Category Archives: Information Ethics

What We Know and What They Know: Scholarly Communication, Usability, and Un-Usability.

Over the past handful of years, a lot of digital ink has been spilled on library responses to #icanhazpdf, SciHub, and, most recently, the #Twitterlibraryloan movement. This hit home in my life because  in recent discussion with students at my University, we found that students told us outright that they used SciHub because of its ability to “get most things.”

How we talk about piracy with our patrons is an important topic for discussion, and places a tremendous amount of emphasis on the ethics of a for-profit publishing model. But it places librarians in a precarious situation defending publishing practices that build barriers to research.

SciHub Pirates, from the Rjiksmuseum in Amsterdam. Schip van de schrijver Jean de Thevenot door zeerovers overmeesterd, Jan Luyken, 1681














Lydia Thorn wrote an excellent piece about teaching professors and students about the importance of legal means of acquisition, pointing to an expectation of immediate access and declining library budgets as culprits in this explosion of piracy. Thorn suggests pointing to the ways in which piracy hurts small presses and not-for-profit publishers and how the library can and should fill these needs. She also suggests that we point to several open models that provide access to materials without the illegality of piracy.

Switching gears slightly, it reminds me of the difficulties I have in working with faculty on online scholarly profiles. Because I administer DigitalCommons@USU, and its profiling system Selected Works, I am often confronted with faculty and students who use the for-profit academic profiling systems (I’m using this difficult phrase to talk about the systems that we all know but I’d rather not name) that are extremely popular across the world and across disciplines.

What brings these two examples and issues together is the way in which we, as librarians, promote ourselves as experts in this realm and how, in a lot of ways, our strategies for promoting our services fall flat. Faculty are not cynical monsters who actively search for ways to be “anti-library,” but make rational choices that fit what they need. They aren’t very often knowledgeable about the inner working of collection development or the serials crisis but they are knowledgeable about what they need right now in their academic careers.

I explain to my faculty, much like Thorn suggests, that the for-profit profiling systems are sometimes deceptive, corporate, and, often times, include illegal materials. While the illegality of the for-profit profiles often reaches faculty, who want to avoid any legal entanglements, the prevalence of these systems does not seem to be waning. The library’s 100% legal version pales in popularity in comparison to the others, who are often much more popular in certain fields. Who am I to tell professors not to choose these options in academic areas where for-profit profiles are more valuable than the library’s resources? Despite my feelings to the contrary, sometimes the for-profit profiles fit certain scholars well.

This brings me back to the issues surrounding SciHub and #Icanhazpdf. The important thing to remember about our users is that they spend much less time than we do worrying about these things. For them, the ease of use of a for-profit profile or a pirated pdf warehouse is an issue of access and not a preference towards profits or not-profits. While each choice we make as actors is political, I do not believe that our faculty who use these platforms are willfully ignorant or disloyal to their institutions, libraries, or librarians. They just want what they want, when they want it.

Carolyn Gardner and Gabriel Gardner speak to this in their College and Research Libraries article from earlier this year:

“Poor usability is also hindering our patrons from gaining access to materials. Librarians need to apply user experience thinking to all our online systems. At our respective libraries, we have to click multiple times just to discover if an item is own. Besides complicated discovery methods, software or holdings errors are possible…Librarians need to view these crowdsourced communities as alternatives that fill a gap that we have yet to meet as opposed to purely underground and shadowy communities.” (CRL February 2017 pg 144)

When the film and television industries felt the crunch from piracy they invested in Netflix and created Hulu, and when the music industry faltered we got Spotify and other streaming platforms. Each of these systems allowed for the quick access to media that users stole to gain access to. Libraries should view SciHub and for-profit profiling systems not as a betrayal but as a call to change and action. If SciHub is easier to use than the library we cannot blame our users if they use it over our complicated systems. If the for-profit profiling systems are superior to the library administered in someways, perhaps that is what our faculty are looking for.

We as librarians shouldn’t  “teach” our patrons to adapt to our obtuse and oftentimes difficult systems but libraries should adapt to the needs of our patrons. I really do not want to be at odds with my colleagues who call for education on these issues, because education is needed on these issues. After all, we are in the business of education. Yet, I believe that, in some ways, we should respect our faculty for what they do know. They know that they need resources to do their job. They should know that the library is often the best source for these resources. They also know that there are some platforms that provide easier access to these materials. I do not begrudge faculty who seek easier paths towards the resources they need to do their jobs, as much as I don’t begrudge undergraduates (or librarians) who use Wikipedia as a first source of quick info. It is a symptom of the age of easy access to materials online, and it is something that we as librarians should learn about what our scholars are looking for.

The second part of this is adpatation. We should not only respect our patron’s decision making processes but we should listen when  faculty seek sleazier means towards library services, and adapt to this need. If the for-profit profiles do something that my profiles don’t, I should think about ways to build my system to reflect those needs. If access to materials needs to be quicker than three clicks through our system, we should work to make it easier to gain legal access to materials. We shouldn’t claim that we know more than they do just because we deal with our obtuse systems on the daily, we should adapt to their needs when they arise.


No, Fair! Evolving Perspectives on Excessive Use in Research

Midterm brings its share of bustle to the library with last minute research questions to ask and copiers and printers to locate.  Library staff are also busy negotiating licenses, finalizing renewals, and troubleshooting access to the resources on which faculty and students rely. I’d like to shed some light on a subtler side of the troubleshooting task that, while not a frequent occurrence, is a growing concern for me as a librarian and researcher. The technologies that enable this bustle of research activity can at times inadvertently trigger what publishers call excessive use or excessive downloading.  This is considered a breach of contract according to the licenses for these resources.  Remedying this breach usually involves working with university IT security to identify, inform, and prevent such use, assuring publishers that the breach is cured, and publishers then unblocking the network IP or IP range necessary to restore access to content.

Recently, I’ve been contemplating researchers’ expectations when working with scholarly content and technology.  What technologies are they using?   Are they compatible across content provider platforms?  How might they trigger excessive use breaches?  What exactly is excessive use or excessive downloading in an online research environment?

What publishers think

Sometimes the publisher’s license language specifies the use of bots, link-checker, crawlers, spiders, automated software, and even indexing as excessive or unauthorized.  But more often, breaches associated with this activity are not explicitly defined, nor are they put in context of excessive use within the license. This leaves it fairly open to interpretation.

Publishers must consider the perspective of copyright holders, and typically enforce equivalent limitations for online use that they would for physical print materials uses.  It sounds reasonable, but because in reality we use print and online resources very differently, such licenses terms may give up fair use and other scholarly exceptions granted by copyright law.  Publishers take an even heavier hand when responding to excessive use breaches.  Blocking the user’s IP access, or sometimes an entire campus IP range, presumes malicious intent (which it almost never is).  This response also exaggerates the stakes involved and misunderstands what is necessary to perform digital research. Strict reinterpretation of print use restrictions in the online environment denies advances in research technology, from basic citation management software to APIs used for text and data mining.  It also ignores the very structure of the linked-data world we live in.

What most people think

When users learn that their actions violate library license agreements, their reactions are  surprised, apologetic, and most often confused.  While some may be aware of the technologies that makes excessive downloading possible, most don’t believe they constitute unethical or unlawful actions.  Breach of contract itself is kind of a boogey-man phrase that brings more readily to mind data breaches like Equifax.  If people are aware of breaches occurring in academia, attention more often goes to those involving individual student records.

According to one IT security expert I asked, the kinds of scholarly content breaches I’m talking about don’t even register on the scale of data sensitivity or security.  Unless credentials were stolen in order to download excessively, it is not security issue; it’s a copyright issue.  Publishers who treat copyright infringement as a security issue might be mitigating risk, but they are not serving or educating their customer.

What librarians think

Librarians, naturally, do approach this from the service and education mindset. Increasingly that means a not just serving end-users within the academy, but the general public who pay for the research through their tax dollars. As researchers assert the right to retain copyright of their own content and share it more widely, more diverse collaboration is possible, increasing potential for innovative research discoveries.  Libraries assert copyright exceptions and expose inequities in traditional publishing structures in order to make openness for innovation possible as well.

Aaron Swartz profileBy Fred Benenson - User: Mecredis [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ll digress briefly to the story of Aaron Swartz  for illustration and comparison.  He was an advocate of openness, yet his deliberate action to hack and release scholarly content provides, I suppose, a perfect case for publishers’ insistence to treat copyright as a security issue.  In this case, the breach involved 4 million documents.  The scope in numbers (less than 3% of the Equifax breach) pales by comparison, especially considering nature of the data and the consequences (or lack of) to those responsible and to those harmed.

Rarely are scholars’ actions as deliberate or the stakes of intellectual property loss as high as  this scholarly breach (or breaches of individuals’ personal data).  In fact many legitimate uses of scholarly research technologies are being blocked even to those with “rights” to use them.  Some examples of technology uses I’ve seen publishers block include citation management software like EndNote that indexes and stores full text where available.  As early as 2006, librarians reported browser technologies that link and open an articles’ cited references, triggering such use.  What about mining text and data  to discover disciplinary concepts across time and from journal publications that span multiple publishers?  Innovating digital researchers  are developing their own programming for this, but can they use it?  Are there alternatives, and are they open or proprietary?

My role as an acquisitions librarian means I must balance the needs of publishers supplying the content we license with needs of users who access that content for their research and study.  That balance falls somewhere between stoic realism and OAnarchy for me.  But I’m still a teacher at heart, so educating all sides remains my goal. In the traditional, profit-based publishing system, where flat library budgets mean buying power decreases each year,  I must follow open access developments carefully, just as I must work to negotiate the best deal within these existing structures.  There is always room in this to educate publishers, librarians, and users.

Learning more about the tools researchers use, wish they had, or wish they could use without being blocked from access is my next goal. In my troubleshooting experience so far,  tools like EndNote, Papers on Mac, Abstraktr, RedCap, WGET are just a few.  So tell me…

What digital research
(or reference citation management)
technologies are your researchers using? and the dream of universal web annotation

Digital, networked technology has irrevocably altered the way humans process, analyze, and share information, a reality not lost on those in scholarly communications, where traditional modes research and publishing are (albeit slowly) evolving to embrace the potential these advancements offer. Some developments include the rise in open access publishing, an increase in scholarly blogging, sharing of datasets, electronic lab notes, and open peer-review. Another effort gaining traction among academics and publishers is facilitation of online annotations, aimed at promoting an ongoing dialogue in which scholars and other individuals comment on, highlight, and add to information published on the web. Continue reading and the dream of universal web annotation

Theory as a keel: Developing a critical framework for open education, Part 2

“If open is the answer, then what is the question?” was posed by educator and researcher Catherine Cronin (National University of Ireland, Galway) in her keynote address for the Open Education Conference 2016 in Edinburgh, UK last April. This question challenges our community to explore the why behind the how driving open education initiatives, and reveals the need for a body of critical research examining the same.

Jamison Miller, Ph.D. student in the School of Education at William & Mary, hopes to develop a framework that balances critical analysis with practical implementations, and provide the open education movement with the foundation to help move it forward in a socially responsible manner. He credits his affiliation with the Global OER Graduate Network (GO-GN) with providing an invaluable support network for doctoral students studying open education. The group helped bring Jamison to Krakow last spring for the OEGlobal Conference, and will be supporting a trip to Cape Town for this year’s conference in March.

Continue reading Theory as a keel: Developing a critical framework for open education, Part 2

Once More to the Breach

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Mark Herring, Dean of Library Services at Winthrop University.

Summer’s over, I know, but we must go once more to the breach of web privacy. A California librarian recently complained about Amazon’s new Kindle ebooks lending program for libraries. The complaint focuses on Amazon’s privacy policy and advertising. In a ten minute video (the transcript of which is here), the librarian argues that in our hasty “greed” to get books into the hand of readers, librarians violated one of our sacred trusts: privacy protection. Amazon keeps a record of all books lent on Kindles via corporate servers. This information is later used like it is on the website, both to recommend new titles and of course advertise products by selling that information elsewhere. While the story was picked up in the library press and on Slashdot, it wasn’t widely publicized, at least not to the extent of the story of Amazon’s lending program. The reason why is simple: web privacy is now a non-starter.

This isn’t the first such story about Web privacy (or lack thereof), and it is not likely to be the last. But it is a non-issue and will remain so as far as cyberspace extends. It’s not as if we weren’t warned.

As long as go as 1999, in a widely publicized story (perhaps forgotten now?), Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, told a group that the issue of privacy on the Web was a “red herring” (no relation by the way). McNealy went on to say that “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” McNealy wasn’t the only one to argue in this manner, and neither is Amazon the only company with a patent disregard for privacy. Frankly, any company or social network on the Web puts privacy on low priority. Don’t get me wrong. Privacy isn’t an absolute right. I can think of times when not disclosing someone’s shenanigans would border on the criminal. But our patrons should be able to do basic library business without being hounded.

To be sure, the strength of the poisoned privacy varies among various Web apothecaries. With Facebook rapidly approaching one billion users, only a tiny minority remain who can care about privacy. Only last year Zuckerberg reminded all of us that “the age of privacy is over.” At the time, some saw this as an about-face. But anyone who followed Facebook helter-skelter knew otherwise. James Grimmelmann remarked once that of all the social networks, Facebook had the best privacy statement, and it was awful.

But I like the way Zuckerberg phrased it because I think it sums up nicely where we are about the Web and privacy. It’s a brave new world, and those not yet on board are from another, older and quite possibly, flat one. This was never made clearer to me than a few years ago.

I had the distinct pleasure to visit MIT in 2009 and learn of new web-related inventions in the proverbial “pipeline.” Amid our somewhat graying profession were these twentysomethings, naturally, all exceedingly bright. Some of what we saw has already come to pass, while others remain in development. There were toys, apps, and so on. But what really caught my eye was a broach or lapel pin.

This pin, our attractive, late twentysomething, explained to us, made certain you never forgot a name or a face again. I’m terrible with names, so naturally I perked up even more. When you approach a person, she said, the pin casts his or her “vitals” on their chest, visible to you but not to them. Commonly known things, she said, like age, marital status, number of children, where they work, recent vacations or even recent accomplishments. This way, she told us cheerfully, you’re never at a loss what to talk about. You know, how are the kids, is Peter enjoying Harvard, and how was the vacation in the Caymans?

Several of us, all over 50, let out an audible gasp. But isn’t that a violation of privacy, we asked, almost in unison. Oh, no, she reassured us. It’s all on the Web anyway. And then she said something that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. When asked about the ethics of it all, she replied, again cheerily, “Those are issues taken up by another department. We don’t really engage in the ethics part of it.” And that’s when I knew. We are of a different age because even the developers no longer think about these things, assuming they once did. Ethics will ponder that matter and get back to you. But don’t call us; we’ll call you.

None of us want to remain fully anonymous, but many of us–at least those of us over 50–would prefer to remain somewhat private. Not anymore. Everything we are or hope to be, whether true or not, is on the Web; and someone is or will be making use of it. In this brave new world, we all live our lives on the backs of so many digital postcards that travel the globe daily.

This isn’t about going back, or trying to recapture the genie or clean up the toothpaste. Those days are over. Rather this is about how we librarians have become students of change and must now weigh those changes regularly. As the Web changes books, it also changes the libraries that house them. And so McLuhan was right after all: We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.

And so here we are, once more to the breach. Habent sua fata libelli: books have their fates. The only question that remains today is this one: is this the fate we want for them, for our libraries?