A good teacher is about more than information.
I say this as another petition to compel open access (OA) publishing is being promoted. A very similar petition failed in March, but this one is being pushed more effectively by the OA partisans. Meanwhile, I’m reading a book that throws a bright light on the difference between access and accessibility.
How these two things contrast is the topic of this post.
As I wrote last August (quoting a terrific essay by Maria Popova from the Neiman Journalism Lab), what OA advocates call “access” is better termed “accessibility” — meaning information can be accessed at no direct cost to the user. Despite accessibility, the information remains inaccessible in any functional sense — they can’t apply it, understand it competently, or put it into context. The information is accessible, but the person has no access to its real value.
As if to prove this distinction between accessibility and access, I came across a recent tidbit that I found shocking. Even though we’ve lived through a decade during which the scientific literature has become more accessible to the general public than it’s ever been before, from free PubMed to Google to no more trips to the library, science education in the United States has suffered immensely, so much so that nearly half of US adults polled do not know that humans and dinosaurs never coexisted.
Clearly, something beyond access to the latest scientific articles needs to be brought to bear.
Publishing is often equated with the simple act of making something public. This is a gross oversimplification. Even Clay Shirky, who should know better, can fall into this trap, saying that publishing isn’t anything more than a button:
. . . “publishing” means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty and complexity and expense of making something public. That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button. There’s a button that says “publish,” and when you press it, it’s done. . . . We had a class of people called publishers because it took special professional skill to make words and images visible to the public. Now it doesn’t take professional skills. It doesn’t take any skills. It takes a WordPress install.
Shirky later states that editors, writers, artists, designers, and others who help the work take form are important. What he’s calling “publishers” are really “printers” or “mailers” or some conflation of the two — “distribution” perhaps. Even Gigaom takes issue with him, and they don’t print anything.
Publishing is about much more than making something public. It’s about finding content or an artist (writer, singer, photographer) that a constituency cares about or finds interesting, pitching their works correctly for a target audience, cultivating awareness and interest in the work, making the work shine, packaging it for optimal consumption, and sustaining its relevance for as long as possible. Publishing is competitive, so publishers have to create the best venue for the best work. This is not simple. Distribution is also not as simple a matter as you might think. As I write this post, I have five different distribution channels competing for my attention — email, Twitter, Facebook, and Zemanta, a contextual blogging tool. All these channels and many more need to be filled with content. It has to rise to the top in each of them to be found.
Creating and promoting proxies for audiences is one of the things a publisher does. For a book publisher, this can be a title, a series, an author, or an imprint. For a periodicals publisher, this is usually a topic or, in the case of something like the New Yorker, an identity.
In health publishing, finding the right audience for works of a certain type can be tricky, but there are generally three levels of audience — professional audience, specialist lay audience, and education audience.
The professional audience is who we deal with routinely in scholarly publishing, and it includes physicians, surgeons, researchers, some administrators, some lawyers, and some policy people. The language these people expect is highly specialized, the context very important and presumed to be fairly implicit, and the signaling often so subtle that it can be missed by an outsider.
The specialist lay audience is generally a well-educated lay audience with an interest in a particular aspect of health information, whether it’s because they have an interest in a single disease or view health through a specific lens, such as fitness, prevention, or diet.
The education audience is trying to learn about health and medicine. They are trying to become one or the other of the other two audiences, and which they are aspiring to be determines how you address them.
It’s ineffective to treat all three audiences as if they are the same. Even in these admittedly coarse categories, the users are not the same, and the subgroups within each broad grouping make that even clearer.
I’m seeing this firsthand right now, as I read a new book about exercise science called, “The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer,” by Gretchen Reynolds, a blogger at the New York Times.
I’m in the specialist layperson category. I’m a recreational cyclist who isn’t getting any younger or lighter, so I’m interested in extending my years and enjoyment on the bike as long as possible. My lens is fitness. I’ve read many books and articles about exercise, nutrition, physiology, and training. Even so, Reynolds’ book is eye opening. I’m learning things I didn’t know, and am being provoked with questions I never would have thought to ask:
- Is stretching before exercise really good for you?
- Does taking ibuprofen after a hard workout actually make you less likely to gain the benefits of the workout?
- Is massage after a vigorous workout actually damaging?
With more researchers than ever pursuing more questions, it’s not surprising that health information changes rapidly. In fact, this is what makes it so hard to keep track of.
Given our crises in education and cultural knowledge, what’s a bit more concerning than accessibility is that we don’t have enough ambassadors and guides telling us what a batch of these changes might mean to us. Through their distillation of basic research findings, these guides provide access to information. Compared to what they do, accessibility just lays there, doing nothing.
Reynolds has gone through scads of sports medicine, physiology, and medical research, talked with many of the researchers themselves, and organized it quite well into a readable synthesis of what she thinks we now know. It is pitched for the specialist lay audience, with the occasional nod to the education audience — nods that I don’t need, but that are brief enough they are not distracting (e.g., I know what lactic acid is, and don’t need that explained, but because she wants to bridge audiences, she explains it). She and her editor have struck a careful balance, and done it well.
Imagine that all the studies Reynolds summarizes are freely available online. What possible use would they be to me? They would be accessible, but I would have very little access. I wouldn’t even know where to begin, and it would take hours of iterative work to even come up with a way of sorting the information sensibly. I need Reynolds and her ilk to make sense of it all.
To even know what questions to ask, you’d have to be following this particular area of scientific research with a diligence I can’t imagine anyone with a career and family mustering. On top of that, Reynolds actually interviewed dozens of researchers to get their plain English interpretation of research results. It’s all very helpful, makes for good reading, and provides a lot of insights in an efficient manner.
Frankly, this is one thing I find counterproductive about the OA claims that accessibility is what we need. We all know how hard it is to make sense of the world. It takes years of work and interaction to get the right context on a field. Reynolds has been writing about health for more than a decade. To claim that someone with a computer and no paywalls could in moments glean as much from discoverability as she has from hard work and meticulous research fundamentally encourages intellectual laziness — you don’t have to seek information or work to make sense of it; it’s just out there for you to discover. And it’s easy!
This brings to mind the t-shirt making the rounds on social media today — pictured to the left — which makes fun of the implicit statement that free information is all you need to be deemed educated. In fact, whatever contribution Wikipedia or other free online resources make, it’s likely quite modest. The intellectual work of creating a curriculum, guiding students systematically through subject matter, testing or evaluating in an appropriate and rigorous manner, inspiring a hunger to know more, and encouraging further exploration and interaction with source materials is far more important to anyone’s education. Wikipedia is just a sporadically used crutch. The joke is, “We’ve outsourced our brains.”
The next time you encounter someone who helps you make sense of the world, do them a favor — appreciate how much work, care, and thought went into what they’ve done for you. If the author, teacher, or guide does it right, they have taken you beyond the passive realm accessibility creates, with its lazy answers to difficult problems. Authors like Reynolds give us access — entice us, lead us, move us, and reward us with an intellectual experience. This is something the mere removal of paywalls can never accomplish.