Activism / Communications / Politics / Society / Technology

FASTR Promises Greater Access to Scientific Information

The Fair Access to Science & Technology Research (FASTR) Act is a new bill which intends to make scientific research funded by the US government available and free to the public.  According to the bill, the “content” to be opened to the public will include “an electronic version of the author’s final manuscript of original research papers that have been accepted for publication in peer-reviewed journals and that result from research supported, in whole or in part, from funding by the Federal Government.”  Public materials will also include all the changes resulting from the peer-review process.  The final result will be “free online public access” to the scientific materials, made available within six months of completion.

FASTR, which will cost $100 million, also seeks to provide this publicly-funded research in a usable manner with everything data-based and searchable online.  Heather Joseph, Executive Director of SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition), explains:

As the volume of research information increases, with a mind-boggling 1.5 million research articles published each year, no person can realistically hope to make full sense of this information by simply accessing and reading individual articles on their own.  We must enable computers as a new category of reader to help power through this volume, thousands of articles at a time, and to highlight patterns, links, and associations that would otherwise go undiscovered.  Computational tools like text mining and data mining are crucial to achieving this, and have the potential to revolutionize the research process.

While FASTR is certainly positive news in terms of expanding the scope of information and knowledge, Adi Kamdar and Corynne McSherry at the EFF point out some of its weaknesses:

The bill isn’t perfect. For example, it doesn’t require open licensing, the obvious next step. However, the bill does require agencies to examine “whether such research papers should include a royalty-free copyright license that is available to the public and that permits the reuse of those research papers, on the condition that attribution is given.” Such a license would allow for complete reuse of published research, including in downstream research or computational meta-analysis.

FASTR also excludes “research resulting in works that generate revenue or royalties for authors (such as books) or patentable discoveries, to the extent necessary to protect a copyright or patent.” We’re worried how courts – and publishers—will interpret this clause, If a publisher decides to pay authors $100 per article, is the research excluded from public access? We hope not.

Public Gain – Who loses?

Open licensing would solve most of these problems, but politicians are reluctant to challenge copyright law in any fundamental way.  But at least in terms of FASTR there is the issue of public funding, which validates government intervention.  And as with any structural change, certain people and institutions benefit from the way things are done at any given time.  In this case we’re talking about the world of academic publishing.  They stand to lose a substantial degree of power  and unsurprisingly oppose FASTR.

The Association of American Publishers (AAP) has forcefully lashed out against the bill, calling it a “boondoggle” that “would waste so much taxpayers’ money at a time of budgetary crisis, squander federal employees’ time with busywork and require the creation and maintenance of otherwise-unneeded technology.”

Clearly they see their current monopoly over the distribution of publicly-funded knowledge as under threat, and rightfully so.  From their perspective everything is working just fine as it is.  No need for the meddling government coming in and messing things up, public knowledge be damned.

Hopefully FASTR will get off the ground and survive the inevitable flood of industry lobbyists seeking to destroy it or alter it completely.  I think the logic of this bill makes it a no brainer.  The long-term positive benefits of open access legislation like FASTR outweigh the profit motive of the closed access regime (a regime fast becoming outdated and unable to adapt to evolving trends in the technological landscape).  Increasing the free flow of information is a net positive unto itself.  In more specific terms of expanding the flow of scholarly material, making its dispersal more efficient and available to all, encouraging collaboration and problem solving, one would be hard pressed to argue against.

If anything FASTR is a logical next step in the advancement of human civilization and consciousness.  We should support it and efforts like it.  Maybe the conflicts ahead in the fight for open access expose an inherent contradiction between ownership and knowledge?  If so this is ultimately part of a much larger fight ahead, with radical implications for the future.

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Activism / Atheism / Politics / Religion

On Freethought, Atheism, Politics and Dogma

I came into the skeptical/freethought/atheist community from an already-establishing, somewhat radical left political perspective. For some time I felt most leaders in the community were simplistic and uncritical in their views of political economy. And they are.

But you know what? We all are. Any honest, skeptical starting point should begin here, acknowledging our own ignorance of the near-infinite complexity that is social life. That’s not to say we can’t understand aspects of social reality, culture, history, psychology, human desires, drives, etc. We can and do. That’s also not to say humanity is powerless in its attempts to make the world a better place in the most non-controversial sense. Science has greatly expanded our knowledge of these things. Life has gotten better for more and more people.

Slavoj Zizek in Liverpool, cropped version of ...The difficulty comes in interpreting the world. There’s something to be said for philosopher Slavoj Žižek‘s reversal of Marx:“Don’t Act. Just Think.” He’s not recommending silence in the face of injustice. He is recognizing the inherent limits of our answers to society’s problems and that we need to think more deeply before confidently establishing doctrines in our efforts to change the world for the better. Finding answers to how, why, and what to do (politics) is a tremendous undertaking fraught with countless, unforeseen problems having real-world consequences.

For example, in the United States, levels of violence have been dropping since a peak in the early 1990s. In trying to solve the violent crime problem at the time, numerous solutions were undertaken, particularly the “tough on crime” movement of many states and municipalities. So we saw increased incarceration rates and harsher sentencing. Lo and behold, violence levels fell. But they fell regardless of policies implemented. Why? (The tough question.)

Well, there is growing evidence that decreased amounts of lead in the environment may have much to do with lessening rates of violence. If true, this is something all the dominant theories of violence spanning the political spectrum failed to account for and are still largely silent in addressing.

Violence in society is obviously a vast topic. And certainly environmental lead is not the only component. I think we all recognize this truism. But in my opinion, when operating within a limited political framework people tend to privilege one or more interpretation, those which reinforce a pre-existing political outlook, while ignoring or denouncing anything that falls outside their limited interpretive perspective.

Political beliefs tend to ossify and resist alternative explanations. Internally their logic is self-apparent to the believer and should therefore be so to everyone else. But that’s not how the world works, whether one is right or wrong. Critics are correct in warning against dogma when it comes to discussions of politics and economics. Even well-meaning, skeptical, intelligent people can easily slip into a type of moralizing that ultimately demonizes opponents, real or perceived.

Let’s continue, humbly aware of our limits, willing to change even the deepest held beliefs if the evidence takes us there. It’s what we expect of others and we should expect the same of ourselves. Continue reading