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Climate Change: Closing the Knowledge Gap by Opening Access to Research

In this guest post, Sara Lindenfeld, a former PLOS employee on her way back to school for environmental graduate studies at Duke University, discusses the disconnect between public perceptions of climate change and scientific evidence of its reality, and how Open Access publishing can help bridge that gap.

Image by Jonathan Billinger
Image by Jonathan Billinger

With the launch of PLOS’ “Ecological Impacts of Climate Change” collection, it’s important to consider the reach each of these papers  has had because the authors opted to publish in an Open Access  journal. Had they not, it’s safe to assume Jaramillo et al.’s paper demonstrating the negative impacts of warming climate on African coffee production would not have received the nearly 7,000 views and five citations it has accumulated to date, nor would the social networks of the 70 readers who shared this paper on Facebook and Twitter been able to freely access this research.

As a former PLOS employee, I always encourage authors to publish in Open Access journals in the interest of increasing the dissemination and impact of their work.  As I am also a student focusing on climate and energy issues, I place particular value on making climate change research as accessible as possible. Few other fields of science affect the public the way climate change does, and scientists must engage with the public in order to induce informed decisions with effective solutions. Unfortunately, there already exists a significant disconnect between the scientific community’s and the public’s perception of global warming, and locking this important research behind a paywall only deepens this divide.

I first encountered this discrepancy as an undergraduate researcher in the climate field. When my college friends would ask about the scope of my work, I’d notice they’d seem to shut down when I mentioned the words “climate change”. Typically, they’d make some joke along the lines of, “but global warming isn’t real, right?” I came to realize that my peers were genuinely confused about the state of climate change science, and were often too embarrassed to broach the subject at all.

With a background split between climate change assessment and Open Access publishing, I can’t help but imagine the strides we could take to help close this divide if all climate research was published in PLOS-like journals. The Internet is riddled with scientific misinformation, and climate change deniers certainly don’t hide their arguments behind paywalls. As PLOS’ “Ecological Impacts of Climate Change” collection demonstrates, the global consequences of climate change are diverse and far-reaching, but how can we fully communicate the breadth of the impacts to the public at large when about only one-third of earth science papers are published in Open Access journals? (Björk et al., 2009)

The value that PLOS and other OA publishers place on accessibility extends beyond the content of the research it publishes. By allowing commenting and providing links to each paper’s citations, related content, and coverage in scholarly discussion forums, the media, and social networking sites, PLOS makes the scientific community more accessible as well. If these features were used at their full potential — with all climate research published in PLOS-like journals and with users and scientists actively contributing to the discussion forums — they could be incredibly powerful in transforming the way the public engages with the climate community. This would allow the public to speak directly with climate experts, and it would provide readers with insight into the scholarly discussion surrounding the research. Increasing the dialogue between these communities could ultimately demystify the science and lessen public confusion.

Al Gore presenting on climate change. Image credit Open Democracy via Flickr
Al Gore presenting on climate change. Image credit Open Democracy via Flickr

Connecting the public with climate science needn’t stop at research publishing; there are many actions students and others can take, such as becoming involved with organizations devoted to educating the public about the state of climate change science. For example, I recently completed the training for one such project, The Climate Reality Leadership Corps an initiative within former Vice President Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project. I am now one of 6,000 trained Climate Leaders in over 100 countries prepared to speak with local communities about the reality of the climate crisis. The Climate Reality Team believes that disseminating reputable climate change information to the public is the most effective way of inducing action, and equips each of its volunteer leaders with the science, communication, leadership, and outreach skills to deliver this message. They also believe that by encouraging Climate Leaders to speak with communities they are already a part of, we can bring the science to a more accessible and understandable level. But for groups like The Climate Reality Project to break down and deliver the science, it needs to be available in the first place.

Many students only become aware of the Open Access movement after graduation when they are suddenly denied access to journals their libraries previously provided. As members of a university in our academic bubble, it’s easy to forget that this is the daily reality for most of the public. However, if we truly want to educate the public about the severity of our climate crisis and take action, publishing climate research in Open Access journals is an excellent step in the right direction.

Sara picture

Sara Lindenfeld received her BA from UC Berkeley and will be starting graduate studies in environmental sciences at Duke this fall. Her interests revolve around climate change assessment and communication, having worked in the climate field at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment and Friends of the Earth, U.S., and in the science publishing field as a Senior Publications Assistant for PLOS ONE. 

  1. This is the rather naive view held by many enthusiastic young climate activists.
    “If only we could educate the public about climate change, they would understand the severity of the problem and agree to take action”.
    It is called the deficit model, and it has been discredited.

  2. The article seems to be more about changing accessibility and the way the scientific community and the public can engage with each other, which in some ways is the antithesis of deficit model thinking. Sounds like a step in the right direction to me.

    A great read Sara, keep em coming.

  3. No it is not the deficit model, it is an assertion. It does however sound like many claims in the 80s and 90s that the deficit model theory argues under-emphasizes other factors in public knowledge/awareness. It is still a theory, and does not categorically prove her wrong.
    And as her mission is to promote the advantages of open access per se, rather than to say if only the public could access these papers, you are being a little harsh.

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