Category Archives: Information Ethics

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

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.

This Journal Brought to You By . . .

It was shocking at the end of April when The Scientist reported that Elsevier had published a scholarly-journal-like series that was actually advertising paid for by Merck. The peer-reviewed-like articles in the journal-like object were either reprints or summaries of articles that reported results favorable to Merck drugs. There were also “review” articles that had only a couple of references. Reviewed that. Merck good. Go prescribe.

Now it turns out this wasn’t an embarrassing one-off. Elsevier published at least six fake journals – er, sorry, got my terminology wrong: “sponsored article publications.” (The Scientist article is free, but requires registration.)

Mistakes were made. Elsevier officials regret the error. The nasty people who did that left the company long ago. Besides, it was in Australia. The CEO of Elsevier’s Heath Sciences division says it’s going to be looked into, but he’s sure it’s not ever going to happen again. “I can assure all that the integrity of Elsevier’s publications and business practices remains intact.”

Um, isn’t that up to us to say? Seems to me Elsevier’s integrity was in question even before this disgraceful and embarrassing revelation.

Anne-Marie posted some thoughtful comments about this issue at Info-fetishist – particularly the implications for information literacy.

Maybe we can’t talk about peer review at all anymore without talking about the future of a system of knowledge reporting that is almost entirely dependent upon on the volunteer efforts of scholars and researchers, almost entirely dependent upon their professionalism and commitment to the quality of their disciplines, in a world where ultimate control is passing away from those scholars’ and researchers’ professional societies and into the hands of corporate entities whose decisions are driven not by commitment to quality, knowledge creation or disciplinary integrity.

We’ve been focusing on “why pay attention to scholarly work and conversations going on on the participatory web” mostly in terms of how these things help us give our students access to scholarly material, how they help our students contextualize and understand scholarly debates, how they lay bare the processes of knowledge creation that lie under the surface of the perfect, final-product article you see in scholarly journals. And all of those things are important. But I think we’re going to have to add that “whistleblower” aspect — we need to pay attention to scholars on the participatory web so they can point out where the traditional processes are corrupt, and where the gatekeepers are making decisions that aren’t in the interests of the rest of us.

Excellent food for thought.

Another approach to the news popped up at the LSW room at FriendFeed where Steve Lawson proposed “the LSW needs to get Elsevier to publish the Australasian Journal of Library Science.” And in the over 80 responses you can find helpful suggestions like “your article will be reviewed by a panel of representatives from library vendors,” “there should be one issue deliberately missing. Supplements should be completely unavailable electronically,” and “it’s only available on one computer on campus. There is a login & password if you want off-campus access, but you can’t share it with ANYONE. … and we’ll publish 4 issues per year. But if we can’t come up with enough content for 4 issues a year, we can just combine them, like 1/2 or 1-2-3 or 2-4 or whatever.” See how productive pent-up rage can be? Thanks to all the brilliance behind this thread for the best serials humor ever.

Amongst all the giddiness some commenters pointed out a previous little scandal involving a high-impact journal that got its high impact by having one allegedly “crackpot” author publish multiple papers., as many as five in a single issue, all of them citing himself. The publisher? You guessed it – Elsevier.


photo courtesy of London Permaculture

We Can Handle the Truth

We recently lost a great champion of intellectual freedom – Judith Krug, who called attention to attempts to withdraw books from libraries, challenged the government on Internet censorship, and built coalitions to preserve our freedom to read and consider ideas without penalty. She embodied what we as librarians and academics value and she defended it with fierce intelligence.

On campuses, we rarely have book challenges to cope with, but there are more intangible challenges that compel me to think that information literacy is more important than ever, and that it needs to go beyond “how this library works” and “how to be a good student” but embrace “how to understand and evaluate evidence” but even more importantly “why evidence matters.” (I hasten to add, before you hit the comment button, that I believe information literacy is not the sole responsibility of librarians; it’s something the entire academy must embrace, and when it’s defined as more than “how to use this library” I believe they generally do embrace it, even if they aren’t always sure how to do it. And while I’m editing this, I realize this whole train of thought owes much to the Infofetishist who wrote a thought-provoking post about evidence recently. You should read it.)

One problem we have is the multiple meanings of the word “argument.” The popular meaning of the word is that it’s a form of discourse that results in a winner. Evidence is something you might selectively use, along with ethos, logos, and pathos. But as you prepare for an argument, you already know what side you’re on. You just need some “facts” to prove it.

Another definition of argument – the one used in the parts of composition textbooks that students don’t usually read – is about how you develop and frame a position based on evidence as well as effective use of it. The piece that’s especially important in terms of information literacy is not that you find evidence that will work effectively for your argument, but that you find and evaluate evidence so that you can make your mind up about the issue you’re investigating.

A student recently introduced me to the concept of agnotology – a newly-minted word to capture efforts to generate “the cultural production of ignorance” or, put differently, an effort to cast doubt on widely-recognized scientific principles by any means necessary. We had just been discussing Joel Best’s description of how “mutant statistics” are used by claims-makers to shape public attitudes about social issues. And one thing that seems to be frequently missing in our discussions of how to frame an argument is not just that it must be based on evidence but that we must be willing to let the evidence persuade us before we deploy it to persuade others. In other words, it’s not a tool, it’s not an ingredient we select to spice up a claim, it’s where we go to get our understanding. For that reason, it’s not something we can reject because it doesn’t fit our beliefs. It should shape our beliefs.

The ACRL is a member of Free Exchange on Campus, a “coalition of faculty, student, and civil rights organizations working together to preserve the free exchange of ideas on college campuses.” This group has recently published Facts Still Count, a rebuttal of David Horowitz’s most recent book, which contends with cherry-picked anecdotes that higher education is full of leftist professors seducing innocents. He also has suggested that the best way to counteract this seduction is to require professors to teach “both sides” of issues – which again uses the notion that argument is a contest between two sides (only two, apparently, as simple as right and left or red and blue) and we place our bets based on which one we want to win.

In reality, knowledge isn’t a contest, it’s more of a team sport. We do what we can to arrive at the truth collectively and sure, we have our scuffles along the way and many disagreements aren’t easily resolved. But winning isn’t the point; losing is fine so long as it gets us somewhere.

Another recently-published book that I just added to my incredibly long “to be read” list is For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom. An excerpt at the Yale UP site introduces the issue by recounting a response to a Common Reading book choice at a college campus. A committee of citizens denounced the choice of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed as “an all-out assault on Christians, conservatives and capitalism.” The assumption seems to be that if you read something, you are being forced to agree with it, though the purpose of such common reading programs is to stimulate discussion, not to inculcate beliefs or establish a body of facts that will be on the test.

Academic libraries have a relatively easy time of it. We don’t tell anybody what to read, we just offer lots of choices and occasionally have to defend the existence of those choices. But when reading a book in common comes under threat because reading is characterized as a form of indoctrination, or when a teacher’s freedom to teach is threatened by an effort to establish a student’s right to force the teacher to teach “the other side,” it becomes a matter that should concern us as a profession that believes in intellectual freedom.

And when it comes to information literacy, we should be having more conversations about how to get across the idea that “evidence matters” in terms that are more complex than “because you’ll write a better paper.”