Public more concerned about quality than access

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Sense about Science aims to help the public understand scientific results. Sian Harris asked Leonor Sierra of the organisation about how important open access is to the general public

One of the frequent arguments in the open-access debate is the need for public access to research results. The case seems compelling, especially when it comes to health information. But how much call is there from the public for access to scholarly journals? Leonor Sierra, international science and policy manager of the organisation Sense about Science, which helps the public to understand scientific results, says the answer is not much.

‘Open access is not an issue that we get a lot of enquiries about. The more pressing requests that we get are about high-quality information such as lay summaries of papers, which make research more accessible to the public,’ she said. She sees providing public access to such summaries – and awareness of how to interpret the research behind them – as more key to public understanding than access to individual journal articles. ‘The public are not going to try to replicate the research in a paper,’ she said, noting that often scientific papers are so specialised that they are hard even for other scientists in different disciplines to gain much insight from.

The real issue that she sees as important for the public is a good peer review system, so that the public can start to make value judgements about the information that they are given. She noted that a large part of Sense about Science’s work is with intermediaries such as healthcare workers, journalists, teachers and patient groups, helping them to communicate scientific results in such a way that the public can see how the conclusions were reached.

There are no surprises about which areas of science the public are most interested in though. ‘We tend to be asked most about issues like health and climate change,’ commented Sierra.