Sunday, July 31, 2005

Mediation as an intellectual freedom issue

One of the arguments used against open access is the idea that people are not able to read and understand the research literature, but that rather they need mediation, for example consumer health literature. While creating and sharing information that translates the complexities of research literature into material that is easier to understand is absolutely laudable, taking away the right of the individual to make their own choice is censorship. This is a very basic intellectual freedom issue - it is the right of the individual to decide what they want to read. This applies just as much to the level of reading material, as it does to the topic.

Following is a message I posted to liblicense, which appeared on July 31. For the full discussion, see liblicense-l "Health Information Needs". Better yet - if you believe in intellectual freedom - join in, and help out!

To further support Kent Mulliner's point that mediation of health information should not be required:

The idea that the public needs mediation is not new. This idea, rather, was one of the obstacles to be overcome in order for literacy for the general population to be considered as a possibility. There was a time, in the history of even the most free of nations today, when the written word was considered fit only for the clergy, who would interpet for the masses. Even in much, more more recent times, there have been those who have adhered to just such a view. Witness, for example, the impact of the Taliban on the education of women in Afghanistan.

When people were illiterate, mediation was indeed necessary for the masses. Most people had no access to the literature, or to education; their only access to information was through mediation. As we have seen, once information and education become accessible, the vast majority are able to read.

As research literature becomes more accessible, the number of people who are able to make use of it will increase. Not that everyone will want to read at a research level, of course - it's just that, as Kent says, it is their right to do so, if they so choose. For that matter, open access will mean access to the educational system,, which could make it possible to advance the average scientific and information literacy skills of the population as a whole.

To me, this is a very fundamental intellectual freedom issue. Intellectual freedom means that the individual chooses for themselves what they will read. This includes not only topics, but reading level as well.

This is not to say that mediation cannot sometimes be helpful, and desired. At a recent conference in B.C., one of the librarians at Vancouver Public Library talked about their new role as "information counsellors". I can easily see a librarian taking on this role in the area of health information. It's not hard to imagine explaining to a person with an illness (or a family member) what their options are: consumer health, ranging from the simplest of brochures with the absolute
basics to more in-depth consumer health info, all the way to exploring the research literature. People should feel completely comfortable with whatever decision they make about the material they read: this is where the counselling aspect comes in.


Heather Morrison

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous8:54 AM

    I completely agree--People should be able to decide for themselves what to read.
    With that said, it is true that many STM articles do require a very specialized
    knowledge base for complete understanding. This is why PLoS offers summaries of
    its research articles, which is a service that Science and Nature also provide.

    Open access skeptics use this argument to say that everyone who really could
    benefit from access has it already. Why rock the boat? This argument ignores
    the needs of researchers in the developing world, who often do not have a high
    level of access. And it also makes paternalistic assumptions about what people
    should be reading.


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