Category Archives: Information Ethics

Local Food (for Thought) Movement

LJ Academic Newswire reports that U Penn is the latest to offer scan-on-demand with quality print output. Emory uses the same Kirtas machine to offer a curated collection of books relevant to Emory and to the South, unique in their collections. UMich, which has a rich collection of books scanned through their own efforts and with the Google project, has an Espresso machine standing by reading to instantly print copies. Cornell sells thousands of scanned books printed on demand through Amazon’s POD company.

And Boston Public, in a partnership with the Open Library that seems to have gotten far too little press, will digitize a public domain book of your choice within a matter of days, letting demand drive mass digitization. All you have to do is press a button in their catalog. How cool is that?

It’s interesting how these efforts are described. “An ATM for books.” “Library as Bookstore.” “Library as publisher.” “Amazon partnership.” We’re not quite sure what to call this effort – which is making public domain books available in multiple formats to as many people as possible while recovering costs. Basically, it’s interlibrary loan of non-returnables that happen to be book-sized and often go direct to the patron. It’s a terrific development. But . . . you knew there’d be a but, didn’t you?

By now some of you will have twigged to the fact that partnering with Amazon – particularly for POD fulfillment – is going on my “hey, wait a minute” list. Amazon is a hugely successful company that is able to set terms because it is so big. Their strategy is vertical integration and ownership of every piece of the industry that can be integrated. The only POD company they support is the one they own. The only e-book format they will sell is the one they bought – MobiPocket (which also fuels Kindle). They are the Microsoft of books. Don’t like the way we do things? Tough, ’cause we’re the biggest. You go through us, you get the audience, but you play by our rules.

The more we partner with Amazon, the bigger it gets and the harder it is for local independent bookstores to survive. It’s the same Faustian bargain libraries stuck with Google to digitize books, but it’s harder to argue it’s totally win-win. Independent booksellers lose. That’s a choice we make.

I suggested an even more radical partnership partnership in Library Journal last year, but so far no takers. I’m not really surprised, since it would require regional library consortia having a new-generation machine and expanding delivery of print-on-demand books to local booksellers. But a partnership of publishers, regional library systems, and the local book trade could lead to a greener, more reader-driven supply of books to borrow or buy – and a healthier local community.

I recently caught a blog posting from a bookseller who said of hard times “it’s Mardi Gras over there at the library!” We’ve all seen the news stories about the surge in library use. We have the mojo to refresh a broken book culture using new technologies and new ideas, but before we fashion ourselves as publishers, we should think about what that means to our communities near by.

I know a lot of indie booksellers, and they are dedicated to connecting people to books because they believe that connection matters. They aren’t getting rich. They aren’t trying to boost their profit margin. They’re just trying to pay the rent and stay open. My own campus bookstore is one of the few that isn’t outsourced. It’s an independent bookstore, and I’m proud of that.

If we’re going to become part of the book business, let’s think about how to do it in a way that doesn’t screw over our local partners in connecting books and readers.

Information is Power – Even When it’s Wrong

Here is a guest post from Amy Fry, a San Diego-based librarian with whom I’ve done some research on aggregated databases. She was struck by the way a sloppy mistake in handling information led to a plunge in a company’s stock prices – and what the implications might be for information literacy. If you’re low on energy and thinking a cup of strong coffee might wake you up – hang on; this post might just do the trick.

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On September 8, a reporter for Income Securities Advisors, using Google, found a 2002 article from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel about United Airlines’ bankruptcy. The article was undated in the paper’s archive, but used a site header displaying the current date, so the Google News crawler, indexing the site Saturday night, applied the date of September 6, 2008 to the story. Mistakenly identifying the article as current, the reporter summarized it and sent it to her editor, who posted it to the ISA wire service. Aggregated by Bloomberg (though independent from Bloomberg News), the headline was seen by Wall Street traders, and even though the company caught the mistake and removed the headline within 13 minutes (and Bloomberg itself posted a correction), a trading frenzy had already caught hold causing United to lost 75% of its stock value in under an hour.

This story contains a powerful lesson about information literacy.

One: Proper metadata is important.

Metadata experts have been trying for years to promote universal standards for describing and applying information about content objects, online and elsewhere, and this is why. Why was this article undated when other articles from the same news archive were dated, and how can a header date be mistaken for the date of unaffiliated content? The answer is: improper application and use of metadata. One reason we teach students to use library resources is that we believe that properly indexed information, with standard subject headings and descriptive metadata that is uniformly formatted and properly mapped, aids the user in finding and evaluating information. As this story shows, such indexing can also help information seekers avoid costly mistakes. The problem of universal metadata standards is complicated, but our hard work as information scientists is not wasted in solving it.

Two: There is no substitute for critical thinking about sources.

The reporter, and her editor, did not think critically about where her information was coming from and why it might require a second glance. Even if she didn’t have the background to already know that United had declared and emerged from bankruptcy within the last 10 years, proper critical thinking about sources should have caused her to ask why this story was being fed to her first through Google News from a south Florida Tribune-affiliate instead of the Wall Street Journal or another primary information source of financial news. We teach students to examine a variety of points to determine the authority of an information source, like an identifiable author, author affiliation, publisher and publisher affiliation, traceable references, and external peer review. All of these can help them ascertain if sources they find are reliable, even if they do not have extensive prior exposure to the subject of their research question. This story proves that there are no shortcuts to determining the authority of sources, and no substitute for critical thinking.

Three: Sometimes aggregators are misleading.

Aggregators play a valuable, but complicated, role in information provision. Bloomberg not only provides information to its subscribers – it also aggregates information from other services and packages this information with its own. Operating under the “more is more” and “bigger is better” philosophy has become commonplace in the world of information aggregation, and librarians tend to agree (see Fister, Gilbert and Fry in the July 2008 issue of portal). But, as this story shows, it comes with certain pitfalls. Aggregators have neither the means nor the desire to vet every item of information they provide in their products, but the distinction between their role as aggregator and their role as authoritative information provider is blurred. Often their own status lends authority to the information they package – touted as unintended when that information proves to be faulty. As this story demonstrates, more oversight of aggregators and by aggregators, and a demand of quality over quantity, should be a priority for librarians, especially in this age of information overload.

Four: Google is more powerful than we even realized.

If any one of you has been underestimating the role of Google in the information food chain, STOP. Google has enormous power to direct culture through the control of information. While the company sticks to its mantra of “Don’t Be Evil,” this story proves that high-stakes real-world results can be achieved in moments through Google without Google’s knowledge or intervention and even without intentional sabotage. Google has changed the way we find, use and even produce information – but with great power comes even greater responsibility. Librarians have raised important points about the ethical dimensions of private information ownership in conjunction with the Google Books digitization project. We have warned students to be careful when using Google as a research tool. A private company is not required to act in the public interest. Academic librarians, as educators, are. As more and more information is accessed through and archived by private companies (for example, despite its content, EEBO is still a proprietary resource), librarians must take on greater responsibilities as watchdogs for the public interest. Even if our roles are changing, our mission must not.

Reuse, Remix, Regret

An article in the Washington Post today raises an issue that is bedeviling colleges and universities. Where do you draw the line on plagiarism?

In this case, a student was expelled from a summer program abroad because, when writing about a film, his professor thought he inappropriately paraphrased his summary of the film from a Wikipedia article. Without commenting on the merits of this case – with only a newspaper article to go on, it’s hard to know all the nuances – this issue is one that plays out daily on campuses, and librarians are often called to weigh in. In fact, the WaPo asked for a librarian to comment.

Professors and librarians talk about plagiarism and other issues of academic integrity a lot more than they used to, said Barbie Selby, a university librarian, because research is so much easier to do now. It takes just a couple of clicks to copy and paste a passage from an online source into a paper, rather than going to the library, finding the right books and copying something by hand. Even unintentional mistakes are easier.

Online research is by far the most common practice now, Selby said, and it can be confusing. “We want to be as clear as possible about what is and isn’t acceptable,” she said. With digital sources, things wind up in notes without credit, and people are left unsure what came from where.

Is it true that “research is easier” in a digital environment, or that copying is easier? Or that it’s easier to get caught?

Maybe the fact that students are asked to write more from sources than in the past plays a role. As an organization of writing program administrators has pointed out, what is labeled plagiarism might quite often be better described as misuse of sources.

I have often wondered whether our zeal to prosecute plagiarism hasn’t somehow been infected by the RIAA’s efforts to stamp out music file sharing and the feds’ desire to “protect” us through ubiquitous surveillance. Though technology is often invoked as the culprit (giving rise to Digital Natives who are in need of a civilizing mission) it is technology that provides the damning evidence of wrongdoing. Not too long ago, a student who formed a study group at a Canadian university was nearly expelled from college because his teacher didn’t want students to work on problems together. Set aside that they were engaging in what their own university recommended as good study habits – they were caught because they met on Facebook instead of in the library, where their offense would likely go undiscovered.

Libraries exist to share knowledge. We need to help faculty do more than catch offenders. We need to help them understand how confusing it is, from their students’ perspective, to be invited to partake in knowledge, to see inquiry as a fundamental form of experiential learning, and then have their hands slapped for stealing. The delicate dance of knowing what is common knowledge and what needs to be cited is not obvious to the uninitiated, but the message is clear: knowledge is not yours.

Maybe it’s all Sir Isaac Newton’s fault. He’s the one who said he saw further “by standing on the shoulders of giants.” But, the scoundrel – he failed to acknowledge that he wasn’t the first to say it.

The education vs. indoctrination debate

I’m the RSS reader type who subscribes to a little bit of everything and then doesn’t really pay attention to which is which when skimming through the feeds (let’s just say “detail oriented” doesn’t go on my resume). Yet somehow in the melee of my reader, the Digital Reference blog keeps getting my attention. It’s not that Stephen’s posts are particularly controversial, but he just keeps hitting topics in a way that sparks my mind into motion. Most recently the one that got the wheels turning was “Referring patrons to open access resources.” Here’s what he had to say:

As I’ve been reading up on open access journals and open access archives (AKA open access repositories), I’ve been wondering to what extent I have been intentionally and unintentionally guiding patrons to these resources. I have to admit that I can’t remember a time when I explicitly referred a student to search for content in an open access archive or suggested they use a tool to locate articles in OA journals.

What got me in this paragraph was the “I have to admit” part, the feeling that this post is somehow an apology for not directing students to OA databases first. If that’s something to be sorry for then I’d better get in line, because I’ve never deliberately led a student to an OA resource. In my opinion, that would be something like suggesting a book on their topic because it was a nice color. Sure, I enjoy looking at a book with a pretty cover, but I’m sure as heck not going to select (er, judge) it on that point.

So here we go, into the “education vs. indoctrination” debate. Do we push tools and resources because we want to teach students to believe what we believe, or because they deliver what the student wants? Seems like a no-brainer, but even so early in my career I’ve been in a few situations where I wrestled with that question — such as the young boy who came in when I was at the public library and asked for books that support his pro-life opinion (can you have politics at 10?). I can remember some passionate debates on the subject in library school, and the issue reaches into all of higher education. Do a search on “education and indoctrination” anywhere you like and you’ll immediately find yourself in the thick of it. For instance, consider this comment in a Chronicle article by Jonathan Malesic entitled, “The Smell of Indoctrination in the Morning”:

In graduate school, I once overheard one teaching assistant tell another that she wanted to try to make her students into liberals before it was too late. Now, I think that having a few more liberals around, especially if they were strategically placed in swing states, would be a great thing for the republic. So in one sense, I sympathize with that TA. But I also know that to make students into liberals is an essentially illiberal act.

The fuzzy part of the issue is the question of where that line between education and indoctrination actually lies. Is it like pornography: you know it when you see it? Maybe. Or it could be even more tenuous and grey; an ever-shifting line that challenges us on a daily basis to uphold our own democratic values. It’s our privilege as librarians to know what the best information sources are, and to know what sources make for a healthy future of information. It is our challenge to communicate that knowledge to others. But is a reference interview the place to do so?

What do you think? Do you recommend resources based on need and relevance to the reference question, or do other factors come into play? In what circumstances do you (however subtly) push your values out to unsuspecting students? It’s a question worth asking ourselves periodically, and trying to measure how close we stand to that shifting, grey line.

Another Meaning of “Access”

Pardon me while my head explodes.

The word “access” is one with generally good connotations among librarians. It’s in a lot of mission statements. It takes on a more mercenary meaning when it refers to the relationship between the press and power. And The New York Times has a very scary story about it today. Forgive me if what follows seems a little politicized, but hey – I take this personally.

Those retired generals who go on television to give their expert analysis? Many of them were briefed by the Pentagon. And given contracts for reconstruction and whatnot. That’s another definition of access. It’s no wonder that people have a lack of trust in the press. As the number of newsroom employees shrinks, these hacks pick up the slack.

An example: During the “Revolt of the Generals” – ones who were not paid by Fox or CNN to be experts, but ex-military officers who criticized the conduct of the war – two of the shills put their talking heads together to write a commentary for the Wall Street Journal, got stuck, and contacted the Pentagon, which quickly forwarded talking points and statistics. You could say they were simply going to the source, or you could call it ghostwriting. War room, meet news room.

news room

In a class I teach, we just talked about how anxiety is used to form and shape social issues. Fear is a potent lever for influencing public opinion, and here’s how it works:

First, you define an issue by naming a situation that is believed to be a challenge to commonly-held moral values (in this case “the war on terror,” a phrase that predates 9/11, just as warrantless wiretapping did, but the phrase became viscerally meaningful thereafter.)

Claims-makers associate their agendas with that threatening condition so they can gain support. (That wall we’re building between us and Mexico? That’s to keep our borders secure from terrorists. Right.)

The domain of concern is expanded to include as many potential victims as possible. Don’t just be afraid. Be very afraid.

Issues are typified through dramatic story-telling (like telling us a handful of delusional nutcases in Miami were a credible threat to the Sears Tower a few months before the 2006 election when they were, in fact, a handful of delusional nutcases given an action movie script by a federal informant).

As James Kincaid has said, “Doing away with demons is only one part of the job; the other is providing them.” And of course when you provide hydra-headed demons, somebody has to give you lots of money to keep lopping their heads off.

Communication studies scholar Joel Best says there are four key players in the formation of social issues: the media who seek compelling stories to tell, activists who want to promote their solution to the crisis, governments that can use issues to gain support for regulating behavior, and experts who want their work to have influence. In this case, the Pentagon pretty much has it all wrapped up. The experts are ex-generals paid by the media for their access to the Pentagon; the Pentagon pays the ex-generals for their access to the airwaves and writes their copy. The solutions that are promoted put money into their pockets. It’s all pretty well summed up in this snip from the NY Times:

Torie Clarke, the former public relations executive who oversaw the Pentagon’s dealings with the analysts as assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, had come to her job with distinct ideas about achieving what she called “information dominance.” In a spin-saturated news culture, she argued, opinion is swayed most by voices perceived as authoritative and utterly independent [my emphasis].

And so even before Sept. 11, she built a system within the Pentagon to recruit “key influentials” — movers and shakers from all walks who with the proper ministrations might be counted on to generate support for Mr. Rumsfeld’s priorities.

Forget “authoritative and independent.” “Perceived” is the operative word, here.

The news is never objective. It’s influenced by claims-makers and by audiences that ask the media to tell compelling stories. But clearly, the line between “expert” and “shill” has blurred here, and the shills are getting government contracts. The pentagon has cynically controlled the manufacture of crisis.

Sorry, Ike. We didn’t take you seriously enough. It’s now the military industrial and information complex.

(This is largely cross-posted from my blog; the image is courtesy of Eric Olson.)