Raising the barriers: restricting access to scientific literature will hurt STEM education

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Sandra Porter

This morning, I learned that congress wants to reverse the advances made by NIH and go back to restricting access to scientific publications. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (New York) and Congressman Darrell Issa (California) are co-sponsoring a bill to restore the limits on public access to NIH-funded research.

I've written many times before (here, here, here, and here) about the challenges that community college faculty and students have in getting access to scientific papers.

In an era where the economic benefits of educating students in science are well-known (1), the idea of crippling science education by cutting off access to the primary literature is puzzling. If anything, I would expect congress to support science education by asking the National Science Foundation (NSF) to follow NIH's lead and require that publications from NSF funded research be made open access, too.

Instead, bill H.R. 3699 will roll back the NIH Public Access Policy and block similar policies at other federal agencies. The effects would be horrific. 

Maloney and Issa might not be aware of this, but faculty and students at 1,167 community and technical colleges will be negatively impacted by this bill (2). Many community college faculty rely on open access materials. Not only are these publications important tools for keeping our understanding current, we rely on these publications to help educate our students.

How we use primary literature in biotechnology education
Unlike the faculty in research universities, many of the instructors in community college biotech programs are scientists with backgrounds in the biotech industry. These instructors routinely assign scientific papers as part of their courses since they are training biotechnology technicians and industry technicians are expected to be able to read this type of literature.

Industry advisory boards also encourage the use of primary literature. At Austin Community College (Texas), students use research articles to design and write experimental protocols. At Shoreline Community College (Washington), students in the Molecular Biology course give presentations on research papers. I also refer students to the primary literature in my bioinformatics courses. And I draw extensively on primary literature when I design instructional materials and learning activities. 

Our educational practices will be severely impacted by restricting access to the literature. If we're required to purchase individual articles, often priced at $30 each, we will either have to end these practices or consider becoming Internet pirates sailing on the good ship Napster.pdf.

Some of my experiences with the problems of accessing primary literature
Twenty years ago, as a new college instructor, I was thrilled when PubMed became free and my students could start reading abstracts on-line. I still spent hours photocopying and organizing papers for student presentations and research projects but having access to abstracts was a great beginning.

Not only did I want students to learn how to scientific papers, I wanted them to understand the difference between the primary literature and the articles you might read in the newspaper or popular magazines like Discover or Wired. I wanted students to see for themselves how some details might get left out, how the same details could be presented in different ways and multiple groups might arrive at different conclusions.

My instructor colleagues and I were especially happy when NIH began to require that NIH-funded research be open to the public. Now, we could get papers ourselves and we could start requiring our students to read papers, too. Even some of the high school teachers I know started asking students to use PubMed and skim papers on topics like genetic disease.

Doing the hard thing isn't always easy
In the days when research papers were pay per view, many of us shied away from assigning primary research. After all, it's not realistic to expect students to spend $30 to download a single article, when we know large numbers of students skip buying textbooks because of the cost. 

What?  Why didn't our students go to the library? Community colleges don't carry many journals since subscriptions are often too expensive.  As a faculty member, we were told not to request journals since our library was prohibited from ordering them.

A science instructor's task is made even harder since research articles are notoriously hard to read. Nevertheless, as instructors, we have an obligation to help students develop their reading skills. When our students don't have access to the materials we want them to ready, this goal gets all the harder to achieve.

An unequal education for all?
Restricting access to the primary literature will have a negative impact on access to science education. According to the American Association for Community Colleges, 43% of all undergraduates attend community colleges. For the minority students, who attend college, these numbers can be even higher (2). Consider as well, that students, including those who become science teachers, take many of their science courses at community colleges. 

What benefit could there possibly be to society for congress to take away what might be the only chance these students have to learn how to read and critique scientific papers?

If we want to promote STEM education, why handicap faculty and students by prohibiting access to the tools?


1.  Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadell, 2010 21st Century Skills

     See https://vimeo.com/17092060 for a great talk on STEM by Charles Fadell.

2.  American Association of Community Colleges 2011 fact sheet (pdf)

More information

Learn more about the role of community colleges in science education:

1.  Linnea Fletcher and V. Celeste Carter, 2010, The Important Role of Community Colleges in Undergraduate Biology Education.  CBE Life Sciences Education.

2.  George Boggs. Growing roles for science education in community colleges. Science 2010;329:1151-1152.

Jonathan Eisen has a nice summary of links regarding HR3699.  

And the White House has a request for information (RFI) on public access.  If you want to respond to this, please hurry.  The deadline for commenting is Jan. 12, 2012.

You can find a summary of the RFI here.

And the entire RFI here.


- Janet Stemwedel has posted a great article at #SciAmBlogs summarizing the meat of the bill:

"The Research Works Act: asking the public to pay twice for scientific knowledge."

- An interesting conversation on the bill between @timoreilly and congressman @DarrellIssa was posted by Alex Howard (digiphile) at Storify.