The maverick amateur researcher could yet save us all.
People love to cite Fifty Shades of Grey as the ultimate example of self-publishing, indie-grown work breaking into the mainstream, but I believe that’s a poor representation of our true potential. What I’m looking for is the next great discovery, made in a DIY lab, written up on Arxiv, and published so that everyone can read it.
Scientific research is, well, expensive. How expensive? Think of it this way: almost 9.5 million taxpayer dollars are going to Harvard Medical School this year in the form of publicly funded research grants from the National Institutes of Health alone, and it’s not enough. Researchers at for-profit institutions compete hard for what little money’s out there, and for the most part, only safe ideas get funded. The result is a handful of bland, unexciting papers shuffling through peer review, same as it ever was, year after year. Thanks, money.
The publish-or-perish system partially exists to validate the continued funding of all the great institutional research this country requires, but when bland papers on bland topics turn into books, the result is … well, bland. And not exactly accessible. Sure, John Q. Public can go out and buy a copy of Nanotechnology in Endodontics … for the low, low price of $143 (most of which the researcher will never see). But for the most part, the institutional researcher lives in an echo chamber where funding acquisition rules the roost.
Expensive as research is, it’s actually remarkably simple: follow the scientific method. Amateurs have done incredible things with far less than what you’d normally find at the standard academic laboratory, and DIY labs are getting more and more popular by the day. Enough chasing funds—maybe it’s time to go crazy and just do some science.
Money Is No Object
It’s not like funding is exactly hard to come by these days, either. Just look at the science tag on Kickstarter. Want to build a fusion reactor? Heard it was crazy? Well, it’s not. Go nuts. Internet people love funding creative ideas, and those are always going to come from outside of the box. While platforms like Consano, Experiment.com, and PetriDish tend to tie into institutional arrangements, they’re also good ways to get around the funding issues in higher ed and make some indie science magic right inside an institutional structure where things like beakers are already in good supply.
And think of the potential for freedom in research when money can come from everywhere! Sure, maybe every endodontist is working with nanotechnology these days, but how many are investigating the possibility of 3-D printing your own replacement teeth? (I envision several designer models. Someone? Please do this. I have $25.)
Indie Science = Better Science Literacy
Indie research won’t just improve the scope and creativity of scientific discovery, either. It’ll improve the books, too. The narrative of indie science alone is appealing enough to draw in people who might never have considered themselves science buffs. In a land where science desperately needs friends, narrative may end up being one of the best it has. For example, read my previous piece on the MicroBuddies. Indie scientists are not just likely to have more interesting topics for discussion, but better stories as to how they got there. Let’s put it this way: would you rather read about a postdoc writing NIH grant proposals or the legend of the hummingbird guy?
If mainstream science publication isn’t completely open to indie science—and, let’s face it, it’s hard to imagine Elsevier being into it—then indie scientists will certainly find an audience in the self-publishing community. After all, as our past guest Dr. Mark Green pointed out, a well-written indie text may be more accessible to a broader range of people than a textbook that is outpriced and overseen by a company with a profit incentive. Throw social media practices into the mix and indie science has a darn good chance of succeeding within indie publishing.
I’m looking for scientists who use the tremendous forum of the Internet to connect, not only with one another, but with the people outside of the Ivory Tower who crave that interaction.
I’d read that book.
Anna Call is a freelance writer who blogs about science for Foreword Reviews. You can follow her on Twitter @evil_librarian.