When knowledge and data are more accessible to everyone, science becomes more equitable.
Three foundational principles have guided science for generations and led to amazing discoveries, new theories, incredible technological leaps, and cures for diseases:
Transparency: We want to understand what you did.
Reproducibility: We want to get enough detail that the methods and results can be replicated.
Defensibility: We want to know that the conclusions reached are supported by the data and analyses.
But is one principle missing from how we do science? Perhaps the most important principle needed to bring equity to science is accessibility.
How can we understand science if we can’t access it?
The culture and politics of scientific inquiry, academia, and publishing have long hindered access to science. Most research is published in journals that are inaccessible unless you have university library access or are a member of a professional society. Often, academic libraries can’t afford subscription prices, and annual societal dues range from tens to hundreds of dollars.
One answer has been a shift by many journals to offer “open access” to their articles. It increases the visibility and utility of an article, but open access upcharges come at a premium cost to researchers, taxpayer-backed funding sources, and institutions.
What else can we do to improve science equity through accessibility? A recent paper (that is published open access!) highlights an accessibility strategy that does just that—and makes the invisible world of science visible to everyone!
Have you heard of diatoms?
Diatoms are a type of microscopic algae—invisible to the naked eye—that form the base of most stream, lake, and ocean food webs. They are common tools for water quality monitoring and guide management efforts to ensure healthy waterbodies. Their photosynthesis generates about 20% of the oxygen on earth—that’s every fifth breath you take! With that level of global importance, why have so many people never seen a diatom or even heard of them?
The answer is lack of accessibility. For diatoms and diatomists (scientists who study diatoms), the science has long suffered from accessibility, published mostly in specialty journals or books that cost hundreds of dollars. Early research of diatoms was limited to the wealthy—those who could afford microscopes—or those who had strong government or private backing.
The beauty of diatoms’ ornate shells (which allow us to identify each species) made them an attractive field of study for the wealthy. And it was that ability to identify them under the microscope that made them the perfect organisms for monitoring, research, and biodiversity studies.
Diatoms for all
The recent paper I coauthored, published in the journal Diatom Research, introduces everyone to the website Diatoms of North America at diatoms.org. For the last decade, a community of contributors—students, professors, researchers, retirees, amateurs, and citizen scientists—have taken accessibility head-on and worked together to bring diatoms to the masses through a “content curation community.”
Garnering nearly 1 million annual page views, diatoms.org invites users to experience the world of diatoms from the basics (“What are diatoms?” is our most visited page) to advanced treatments of more than 1,000 different species—that describe, distinguish, and differentiate each from among the myriad of diatom forms.
The site has become a source of data supporting research initiatives on invasives, monitoring, taxonomic revision, and policy development. It also highlights news in the world of diatoms and supports a webinar series begun during the pandemic on all things diatom—from the arts and biofuels to genomics, microscopy, outreach, teaching, and taxonomy.
Most importantly, the site promotes accessibility in all it does, adding a much-needed accessibility leg in support of the guiding principles of science, because, “When knowledge and data are more accessible to everyone, science becomes more equitable.”