Presumably there's a gradient of 'ability to access information' as well as a gradient of 'can understand this information'. Predictably I'm all for people being able to get hold of information, but I also hope it makes sense to them and that there are people they can ask if it doesn't. There are plenty of helpful blogs and discussion forums where people can talk about articles or the evidence for particular claims. Long may it continue.
On my train journey home I wondered if, once journal article access starts to become mundanely easy for anyone, there will be a change in the way they're written - to accommodate a wider readership, particularly for medical articles.
People with a health condition are often very motivated to find out more about it and this can result in them reading original medical articles and sometimes paying for them.
Either they will or won't understand what's in the article. Someone might understand perfectly well all of the technical terms in the article but might miss something that isn't said or, for example, draw mistaken conclusions about a study in mice that might not translate into people.
Are researchers who've published on Disease X or Condition Y often contacted by people who have or care for someone with X or Y, and how do they respond? (Sometimes people will come to Patient Charity Z who've funded the research or commented on it, and ask for more info but not every condition has a dedicated patient charity and other online / offline communities are important too).
I think it will be interesting to see if articles that start to be published in a climate where they're readable by anyone will mean that they'll be written in a different style, with an eye to a non-specialist audience. This would probably make me quite happy.
There'll still be a need for people who can put things in context, even if the article's written in such a way that it doesn't need quite as much interpretation.
If journal articles are read by more people might this increase the discussions between researchers and people affected by a condition (same for non-health stuff, if people are interested in it and able to read it). Will even more scientists be writing blogs? Will they get some academic credit for doing so too? Will patients get a better understanding of their condition and / or the processes of research. Hope so.
Edit: 30 August 2012 - I've just spotted this post from Stephen Curry who, when writing a paper for the open access journal PLOS One, made the conscious effort to try and make the text easier to understand by a wider non-specialist audience. A group of school pupils in Australia took him at his word and commented on the paper's intelligibility. It turned out he'd also actually written (in The Guardian) on the issue of scientists potentially becoming more aware of the general public reading their work, perhaps because of demand from that public.
"Arguably, most members of the public would not be able to understand the primary scientific literature even if they had free access, but the mere fact of its availability – through a shift to open access – should stimulate a healthy demand from the public for more digestible reports from the scientists they support. Direct exposure of the scientific community to the public appetite for research results could even have positive effects on the formulation of research priorities."Further reading
Source: Science must be liberated from the paywalls of publishers
Academic spring: how an angry maths blog sparked a scientific revolution The Guardian 9 April 2012 by Alok Jha
Science must be liberated from the paywalls of publishers The Guardian 10 April 2012 by Stephen Curry
Research that is funded by the public should be freely available to all - a move to open access modes of publication is overdue
Academic Spring on Wikipedia
Patients Partipate! - a project run jointly by UKOLN, The British Library, AMRC (Association of Medical Research Charities), Sage Bionetworks, Digital Curation Centre and JISC in which patient charities who fund research can work with patients / carers and get them involved in the writing of lay summaries.
» See also "Patients Participate! Bridging the gap between information access and understanding"
Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research was developed by the UK’s research funding bodies. The aim of the Concordat is to create a greater focus on and help embed public engagement with research across all disciplines in the higher education and research sectors.