Accessibility for All

Last week I was talking about Deep Accessibility, and trying to define what it might be (who knows if I’m right).  I said that in reality I thought it was pretty difficult to create a kind of Deep Accessibility, but that it was possible and necessary, and it was not just about disability but about all of us being able to access the information and functionality as we want or need. In a perfect example of how deep accessibility might be needed the UK Governments Research Councils UK (RCUK) swoop in with some requirements that makes my case.

EPSRC Connect

EPSRC Connect

Issue 87 of the ‘Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s’ (EPSRC) Connect magazine contained an article called ‘New RCUK policy on access to published research findings‘ and stated that:

Under the new policy, peer-reviewed research papers resulting from research wholly or partially funded by the Research Councils must be published in journals which are compliant with Research Council policy on Open Access. Journals can comply with the policy either by offering a “pay to publish” option or by allowing deposit in a subject or institutional repository after a mandated maximum 6-month (the mandated maximum embargo period for papers arising from ESRC and AHRC grants is initially set at 12 months) embargo period.

And stating their rational for this as:

Free and open access to publicly-funded research offers significant social and economic benefits. The Government, in line with its overarching commitment to transparency and open data, is committed to ensuring that such research should be freely accessible. As major bodies charged with investing public money in research, the Research Councils take very seriously their responsibilities in making the outputs from this research publicly available – not just to other researchers, but also to potential users in business, charitable and public sectors, and to the general public.

Now, I’ve discussed Open Access at length before so I don’t think I’ll revisit this again here. However, I’m critical of the thought process which suggests that papers are our primary output; they aren’t, the science is. Papers are just the way we advertise the science, and allow us, via citation and downloads, to judge the quality and importance of the work (and massage our own egos). The data, code-base, and technical reports produced (in CS parlance – the project deliverables) are the products of the work and these should be openly available for scientific knowledge exchange and refutation.
However, notice the line in the quote which says that ‘[the EPSRC/RCUK] is committed to ensuring that such research should be freely accessible‘ using an implicit assumption that if it is open it is accessible; this is just plain wrong.

In reality, accessibility is not about the artefact being openly available or indeed free, although open availability is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for accessibility. In reality the vast majority of the population, as well as the vast majority of other scientists who are non-specialists in the area, will not understand the scientific outputs from these papers. Indeed, in most cases the findings are not well enough described for substantiation or refutation, and in all contact I’ve ever had with public media they want a 30 second sound bite without nuanced argument – but definitive yes/no, right/wrong, true/false answers. Tell me what accessibility there is in presenting a 6000 word scientific paper to the public without truly providing a public facing / publicly understandable analysis; ohh let me think… none.

This is exactly what I’ve been taking about – we need tools to apply to data which will enable everyone to truly access the findings – a deeper accessibility than any of us currently have.

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