Sloth Science and Universal Access to Information

Sloth Science and Universal Access to Information

September 28th is The International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI), a day that, despite this digital age, goes largely unrecognized.

But what does this mean? And how does maintaining universal access to information have anything to do with sloths? In our quest to better understand these unique and enigmatic creatures, all information about them is valuable. Moreover, the success of the scientific method relies on open and equal access to information.



Origins of the scientific method

The tried and true scientific method, a staple of our science fairs and classrooms, has not always been around. It emerged in the 1600s, largely due to the work of Copernicus and Newton, whose theories helped us to understand the role of gravity in our solar system.

Source: https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/science-fair/steps-of-the-scientific-method


One of the key drivers behind the success of the scientific method has been the sharing of information. Studies are repeated in different contexts to see if the same results emerge and the knowledge gained from these experiments serve as the inspiration for new studies. Together we begin to chip away at the mysteries of the universe. However, despite its power, knowledge has not always been shared equally.


The first public library

The modern public library, as we know it today, is a fairly recent invention. There is evidence of ancient libraries dating back to 7 B.C.E with the oldest known library belonging to the Assyrian ruler, Ashurbanipal, however access to these collections was restricted. The first modern public library was created in 1833 in Peterborough, New Hampshire, making the Peterborough Town Library, the oldest public library supported by money from taxes.


Peterborough Town Library’s books could be accessed for free by anyone living in the town./Source: https://peterboroughtownlibrary.org/history/


Today, many of our libraries have entered the virtual realm and yet they continue to provide free access to a great assortment of educational materials. However, despite the importance of open access to information, many scientific journals still act as the gatekeepers.


Open-access journals

If you are a scientist who has just completed a study, your next step is often deciding whether you would like to publish your article in a traditional journal or an open-access journal. Historically, journals were only available in print form. Now in the age of the internet, many journals have opted to virtually publish their studies online.

Like public libraries, open-access journals are free and can be read by anyone with an internet connection. Seems like the best choice, right? Although publishing in an open-access journal can often lead to more visibility (since the study is readily available) there are hidden drawbacks.


The first and latest issue of the longest-running scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions (1665-present)./Source: Wikimedia Commons and https://royalsocietypublishing.org/journal/rstb


Scientists pay to publish, and readers pay to view

Unlike most other trades, scientists do not get paid to publish their work – it is actually the exact opposite. First, scientists have to find funding for their research (through grant applications, fundraising or self-funding) and do the hard work of actually completing the investigation. If the project goes well and they end up with a publishable paper, they then have to pay a scientific journal to publish it.

The publication fees are typically thousands of dollars (with the cost to publish in the highest ranking journals often exceeding $10,000 per article).

The majority of scientific journals then charge an additional fee to anyone who wants to read the paper after publication. Many universities will pay the subscription fees, making a variety of journals and publications accessible for “free” to their students. However, for an individual who is not studying at a university, a single article can cost $30+. A price that for many is prohibitively expensive.

For this reason, publishing in an open-access journal is significantly more expensive than publishing in a more traditional pay-to-view journal. Unless the scientist hoping to publish the study has these kinds of funds available, they may have to choose a more restricted access journal, or not publish the important findings from their work at all!

Paying to access scientific information is not an option for the majority of people living and working in regions that are of critical conservation importance.

There is an important overlap between areas of poverty and key areas of global biodiversity. If the people working on the ground to protect and conserve wildlife cannot access the latest scientific information due to the financial constraints (or language barriers, with the majority of scientific journals only publishing in English) then the information isn’t reaching the people who need access to it the most. 


SloCo’s commitment to open-access

Here at SloCo we believe that knowledge should be shared. Therefore all of the research that we have conducted on sloths is published in open-access journals. Our hope is that by enabling everyone access to this information, we can harness the power of collaborative science in order to more effectively understand sloths and how we can help them.


Sloth scientist and founder of SloCo, Dr. Rebecca Cliffe, fits a male three-fingered sloth (Bradypus variegatus) with a sloth backpack /Photo: Suzi Eszterhas


-Katra Laidlaw

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