Category Archives: Information Ethics

The Bearer of Bad News

One of the college service projects I’m working on involves the creation of a new digital platform for teaching and learning at my college. As faculty have begun to use the platform for their courses this semester, I’m finding that there’s been an uptick in the number of questions I field about posting course readings online. We don’t have an ereserve system at my library, and while I take any opportunity I can get to promote direct linking into our article databases, inevitably there are readings that faculty need to assign to their students that aren’t available in the databases.

It’s so interesting to see the range of awareness about copyright issues among my faculty colleagues. When they ask me whether then can post scanned book chapters or articles on their password-protected course sites, I respond by mentioning the Georgia State copyright case and urging caution. Many (most?) of the faculty I’ve spoken with aren’t aware of the case, perhaps because, like so many other aspects of the scholarly communications system, it seems like a library problem?

I like talking with faculty about copyright alternatives: about open access publishing, public domain materials, creative commons licenses, and how openness benefits researchers and the public — I could go on for hours. And I sympathize with faculty who struggle to get course materials to their students in the most efficient way possible. But I don’t like it when there are no acceptable alternatives. That’s tough to talk about, and I hate the hollow awkwardness that comes with telling colleagues that it’s not advisable to do something that is already such an accepted practice in faculty culture.

The Georgia State trial has ended. Once the verdict is announced, whatever the decision, we’ll have another opportunity for conversations about copyright alternatives with faculty. How can we promote awareness across the academy and emphasize that copyright isn’t just a library issue?

Personal Content Capitalism

I’ve been hearing less and less about Google+ lately, the social network launched by the search giant over the summer. I can’t comment on its functionality because I haven’t tried it; while I’m interested, I’ve got a couple of big projects going on and don’t have the bandwidth right now for an additional flavor of social media. However, my partner is on Google+ and recently let me know that he added me to a circle. I have a Google account and use lots of other Google services, but feels weird that people I know can add me to Google+ circles even though I’m not using the service.

It’s worth thinking about the way social media and internet services are monetizing (or trying to monetize) our personal content. Like many librarians and academics I rely on these services frequently, though I’ve lately begun to question whether the advantages and convenience that they provide are worth it. Last month the professional social networking website LinkedIn retreated from an earlier decision to include photographs from their users’ profile pages in ads for the service. This was just the latest in what seems to be an ever-increasing number of news items about social media companies that push their users’ comfort levels with privacy a bit to far.

A few months ago I quit Facebook because I was concerned that their privacy policies are growing evermore fluid at the same time that everyone seems to be using it to post information about events, photos, etc. Every time I commented on a friend’s wall or uploaded a picture of my kid I felt like I wasn’t getting nearly as much out of my end of the relationship as Facebook was from me. I have to admit, though, that I do miss the easy access to information from a wide range of folks I know from many stages of my life.

Like Facebook, Google uses our personal content to sell ads. Of course, selling internet ads is Google’s whole business: we are Google’s product, and the longer Google can keep us online, the more money they can make selling ads. I don’t use Gmail because I have another email provider. But I’m a heavy user of other Google services. I keep my personal schedule in Google Calendar because at our library we use it for our internal scheduling. I use Docs to collaborate with colleagues everywhere: in my library (though we are shifting to an internal wiki for much of that), with colleagues across the university system where I work, and with long-distance collaborators. And checking in with Google Reader is a staple of my daily routine.

But lately I’m reconsidering all of the personal content I’ve willingly given to internet services. I’m not sure how to ramp down my use of these tools that I’ve become so dependent on, especially given the number of people I work and communicate with who use the same tools. What’s the appropriate balance of control over our personal content and convenient, useful services? And how should we help guide students in making these same decisions?

Stranger Than Fiction

My head’s been buzzing since I first read yesterday on the New York Times Bits Blog that coder and activist Aaron Swartz was indicted under federal hacking laws for illegally downloading millions of articles from JSTOR (the full text of the indictment is embedded at the bottom of the post). Since then I’ve read through lots of articles and tweets, news about the case having all but taken over my Twitter stream, including a more in-depth story in today’s Times. And I’m finding that with every article I read I have more questions than answers.

Why’d he do it? Swartz is well known as an information activist and open access advocate, so this question’s not hard to answer. I’d hazard that it’s also not a stretch for many librarians to sympathize with Swartz at least a little bit. After all, we spend our days helping people find information, and we know all too well the frustrations of not being able to access the information we and our patrons need. I’ve read that Swartz wanted to use the data for research, but as JSTOR points out in the official statement, there are procedures in place for scholars who want to use large parts of JSTOR’s database for research.

What, exactly, did he do? This has been difficult to tease out, and the information in the many articles around the internet is highly varied. The indictment accuses Swartz of installing a laptop in a wiring closet at MIT to download large portions of JSTOR’s content. But it’s interesting to see terms like “hacking” and “stealing” used as synonyms with “illegal downloading” and “violating license terms” in many articles describing the case. As noted in an article in Wired:

Swartz used guest accounts to access the network and is not accused of finding a security hole to slip through or using stolen credentials, as hacking is typically defined.

On the other hand, Demand Progress, the progressive political organization founded by Swartz, has compared Swartz’s actions to “allegedly checking too many books out of the library” (a quote that’s been heavily retweeted). Of course, this analogy doesn’t really hold up, since books and databases operate under very different ownership models.

Why JSTOR? I’d guess that this is a question only a librarian would have, but I can’t help wondering why JSTOR? Why didn’t Swartz pick on one of the giant scholarly journal publishers with well-publicized huge profit margins? Perhaps JSTOR was easiest for him to access? Or maybe, because JSTOR isn’t one of the biggies, he suspected that if he got caught they wouldn’t press charges? It’s been reported that JSTOR secured the return of the downloaded content and did not press charges; the case is being brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

What does this mean for libraries? And for the open access movement? As I was sitting down to finish writing this my CUNY colleague Stephen Francoeur sent out a link to this post on the Forbes blog that terms Swartz’s actions “reckless and counterproductive.” The post gets at something that’s been nagging at me since yesterday: it points out the possibility that the reputation of the open access movement could be damaged by association. And I’m still not sure how exactly to articulate it, but I worry that there may be fallout from this event that could have a negative effect on academic libraries, too.

Social Hacking at the Library

I’m always interested to read about ideas that folks outside of librarianship have about libraries. The other day my partner forwarded me a tweet from tech publisher Tim O’Reilly:

Interesting note about an MIT professor who “hacked” (socially) the library as a way of recruiting interesting students http://bit.ly/k4qzrl

O’Reilly links to Harvard’s Library Innovation Lab blog to a brief post by Matt Phillips that discusses an obituary for an MIT professor. The obituary noted that this faculty member kept many library books in his office long after they were due, because:

the library would send him the students who wanted those books, and he would interview them as potential assistants

Phillips goes on to write:

People connect through works held at the library and the library should encourage these connections.

Many of the thoughts that ran through my head after reading this are expressed in the comments for the blog post. How could the library reveal which patron had checked out those books?! Doesn’t LibraryThing (among other social reading tools) already help readers connect over similar interests? And what about the poor students who didn’t feel like going over to that faculty member’s office — wasn’t he holding those books hostage?

While the specifics of this situation are probably somewhat unique to the institution, I do think that providing opportunities for patrons to connect around library collections is an interesting idea. But the privacy concerns are a big deal. Protecting our patrons’ privacy is a core value of librarianship, and revealing to another patron who has checked out a book flies directly in the face of that.

Perhaps we could provide the opportunity for patrons to opt-in to a service that would allow them to connect with other interested readers, to give our users a choice between keeping their reading history private and sharing it. Though I worry that it can sometimes be easier to see the short term benefits of decreased privacy than the possible longer term detriments. With so many services incrementally moving to public by default (yes, Facebook, I’m looking at you) it’s getting easier to share more and more of our information, and it seems like the more we share the easier it gets.

There are also technical issues. Barbara wrote about academic libraries using LibraryThing a couple of years ago, but it seems like most libraries that have added LibraryThing to their catalogs feature tags and related readings only, not the kinds of social connections that are available on the main LibraryThing site. Would it be possible to layer what is essentially social networking on top of our library catalogs? I’m sure the feasibility of this would vary between catalogs. There are some promising social networking applications out there, including open source options like BuddyPress, a plugin for the WordPress blogging platform, which might be a candidate for a social catalog hack.

I’m sure there are lots of other possibilities for making our catalogs (and databases?) more social and helping our readers connect over their shared interests. If you’re experimenting with these kinds of features in your library, I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Digital Natives, Scholarly Immigrants?

While browsing through my table of contents alerts recently I came across an interesting article in the current issue of the Journal of Higher Education: “University Students’ Perceptions of Plagiarism,” by Lori G. Power (unfortunately behind the paywall at Project Muse). It’s a happy coincidence to come across this article now, as plagiarism has been much on my mind lately for a couple of reasons. A colleague is teaching our first student workshop on avoiding plagiarism this week. We’re also planning to offer a plagiarism workshop geared for faculty next semester, in collaboration with our college’s Writing Across the Curriculum program.

Power interviewed freshmen and sophomores at a small university in Maine both individually and in focus groups to try and unpack their knowledge about plagiarism. Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly), they don’t know as much about plagiarism as we may think (or hope). Power acknowledges that this aligns well with the results of previous studies, but her work reveals students’ perceptions of plagiarism in their own words, with fascinating results.

Power found that student responses to her questions about plagiarism fell into two main categories: agency and externalization. Most students expressed only partial understanding about what exactly constitutes plagiarism, especially regarding paraphrasing. Yet they were dissatisfied that many of their professors warned them away from plagiarism by emphasizing the potentially harsh penalties rather than explaining the nuances of academic writing. Students also noticed that faculty responded in different ways to plagiarism, which further increased students’ confusion. Ultimately, many students that Power interviewed expressed frustration at being required to play by the rules of the scholarly communication game without having had these rules fully explained:

It seems apparent at the college level at least, students see plagiarism as a bit of a power trip. Professors and college administrators seem to often tell students not to plagiarize, and warn them of the consequences, but these students don’t believe they do as well at helping students understand why not to plagiarize, or how not to plagiarize.

The other major theme identified by Power in her student interviews was externalization. Power suggests that because undergraduates–novices in the academic world–are unfamiliar with intellectual property, they view the prohibition against plagiarism as somewhat arbitrary. They often don’t identify a moral component to plagiarism, and don’t believe that there are consequences for plagiarism in the real world. And when asked why they shouldn’t plagiarize, many students in Power’s study replied that their professors needed to know that students had learned the course material rather than copying it from someone else.

Power concludes with suggestions for addressing plagiarism with our students:

We can’t assume a one-size-fits-all approach will work in preventing plagiarism. We must open wide the dialogue about power, judgment, and student agency. We need to improve our strategies for helping our students to discover the importance of intellectual property and the sharing and ownership of ideas.

Our students may be digital natives, but most are scholarly immigrants (at least as first- and second-year students). And as academic librarians, we have much to contribute to student learning about scholarly communication, intellectual property, and plagiarism.