Breaking Down Barriers: Publishing Open Access Science for Sustainability

October 26, 2016 | 11:35 am
NRG Energy, Inc.
Anne Kapuscinski
Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor of Sustainability Science in the Environmental Studies Program at Dartmouth and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Union of Concerned Scientists

In my new role of Chair of the Board of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), I had the great honor of joining UCS’ delegation at the Paris COP21 climate meeting last December. A clear message from Paris was that we must rapidly transition to a net-zero and climate-resilient society. Scientists at the recent 1.5 Degrees Conference at Oxford University, co-sponsored by UCS, underscored the magnitude of the challenge. And, on Food Day, my public conversation with Michael Pollan at Dartmouth mentioned that agroecology research shows a clear opportunity to help transition our nation’s food system to sustainability, a goal of Plate of the Union.

If you’re reading this blog, you probably agree that our society needs more active engagement of scientists in solving grand sustainability challenges. And you’re aware that when scientists from different disciplines and ways of seeing the world interact, new perspectives and solutions emerge. Thankfully, the current generation of young scientists is embracing trans-disciplinary approaches to their research, with the skills to match the task. But when trying to publish their work, they face the obstacle that most academic journals are organized along traditional disciplinary silos, with editorial boards ill-equipped or unwilling to review papers reflecting this critically needed cross-fertilization. And they hunger for fully open access publishing instead of paywalls restricting access to their papers.

Bridging disciplines for sustainability transitions

Elementa is a new transdisciplinary, open-access scientific journal.

Elementa is a new transdisciplinary, open access scientific journal.

When the founders of Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene invited me to be one of six Editors in Chief of a new open access, peer-reviewed journal, I saw an opportunity to broaden the dialog among scientists, and between scientists and practitioners. I liked how Elementa took a trans-disciplinary approach from the outset by inviting a team of editors with expertise spanning ocean and atmospheric sciences, earth science, ecology, environmental engineering, and sustainability science. Authors tag their articles to one or more of these knowledge domains, but there are no boundaries between domains. For example, a recent commentary article on “Increasing the usability of climate science in political decision-making” touches on all of these fields except engineering, so it appears with articles in all five domains. This unique approach also allows editors to draw upon each other’s expertise and academic networks to find reviewers capable of handling the peer review of research that bridges disciplines.

Open access = open science for public good

Another big selling point is that Elementa was born out of conversations between the non-profit publisher BioOne and five universities: Dartmouth, the Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Colorado Boulder, the University of Michigan, and the University of Washington, to establish an alternative to expensive subscription-based journals. Elementa is fully open access and exclusively online, making every article free to read and available to a global audience at the click of a mouse. Before joining Elementa, I had a vague awareness of university budget pressures from for-profit academic publishing; and I was uncomfortable with articles from research, especially from tax-payer-funded work, being unavailable to everyone. But I hadn’t heard the numbers, or understood the extent to which high costs of journal subscriptions hobbles library budgets of higher education institutions, many of which are also funded by tax dollars. The for-profit model has made scientific publishing houses wealthy at the expense of us all, and most tragically, created a huge barrier to the knowledge sharing needed to advance sustainability. For science to solve problems, it needs to be open, transparent and accessible. Now I’m on a mission to encourage everyone I know to only publish in open access journals. I’m also very excited to report that University of California Press will become the Publisher of Elementa as of January 2017. UC Press, a strong advocate of open access publishing, is a wonderful home for the next chapter in the Elementa’s evolution as a genuinely interdisciplinary, non-profit, fully open access journal in environmental and sustainability sciences.

Sustainability Transitions requires bridging science, policy and practice

The Sustainability Transitions domain, that my Associate Editor Kim Locke and I oversee, publishes articles on challenges, opportunities and strategies to shift society towards sustainability—to a world in which humans and other life on earth can truly flourish. This goal resonates with the mission of the Union of Concerned Scientists, so it’s not surprising that the inaugural team of Associate Editors, each of whom already collaborates across disciplines, includes UCS’ Peter Frumhoff, Director of Science and Policy and Chief Climate Scientist. We also work with authors to present their research in a unique and engaging way by incorporating colorful images, slide shows, audio and video, allowing authors to tell their science stories in engaging ways that are more accessible to a broader audience.

Elementa is committed to bridge the gulf between scholars and practitioners –not simply relaying science to people striving to solve sustainability challenges, but engaging them in the conversation and inviting contributions from the change-makers themselves. To do so, Elementa expanded beyond the classic research and review types of articles to invite “policy bridge” and “practice bridge” articles that explicitly address how a body of research is applied to policy or implemented in practice. An exciting collaboration with the e-zine Ensia allows us to co-publish articles spotlighting our authors’ work and bring it to a much larger readership.

Elementa’s first Forum on “New pathways to sustainability in agroecological systems.”

We also publish articles around a specific sustainability transition issue – in forums and special features—to cross-fertilize ideas among contributions from different scholars and practitioners. With the creative input of Ricardo Salvador, UCS Director of the Food & Environment Program, we launched Elementa’s first Forum on “New pathways to sustainability in agroecological systems.” Ricardo and I also traveled the cornfields of Iowa to create a video to introduce the Forum. So far, we have published ten articles, with many more in the peer review pipeline. The article by Christian Peters and his colleagues on the impacts of different diets on landuse published in July, 2016, was picked up by news outlets and social media across the globe, and already has over 55,000 views! Another series of articles on “The extinction of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon: Is it possible?” is a Special Feature led by associate editor Paulo Moutinho. Paulo is a leading voice at the intersection of science and policy on this topic.  We also have a special feature, Avoiding Collapse: Grand challenges for science and society to solve by 2050 led by Tony Barnosky, Paul Ehrlich and Liz Hadly, addressing the grand challenges for science and society to solve.

Elementa is uniquely demonstrating capacity to bridge fields of study and the science-practice gap. Read why Selena Ahmed, lead author of an Elementa article on climate change effects on specialty crop quality, chose to publish with Elementa in this Spotlight article: “Publishing as part of the New Pathways to Sustainability in Agroecological Systems forum has given me the sense of being part of a community that is seeking to advance agroecology as a transdiciplinary science, evidence-based practice, and movement. The Sustainability Transitions domain has been effective in developing a community, which is a key characteristic of sustainability.”

Elementa is currently accepting submissions in four other forums: Multi-stakeholder initiatives for sustainable supply networks, Food-energy-water systems: Opportunities at the nexus, Oil and Natural Gas Development: Air Quality, Climate Science, and Policy, and Cuba’s agrifood system in transition.

action-sn-blog-elementa-logoTake a look at the website to discover more about what makes Elementa distinctive, and I encourage you to submit your research manuscripts or proposals for a forum or special feature. Become part of a transformational and peer-reviewed platform connecting knowledge generated by scientific research and that of practitioners, innovators, and leaders forging ahead with strategies to shift toward sustainability.

Anne Kapuscinski is the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor of Sustainability Science in the Environmental Studies Program at Dartmouth and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Her current research is on integrated food-energy systems and on algae-based feed for a sustainability transition in aquaculture—the world’s fastest growing food sector. Her awards include an Honor Award from the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture for environmental protection, a Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation, the Distinguished Service Award from the Society for Conservation Biology, and the Rachel Carson Environmental Award from the Natural Products Association.

The UCS Science Network is an inclusive community of more than 25,000 scientists, engineers, economists, and other experts, focused on changing the world for the better. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the authors alone.