Sunday, July 01, 2007

The OA Interviews: Stevan Harnad

Stevan Harnad is a cognitive scientist based at the Université du Québec à Montréal. He is also one of the leading lights of the Open Access (OA) Movement, and a self-styled "archivangelist".

Stevan Harnad

Harnad is often portrayed as a bully and a fanatic — a man so determined to get fellow researchers to make their papers freely available on the Web that he will brook no disagreement, responding to all contrary views and dissenting voices with such a relentless barrage of rebuttals and reproaches that his opponents are eventually forced to retreat.

But this is too simplistic a picture of the man. For Harnad, OA is not — as his critics claim — the obsession of a pedant with a one-dimensional view of the world, but the prelude to a fourth revolution in human cognition and communication. (The first three, he says, were language, writing, and print).

The goal of OA, Harnad says, is to unleash a potential long latent in mankind's unique language capacity, one that will allow us to exploit at last the full power of our collective intellect through "scholarly skywriting" — a form of communication, he contends, for which our brains were pre-adapted a hundred thousand years ago, but that has been awaiting the online era for its realisation.

However, before we can exploit the potential of this new form of communication, he says, we first need to make all research OA — an obvious next step that has been within our reach since the onset of the online era, but that we have still failed to take. And until we do, he says, we are denying ourselves access to our full potential.

If his OA advocacy is at times on the testy side, adds Harnad, this is not so much evidence of an intemperate nature as of a patience that has been sorely tried by the inordinate amount of time it is taking us to grasp what is already well within our reach.

What cannot be denied is that Harnad has exerted a very powerful influence on the development of the OA Movement. To a great extent he is the person who has articulated the main issues, and it is he who has — obsessively perhaps — kept people's minds focused, both on why OA is essential, and how we can best, and most rapidly, achieve it.

Moreover, as Harnad is keen to point out, in addition to archivangelising for the last thirteen years, he has also created and commissioned many of the concrete practical tools now being used in our faltering steps toward OA.

To put Harnad's views on OA into the larger perspective we need to explore some of his many research interests. These range from the origins of language and the "symbol grounding problem", to categorisation and scientometrics.

As a result, the interview I am publishing today is on the long side. For those wishing to dip into particular sections, therefore, a Navigation Table is provided. Simply click on the title of the section you are interesting in, and hear what Harnad has to say.


If you wish to read the interview please click on the link below. I am publishing it under a Creative Commons licence, so you are free to copy and distribute it as you wish, so long as you credit me as the author, do not alter or transform the text, and do not use it for any commercial purpose.

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