Create Change

Shouldn't the way we share research be as advanced as the Internet?

Scholars Speak


Gary Ward
University of Vermont

Gary Ward
Gary Ward

Dr. Ward, Associate Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at the University of Vermont, received his PhD from the University of California, San Diego. He was a Senior Staff Fellow at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from 1989-1996, when he joined the faculty at the University of Vermont. His laboratory studies the cell biology of parasites and parasitic disease. He is Treasurer of the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB), and a member of the PLoS Biology editorial Board. He served on the National Library of Medicine’s Public Access Working Group, and was recently appointed to a three-year term on the PubMed Central National Advisory Committee.

How have information and communication technologies changed the way academics conduct research and understand findings in biomedicine?

Increasingly, large raw datasets are data published alongside research results. The availability of these datasets makes it possible for anyone, anywhere to access and analyze the information. This means that we can all benefit from the hard work put into generating these datasets. The same dataset is often used to address different questions by different scientists.

Another big development is the efforts of the National Library of Medicine (NLM) and other organizations to assemble user-friendly databases of protein structures, DNA sequences, human genetic diseases, pharmacological tools, and other resources. It is easy to move back and forth between these databases and that can be a hugely powerful research tool. Through NLM’s PubMed, you can also link to relevant journal abstracts. PubMed Central provides free full-text articles, but unfortunately at this point only a small proportion of the literature is freely available in PubMed Central in full-text form.

What have the benefits of digital scholarship been in your field, and to you personally?

In my own research on parasites, some work that used to take up to a year can now be done in a couple of weeks using genome sequence data. As more information becomes available, it’s easier for us to determine if what we are looking at in one parasite is also found in other parasites. We’ve had three examples in my lab recently where digital sequence information made it possible for us to quickly extend our research results into other parasites – including those that cause malaria. The availability of DNA sequence information for so many organisms has also made most of us think more about evolution and the evolutionary history of the organisms we work on. It’s all right there in front of you. This has had a huge impact on our understanding of evolutionary biology.

You write that it’s a misconception that everyone who needs access to scientific literature has access. Is there a serious access problem?

It’s clear there is a problem. If you are at NIH or Harvard, you may not experience it. At the University of Vermont or the University of Kentucky, you may lack access to 25 percent of the information you need. At many state and junior colleges, you have less access still. Research at these institutions suffers as a result. So does teaching. If you are trying to teach upper level classes and you don’t have access to the most current literature, you are really handicapped, and your students are not getting as good an education as they deserve.

How do you feel about the role of societies in scientific communication and change?

When it comes to access to the literature, societies range from the bold to the cautious to the outright obstructionist. Some societies have taken a very strong stand against increased access because they are concerned about losing subscription revenue. But the leadership in these societies is often out of sync with their members, who want to provide the greatest possible access to their own papers. So there is tension in some societies over this issue. The important thing to understand is that you can have a journal that both makes money and provides reasonable free access to content. There are many, many journals that offer content for free after two to 12 months that remain profitable.

What has your experience been with the American Society for Cell Biology sharing information digitally?

The ASCB has been really progressive on this issue. In 2001, our journal, Molecular Biology of the Cell, was one of the first to deposit content in PubMed Central. We make author manuscripts available from the day they are accepted, before they’ve been formatted for the journal. Then, two months after publication of a journal issue, we offer 100 percent of the content for free on the Web – both on the society’s Website and in PubMed Central. We allow authors to post the final, published papers on personal or institutional Websites from the day they are published. As Treasurer of the ACSB, I am constantly looking at whether these liberal access policies harm us in any way financially. They don’t –­ the journal remains profitable.

The ASCB has also recently launched an exciting new project that will make high quality digital images and videos of cells freely available on-line for teaching and research purposes. Every item in the collection will be peer reviewed for quality and significance and each will come with complete annotation as to its source, the methods used to generate it, and so on. This will be a great resource when it is up to speed.

What do you think about policies calling for free online access to publicly funded research?

I personally would have preferred if the scientific community could have handled this on its own. But it’s clear there are deep-seated traditions standing in the way of needed change. The right thing to do and professional advancement are frequently at odds. The voluntary NIH public access policy has been a dismal failure. Legislation appears to be the next best option. The important things are that the legislation makes manuscript deposition mandatory and the access embargo is no more than six months.

Is there consensus among your colleagues about the use of digital media and sharing of information? If not, what are the biggest areas of debate?

One of the biggest questions is deciding at what point journals should go online only. At ASCB we examine this every year, asking at what point to drop the print version of our journal. While most of us say that we never pick up a print copy, we also fear that discontinuing the print edition might hurt the prestige of the journal. There is a culture shift that has to take place.

The other controversy is about if and when a society should make its journal content freely available to all. The discussion should be data driven and not based on anecdote or urban myth. When you look at the data, there is little reason to believe that offering research articles for free after six months will have a negative financial impact. As a cell biologist, I can’t wait six months to see the results in my field, so canceling my subscription is not a viable option.

What traditions would you like to see change to improve the digital communication landscape?

There is a move toward journals requiring that full digital data sets be included with online papers. That’s a healthy development.

Are there other changes that you find encouraging?

I’m encouraged by a number of true open access journals appearing on the scene – ones that are freely available through an Internet connection from the moment they are published. These journals are trying to prove that open access can be high quality and financially viable. The Public Library of Science journal PLoS Biology is an interesting experiment in open access publishing that is of extraordinarily high quality. After only two years, it had an impressive impact factor. An increasing number of publishers are now experimenting with the open access model. Many journals with more of a traditional business model are also doing their best to offer content free after a period of time that protects their revenue. To post two, four or even six months later for free is helpful.

One of the things that energizes me personally on this issue is working with colleagues in the developing world, where parasitic diseases are a real and urgent problem. I was recently in Argentina and was tremendously impressed by the caliber of scientists down there. But they don’t have anywhere near the resources we do and are very isolated from scientific literature that they need. It’s a particularly acute problem in areas like parasitology.

Has the way you teach changed?

Yes, I draw on much more information when preparing lectures. When I teach, I incorporate digital video wherever I can. Cells are very dynamic and you need to understand how they behave in space and time. I find videos are a really effective teaching tool. I’ve also incorporated into my classes online exercises where I have students search through databases and come back to share important insights with the class. This makes learning more active. Rather than me telling them what’s out there, they go out and find it themselves. In one of my classes, we have what are called “genome jamborees”, where the students teach each other about the genomes of different pathogenic bacteria.

What is the benefit of more open sharing of research?

It changes the way we do science. With data mining and access to more datasets, it’s possible to look at information in different ways. It leverages the original investment. The more eyes looking at the data, the more we will learn.

In a more practical sense, universal access to the scientific literature levels the playing field for researchers at different institutions and in different parts of the world. To maximize scientific progress, it’s critical that everyone has full access rather than be handcuffed with barriers to information.

As more people seek health information on the Web before seeing a physician, more access to research results may also change the doctor-patient relationship into a more collaborative one. The most motivated Web surfer is someone looking for information on their own condition, and this may ultimately make patient care more informed.

Looking down the road a decade or so, what do you expect will be different when it comes to digital scholarship in your field?

I look forward to when all these large databases – including full text research articles – are truly integrated in a seamless way. We will all eventually be going to paperless journals, so everything will be electronic only. This transition will provide a wonderful opportunity to consider papers something more than the final product of a research project. People will continue to provide commentary and research will continue to evolve after the paper has been “published.” That’s something that’s really missing in the process today. It will be useful for readers to see disagreements in papers – a level of interactive and continuing evaluation of data. And I’d like to think that we will continue to see an increasing number of financially successful open access journals.