Word nerds needed to build an open and accessible web ...

This appeared in a tweet on 18 Jan 2010:
 'Just heard the phrase "open transparency" to mean "open access to data." #gov20 // open & transparent mean the same thing'

Let's see how well this works.

If (1) "open transparency" means "open access to data"; and (2) "open" and "transparent" mean the same thing; then "open access to data" is the same as "transparent access to data".

Oops. That's not quite right.

But I do like the phrase "open transparency" because it makes me wonder if we mean "transparent openness". It seems that there are activities that are closed and transparent. Take subscription-based access to research output, for example. How research results end up in subscription-based publications is partly (slightly?) transparent. But access to those results are closed, unless you have a subscription. We need to have clear and agreed upon definitions for these terms we keep using to argue for change. Maybe we need more than one word for "open".

Jacques Barzun, in Simple & Direct, argues that if you want to make your meaning clear, then choosing words carefully is paramount important. Barzun makes the following observation about oral conversation: "Few people organize their thoughts and words in fully intelligible remarks. It seems easier to use a sort of oral shorthand and rely on the listener to jump to the right conclusion. He often fails. You correct him or he asks you questions to settle his uncertainty." He continues, "[w]ith a written text there is no opportunity to ask questions. All the reader has is words and punctuation marks. It follows that these must be set down right -- right for the purpose and right for the reader."

One of the tweets from an open access session at the recent ScienceOnline2010 conference reads "takeaway from OA discussion: OA is incredibly complicated. #scio10".

Being sloppy with how we use words isn't going to make these efforts simpler.

[UPDATE: 2010-04-07: re-reading "Simple & Direct" revealed my own incorrect use of the word "paramount" (it's an adjective, not a noun).]

1 Comment

Being sloppy with words doesn't help, but being careful with words is damned difficult. This is no best practice, only a better practice, and practical trade-offs win in the end.

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