A Neuroscientist Risked His Research to Publish These Photos

"The public should certainly have a goddamn say in my work."

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Jun 27 2014, 10:00am
Images: Anonymous

When a scientist is looking to publish the results of his or her experiment, you’d think it’d solely be a matter of how conclusive or significant its findings are. But the world of academic journals is a pay-to-play oligarchy, in which having your work circulated throughout the scientific community through an open-access journal can first require you pay $1000 publishing fees

Meanwhile, publishing through a subscription-based journal can save researchers publishing fees, but limits access for anyone not enrolled in an academic institution. A single article can cost up to $40 to download, while a yearly journal subscription can sometimes reach tens of thousands of dollars. Just look at the organic chemistry journal Tetrahedron.

These issues have helped fuel the open access debate, and revolve around an essential question: How can research journals balance public access, paper quality, copyright concerns, and publishing fees? Copyright is a huge concern; many journals retain copyrights on whatever they publish—open access journals are generally an exception by their nature—and aren't afraid to enforce those rights, as evidenced by Aaron Swartz's own copyright battle.

And they're not the only concerns worth discussing. What if, as a scientist, you think about your experiments and their resulting media in the same way an artist thinks about their art? What if you don’t want to take the expected route of scientific publishing, which means paying to give up ownership and reproducibility rights of your work over to a for-profit publisher?

A neuroscientist at a top university in California recently reached out to Motherboard to promote these points. He also asked us to publish a series of images from experiments he recently performed during a fellowship.

But because most scientific journals will refuse to publish a work if it’s been publicized elsewhere, and because he doesn’t want to completely throw away his chances of getting this work the academic respect that comes from traditional journal publishing, he’s requested anonymity. In exchange, we’ll just call him Paul.

“The wording [of publishing contracts] is vague enough and the implications are serious enough that I would be in violation of a journal’s policies if I took the scientific content from my ‘protected’ Instagram feed and tried to publish the same images through the traditional route,” Paul wrote in an email exchange earlier this week.

The point was to highlight an essential conundrum Paul sees: If he publishes figures or images online first, even if only to solicit advice, he may inadvertently preclude his ability to publish those images in a journal later. And by first publishing them in a journal, he may lose the rights to reproduction, and at the very least the chance to look for wider comment on his work.

“This is especially unfortunate because Instagram in particular has proven to be a valuable resource for crowdsourcing feedback on figure design from both my visuo-spatially- and scientifically-oriented acquaintances," he said.

Another wrinkle Paul noted was his source of funding. In 2013, Congress approved a research and development budget of $130.9 billion to be distributed by 12 major government agencies, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science

In addition to donations from philanthropic organizations, the majority of universities and non-profit research centers rely on federal dollars to bring their scientist’s experiments to life, and the use of public funds to help support research that the public can't easily access is troubling to some researchers.

“The funds from my personal research grant are allocated to me by a federal agency with a 30-billion dollar budget built from taxpayer money," he said. "The public should certainly have a goddamn say in my work."

Paul has published 10 articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals, most of which he was the lead author. But like many other researchers, he’s grown frustrated at navigating all the red tape and exorbitant costs required to disseminate his findings throughout the scientific community. Especially when he feels like what he’s doing shouldn’t be considered divorced from aesthetics and beauty.

“When reading research grants, I frequently see the word ‘innovative’ but rarely see the word ‘creative,’” Paul said. “In reality, the role of artist-like creativity in experimental design, image generation, and data analysis is equally critical to the research process as is problem-solving and perseverance.”

By asking Motherboard to publish these images here, Paul said he aims to bypass the market structures surrounding access to information, while also ensuring his art can reach an audience of people who would’ve otherwise never known what engrosses his life.

While he also advised us not to describe exactly what the images entail, saying that “the research world is very small," they’re fascinating on their own. They're also a product, Paul argues, of the same study, sacrifice, and devotion affiliated with the artistic process. 

“While creating and analyzing these images, I began to obsess over the profound beauty inherent in evolution and neuroanatomy,” writes Paul. “Eventually I came to terms with the concept of these pictures as my own personal artwork; work that I was proud to take ownership over.”

But whether you’re a scientist looking to contribute your baby to the scientific community while also wanting to “post” it online, or a civilian hospital patient wanting to do extracurricular research on a procedure you’re about to undergo, owning what you’ve had a hand in making is more formidable than logic would believe. 

“From this perspective, I'm currently feeling extremely uncomfortable about handing over thousands of dollars to a journal that would retain exclusive copyright on the content," he said.

Publishing these works on the platform of aesthetic expression could also open up his work to more examination from another type of reviewer: the art critic. But taking on more judgment is worth the freedom of telling the non-academic world about your role in the advancement of science.

“Labeling my own scientific output as ‘art’ exposes me to criticism, subjective opinion, and scrutiny that go far beyond the initial goals of whatever neuroscientific study I happen to be working on. But that's fine,” writes Paul.