Last Thursday evening, December 10, 2009, the Office of Science & Technology Policy opened a Policy Forum on Public Access to Federally Funded Research: Implementation, a public site providing “the public and various stakeholders” an open forum for the discussion of implementing broad national policies on access to the results of federally funded scientific research. The question posed was not “if” but “how” policies would be implemented.
“To what extent and under what circumstances should such research articles—funded by taxpayers but with value added by scholarly publishers—be made freely available on the Internet?”
For an open 10-day period, the OSTP wants comments on important details for implementation, such as
- Who should be responsible for making the decisions?
- What is an adequate period of delay for access?
- Which version(s) should be made available?
- Should the policy be voluntary or mandatory?
What the OSTP wants are details not diatribes.
By early Monday morning, there were 106 posts by 59 different commenters. Like in-person public forums, most of the registered commenters were happy to make their statement, sit down, and give others the opportunity to comment.
But online forums don’t always work like in-person forums. At in-person forums, decorum and good moderators prevent certain loose cannons from dominating the discussion. These blowhards are given their time and asked politely to sit down. We don’t tolerate these individuals very well because, deep down, we feel that they are disruptive to democratic discussions where diversity is valued over dominance.
It’s not surprising that one individual has attempted to dominate the OTSP’s online discussion, posting 28 (over 26%) of all the comments to date, tirelessly bullying other participants into submission or exasperation. Responding to Stevan Harnad‘s accusation that the American Physiological Society is anti-open access, Marty Frank was the first to point out Harnad’s inappropriate online behavior:
Let me also say that it is my intent to respond to the questions in the future without commenting on the comments of other responders. Steven, this in not your blog and there is no need for you to do that here.
An online governmental forum allows individuals who lack the financial means and time to travel to such events. They give a voice to those generally not heard outside the Washington beltway. And yet, the OSTP blog is not dominated by powerful inside commercial interests, but by a single professor residing outside of the United States.
What is antithetical to the process of free speech is the OSTP’s blog voting feature, which allows comments to be “collapsed” if a small number of readers give them a negative rating. What is interesting is that this feature is not being used for the purpose for which it was designed — to mitigate against spam and unrelated comments — but to marginalize and silence the small number of alternate voices in the forum.
While many believed the Internet would help to democratize the decision-making process, the features of the OSTP blog (coupled with the tendency of a few to dominate discussions), are working against the very diversity of opinion the OSTP wanted to encourage in the first place.
By the time I finished writing this, two more Harnad comments were posted.
Welcome to online democracy.