Democratization of Knowledge"

Thanks so much, Robert, for putting Open Access into perspective, so much worth a read incl. your suggestions for literature, awesome.

This is a good start, but implicitly forecloses the possibility that the post-liberal forces might be grounded in reason. Further further reading:

The Revolt of the Elites, Christopher Lasch
Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen

I’ve just read it, wow. Thank you. Very carefully thought, interesting views probably true, certainly inspiring – I have to digest and ruminate about them -, and novel ! Finally new perspectives to be considered in this old, stale, ivory tower, not only old stale open access bla.bla.blas … on “how good we are in being so democratic” … and paying the monopoly to publish our science …

As seen recently in the financial markets, the democratization of knowledge will lead the way to level playing fields. Science and truth are the only way forward in the complex world in which we live. Thanks for the thought-provoking article!

I feel like for a lot of people, we academic types are elites who have left them behind both figuratively and literally. Our work often benefits elites – medical research results in new products for Big Pharma for example. Even the humanities, which supposedly foreground social justice, are really sponsors of neoliberal globalization with their pro-immigration rhetoric (dressed as postcolonialism). On a more personal level, higher education is often an ‘out’ for people from small towns and poorer communities. As we travel around the country and internationally, we distance ourselves from people who are disenfranchised by globalization. We literally leave them behind, adding to their alienation, and then we show up with our fancy degrees on social media telling them what to think about all sorts of things. What did we ever do to help them? Why should they listen to us?

The world has been turned upside down for the vast majority of those living in the idustrialized world especially in the US. We have said college is the answer to ones economic survival and then we find out that for many it is not. We are told that science will prevail but instead it creates unemployment in that which many know how to do. We find out that our leaders are self serving – they always were we just didn’t know – and so we seek a leader who says he can lead but really is just a fraud. And in order to find some semblance of order in a chaotic world we seek answers that simplify and those answers usually lie in conspiracy. Although knowledge will make one’s life free it will not solve economic distress but that guy on horseback says he has the answers and so many follow. These are perilous times. Remember the stab in the back and the big lie they are the same and tend to lead to a ruinous end. The availability of knowledge is there but is the understanding of it?

I agree Robert but from a slightly different angle. In a forthcoming TSK post (teaser alert!) I and my co-authors will argue that open by itself isn’t sufficient—that we would be well-served to work together to use the power of open to solve real and pressing science challenges at scale. Doing so will help open grow and develop. It will also help unleash the potential of open for the betterment of society, and in doing so, will help engage society in research and demonstrate more clearly what science means to society.

This is an incredible post. I have been thinking as of late (based on my scientific philosophy background) about how OA provides [or does not provide] a framework to democratize knowledge and may play into ‘fake news’. This all started when i was reflecting back on the proliferation of neuromyths (such as: you are right-brained vs. left-brained; 96% of American Educators believe this to be true). While some levels of OA are powerful to drive progress and innovation (as described in this post), 95% of the American population is left out of ‘intellectual access’ (that is, only 5% of Americans have enough knowledge of scientific facts and processes that they can read scientific literature – based on SEI national surveys). Additionally, there is a rather large attraction by scientists to maintain the elitism of science itself. This is really driven by conceptions of expertise and years (sometimes a full decade) of training to be inducted into various scientific communities of practice. And this elitism is sometimes necessary; we cannot write journal articles on [example – mRNA delivery models] in such colloquial terms that the rest of the population can understand. Scientists may have an ethical duty to write different versions of scientific literature that the public can understand, but media tends to do this for us (and not well, at that.) Hence, conspiracies then arise out of the frustration that comes alongside mis-understanding (or even grappling with cognitive dissonance without evidence to warrant any conceptual change in understanding). Scientific journal articles are written in an ‘elite’ manner because science is a language and needs specific terms and methods so that you don’t have to explain each time the fundamental aspects of science that are agreed upon and backed up by publications. This is where the OA movement falls short – it is not equitable in the sense of APCS/purchase models, nor does it drive the issues of equitable ‘intellectual access’ to content that may now be open. So then, what are the main goals of OA, outside of further increasing global collaboration amongst scientist themselves which in turn can impact society?

Thanks, Robert, for a thought-provoking post. Like you and many others I’ve been reading widely to better understand the moment we find ourselves in. There’s much social science research documenting how uncertainty – coupled with not knowing where to turn for authoritative information – is driving this extremism (this Atlantic article has a great summary: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/10/year-living-uncertainly/616648/). But I guess I’m confused by the positioning in the post and some of the comments that this is somehow a failure or shortcoming of OA? This isn’t the problem that open access set out to solve – the key problem 20-30 years ago was that of broadening access to the scientific literature to accelerate scientific discovery. Of course, that still leaves us with the urgent problems you lay out but I think they have little to do with OA per se and far more to do with problems like our education system and broken information ecosystem.

Alison, thanks for this. I am not suggesting an inherent failure, or shortcoming of OA. Rather, I am suggesting that while we have all spent much energy on OA, we need to do more – expand our focus – OA in itself is not enough.

Got it. But this is a huge, complex and interconnected set of issues – how should we think about what’s “in scope” for us as scholarly publishers when for most of us, our primary focus is peer to peer communication? I think that this is where the wider set of open research practices becomes crucial: we have a responsibility to ensure that the research we publish is transparent and trustworthy. That requires changes such as transparent peer review – I don’t think it’s good enough to say “just trust us”. We have to be willing to show our work.

I find phrases like democratizing science, or knowledge, to be dangerous.
Democracy is about power, opinions, and people. Science and knowledge are about facts, the truth. These have nothing to do with power or opinion.

Equitable access to the pursuit of science, the creation of knowledge, and it’s subsequent use are absolutely worthy goals.

However, I suggest to be more careful in the phrasing of these things, in particular in a time when facts are made subordinate to opinions, and when people already feel science should be controlled (have power over), in particular when the truth is not according to their beliefs.

Thought-provoking piece, thank you.

Regarding, ” How do we communicate an understanding of how science works, and what science may do for you in your life as a voter, a family member, a caregiver, and toward your ability to earn a living?”, a small step in that direction is Knowable Magazine (knowablemagazine.org). It is published by Annual Reviews, and is free to read and to republish. We would consider partners joining.

Making the literature OA is essential, but is just the start of a process of making knowledge usable to all.

My two cents… somewhere along the line, I fear that mainstream science shunned the popular science writer and the citizen science movement. As a result, we’ve forgotten how to storytell and how to articulate scientific discovery in lay terms.

At the same time, admittedly, the general public has grown a very short attention span. Suspicion and intentional disception has crept into the cultural dialog. As a result, it is getting increasingly difficult to articulate complex scholarly concepts in ways that the general public wish to consume them… we have not evolved with the times. Heck, as a scholarly community, we have not even been successful in convincing people of the advantages of wearing any form of face covering during a global contagion pandemic.

Yet, at the same time, I catch my son watching hour upon hour of YouTube videos that debunk myths, explain complex physics phenomena, and provoke reflection through scientific reasoning (cases in point; watch Game Theory videos by Matthew Patrick, or the SmarterEveryDay channel) — so some people definitely understand how to communicate science using new media formats in very engaging ways.

The scholarly community needs to learn these lessons, fast! Potentially even reach out to harness the voice of some of these social and mainstream science writers/actors/influencers through sponsorship and/or collaboration. We need to learn how to competitively harness these social media platforms (even set up our own content channels) — it is not just about posting a short blog post on a novel finding or paper, it is about visually capturing the audience through captivating storytelling.

I feel that there is a large scholarly communications opportunity staring us in the face, and we are still trying to come to grips with what open access, open science, open scholarship, and open engagement mean, and who is on board.

We need to stop this nonsense and simply learn as a scholarly community how to communicate scholarly activity better! There are case studies and models all around us! We need to adopt a much more visual and audio storytelling approach to scholarly communication. We all need to learn to be “communicators”, because, if not us in the scholarly publishing community, then who?

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