BOSTON—Rarer than hen’s teeth is a bill in Congress that has bipartisan support. But such legislation exists, and if passed would open up a semi-secret world. The law—the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research (FASTR) Act—would ensure that research articles based on taxpayer-supported projects are freely available online for the public to read. FASTR was among the hot topics at a session here devoted to digital tools for communicating science, on Friday at the annual meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science.

Agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation and Department of Energy fund more than $60 billion in research annually, resulting in about 90,000 papers—most of which are not accessible to the public (NIH has a public access policy that involves posting final journal manuscripts that arise from research it funds on the digital archive PubMed Central within 12 months), other than through big libraries. And those institutions lately are burdened by hefty subscription fees and public funding cuts. Under FASTR, agencies with large research budgets would have to make results of funded projects publicly available within six months of being published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Also discussed at the session was a new, more public-oriented way to measure the impact of a published journal article. Currently, impact is gauged by the number of citations the paper receives in other publications. But information-science graduate student Jason Priem of the University of North Carolina, Carrboro (who emphatically supported FASTR), demonstrated ImpactStory, a free, open-source web application he co-created in 2011 to more fully capture the scholarly impact and reach of a scientist's work. ImpactStory and other "altmetric" efforts aggregate conventional citations with mentions of that work on Web sites such as Delicious, Facebook, Twitter, Slideshare, ScienceSeeker, Faculty of 1000, Mendeley, CiteULike and ORCID, as well as view counts for downloaded pdfs of papers. Rankings are computed and collated into an individual report that can be used in tenure and promotion considerations on campuses. Some audience members expressed wariness about putting energy and time into social media when academia has yet to fully value it. For the public's part though, thanks to online media, a growing number of regular folks want in.

Another presenter talked about a more entertaining way to bring the public closer to the process of science—by enlisting largely non-academics to play a game that can help scientists solve the convoluted structures of proteins. Seth Cooper, of the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington, noted that more than 300,000 people have participated in the game his group developed, called Foldit. The free online tool allows individuals and teams of users to compete for points to find the most compact, low-energy way to fold the irregular 3-D twists and turns of bonded molecular strands that form proteins. Foldit-affiliated scientists scored a big success in 2011 when a team of it gamers required just 10 days to solve the long-elusive structure of an enzyme from an AIDS-like virus found in rhesus monkeys.

"The game is constantly updated to become a better and better tool to solve biochemical problems that are of interest to scientists," Cooper said. A large portion of users report that they primarily like to participate because it gives them a sense of meaning and purpose. Foldit scientists, for their part, post to a blog or hold live chats with users to help explain their research problems in greater detail, offering players a deeper sense of involvement in the science.

Such games are part of a trend called public participation in science, or citizen science, which offers lay people easy and engaging ways to help scientists with data collection and analysis, often via digital tools such as smart phones and Web sites. These efforts dovetail with the larger open-access science movement, which involves such efforts as crowd-funded projects (which solicit small donations rather than relying only on government or wealthy donor funding—see SciFund and PetriDish), open lab notebooks posted online and calls for journal publishers to make research results freely available to all readers online, not just subscribers.

Karyn Traphagen, executive director of ScienceOnline, an organization that is becoming the largest virtual community of science writers worldwide, encouraged the standing-room-only gathering of about 150 session attendees—a mix of scientists, journalists, educators and others involved in outreach—to be flexible, adventurous and nimble in their experiments to use social media and other digital tools to bring science and the public closer together.

"You need to be willing to change," she said. "You need to be willing to go with the responses that you are getting. You're not always going to have something that works the first time." Traphagen's family is deeply involved in opening up science to the public: she said that her 8-year-old granddaughter plays Foldit.

Image credit: National Science Foundation/Jupiter Images