Wednesday, October 04, 2006


The following appeared in the Melbourne newspaper The Age:

THE Australian Democrats are refusing to publish an online survey about God and government after a campaign by Christian groups "skewed" the results.

Democrats leader Lyn Allison said 40 times the usual number responded to the survey, and overwhelmingly took the position advocated by some Christian leaders. Normally the party would be happy with 1000 responses, but the church and state survey got 40,000.

Senator Allison said it was ironic that a survey on the influence of churches should attract such an intense effort by churches to apply influence.

Christian groups have urged the Democrats to release the results, saying it was dishonest that a party that was founded on a claim "to keep the bastards honest" should keep the results secret because they were not what the Democrats wanted.

[The Age - National]

When this appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald's blog column "Stay In Touch", there was vigorous (even rancorous) debate about whether the Democrats should publish the results, and the significance thereof.

But what intrigued me more was the fact that the Democrats typically expect only about 1000 people to respond to their online surveys.

Online polls are actually fairly common, but as a few comments on the SMH blog pointed out, they hardly qualify as good scientific or statistical method, and no one should make too much out of the results. One comment noted that the Democrats website itself states "online surveys are useful because they are fast, easy and inexpensive but they do not typically gather in-depth, rigorous scientifically valid information" [here] and then asked the obvious - "then why do it in the first place"?

This then got me thinking - obviously the Democrats have done these surveys before, and have a fair idea of the typical response pattern. Also fairly obvious is that they have published the results on previous occasions, when the number of responses has been around the 1000 mark. Given that 1000 responses is about one-hundredth of 1% of the voting population of this country, do they believe that the results of such polls are in any way indicative of the overall views of the voting public? (As distinct from "rigorous scientifically valid information", I might add.)

It seems a fairly safe deduction that online polls will usually measure predominantly, perhaps almost exclusively, the opinions of those who frequent your website. Who else is going to go to your website? SBS Sport frequently polls its viewers on the SBS website, but if you don't watch SBS Sport or frequent the SBS website, you won't even know the poll is there, let alone participate in it. Ergo, the results reflect the opinions of the watchers of SBS Sport, not the opinions of sports enthusiasts in general.

In the same way, the Democrats' online surveys, which are not advertised broadly in the media, will usually measure only the opinions of those people who are aware of the poll, i.e. those who frequent the website or who keep track of Democrats-related news and events. In other words, those who are interested in the Democrats and their policies, which will primarily be supporters of the party.

It's therefore quite interesting to see that they will not release the results of the latest online survey because these results have been "skewed" - the results of the Democrats' online surveys are almost certainly skewed in any case, normally in the direction of those who agree with the Democrats.

In a nutshell, online polls measure the responses of interest groups of one kind or another. In the case of this latest poll, the subject of the poll intersected another, larger, interest group - Christians. It's a shame that the Democrats won't release the results.

And now I find myself being a touch cynical. I find it hard to credit that the Democrats would not be aware that the usual results of their surveys are dominated by Democrats supporters, so why publish results which you know do not in all probability reflect the opinions of the wider public? Sadly, there is an obvious answer.

The upshot of the Democrats withholding the survey results is they have made themselves look either incompetent, churlish or duplicitous, depending on who you talk to. If political parties are going to be taken seriously on the web, they need to avoid silly games like this, and think very carefully before conducting online surveys.

A final observation in light of all this, useful for both online surveys and elections:
Don't vote, it only encourages them. (Author Unknown)

Sunday, October 01, 2006


Miguel Guhlin linked to this on his blog:

There has been a major shift in how (some) Scientific Publishers see the purpose and practice of scholarly communication. Listening to the words used, “database” has replaced “journal” and “users” has replaced “readers”. I suspect the latter word conflates “purchasing officers” with “readers” into an unhappy anonymous entity. Moreover there is a tension between the publisher and the users - significant content is illegally downloaded and an important role of the publisher is acting as “policeman” making sure that content is not stolen. ...[snip]... Now, I have never advocated breaking or abolishing copyright, but it is clear that this is creating a tension in the publisher/reader community. I’ve been involved in setting or being on the board of scientific journals and I see their major purpose as enhancing scholarly communication. I’m worried that we are losing sight of this, where journals in non-profit organisations are seen as a way of subsiding other activities of the society. If the publishers see “users” as a group who have a major motive to steal content, I suspect things will get worse. At some stage we seem to have flipped from a community where publishers interpreted the wishes of the community and served them - for a reasonable fee - to a world where publishers make the rules and police their non-compliance. Did anyone in the reader community:
* actually ask for journals to be transformed to databases?
* actually ask for content to be limited in time to the duration of a subscription (we used to have physical journals we could take home and even hand down to our descendants or give to needy institutions)
It worries me that this has happened almost silently. I remember in ca. 1970 (when I was too inexperienced to notice) that authors were asked to transfer copyright to publishers. These requests came from trusted societies - national societies and international unions (At that stage there were essentially no commercial publishers - Pergamon was a few years later). I didn’t think twice about it - but it was one of the biggest mistakes of my scientific life. Are we sleepwalking into something just as serious? Objectively I have some sympathy with publishers whose content is illegally downloaded - I do believe in copyright. But pragmatically is the way forward to be increasingly draconian with readers (sorry, users)?

Unilever Centre for Molecular Informatics, Cambridge - petermr’s blog » Blog Archive » Do you read journals, or “use a database”?

Reading this reminded me of something else I'd come across recently...

British Academy Says Copyright Hindering Scholarship
A report from the British Academy, to be launched on 18 September, expresses fears that the copyright system may in important respects be impeding, rather than stimulating, the production of new ideas and new scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. ...[snip]... Existing UK law provides exemption from copyright for fair dealing with material for purposes of private study and non-commercial research, and for criticism and review. "There is, however, little clarity about the precise scope of these exemptions, and an absence of case law" said John Kay, who is Chair of the Working Group which oversaw the Review. "Publishers are risk-averse, and themselves defensive of existing copyrights. "The situation is aggravated by the increasingly aggressive defence of copyright by commercial rights holders, and the growing role - most of all in music - of media businesses with no interest in or understanding of the needs of scholarship. It is also aggravated by the unsatisfactory EU Database Directive, which is at once vague and wide-ranging, and by the development of digital rights management systems, which may enable publishers to use technology to circumvent the exceptions to copyright which are contained in current legislation. ...[snip]... This report parallels a report from the Royal Society, 'Keeping science open: the effects of intellectual property on the conduct of science (2003),' which expresses related worries about the ways in which intellectual property, its interpretation and its use, impact on the progress of science.

Managing Information News (found via Stephen Downes' blog)

Together, these blog entries paint a disturbing picture of publishers as an hindrance to research. I'm sure there's plenty more examples out there.

The comment at the end of the Cambridge blog is one I can empathise with. I do believe in copyright, but in proportion -- at what point will it become impossible to even quote a single sentence from a published work without first acquiring the express permission of the publisher (presumably for a fee)?

Stephen Downes has argued that locking down the use of other people's words is in itself a type of theft; his article in the April 2003 edition of the Journal of the United States Distance Learning Association (the link is on Stephen's blog, under the title Copyright, Ethics and Theft) eloquently outlines his thoughts on the subject.

Regardless of whether or not you believe in the concept of copyright, it should be becoming apparent to everyone that the Internet and associated technologies have created a situation that current laws about copyright and ownership do not properly address, and in fact cannot address while they remain tied to ideas about ownership that fail to recognise how the Internet has changed the landscape of expression and distribution of information.

The only people who could possibly be happy about the situation are lawyers.