Category Archives: Information Ethics

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.

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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.”

Heather Has Two Mommies and Just Canceled her Amazon Account

A current kerfuffle on the Internets has to do with Amazon de-ranking GLBT-themed books as reported on the LA Times Jacket Copy blog.

Amazon’s policy of removing “adult” content from its rankings seems to be both new and unevenly implemented. On Saturday, self-published author Mark R. Probst noticed that his book had lost its ranking, and made inquiries. The response he got from Amazon’s customer service explained:

In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude “adult” material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.

Probst wrote a novel for young adults with gay characters set in the old West; he was concerned that gay-friendly books were being unfairly targeted. Amazon has not responded to the L.A. Times request for clarification.

Our research shows that these books have lost their ranking: “Running with Scissors” by Augusten Burroughs, “Rubyfruit Jungle” by Rita Mae Brown, “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” by Alison Bechdel, “The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1” by Michel Foucault, “Bastard Out of Carolina” by Dorothy Allison (2005 Plume edition), “Little Birds: Erotica” by Anais Nin, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” by Jean-Dominque Bauby (1997 Knopf edition), “Maurice” by E.M. Forster (2005 W.W. Norton edition) and “Becoming a Man” by Paul Monette, which won the 1992 National Book Award.

Maybe this is just a new marketing gimmick – create viral annoyance to get your brand out there. Certainly Kindle 2 got a lot of attention when the text-to-speech feature was disabled because the Author’s Guild has put its head in a place that shouldn’t be mentioned in polite company.

In any case, libraries have one thing going for them – we defend intellectual freedom. Let’s see if we can tweet that to the world. Support your free (as in beer and as in speech) library.

More Provocative (if less provoking) Statements

Not long ago Steven B asked us to take a look at the Taiga Provocative Statements for 2009. We went, we read, we were provoked.

I have to admit I’m much more intrigued – and, frankly, charmed – by the Darien Statements which aren’t meant to be provocative in the same way the Taiga Statements are, but rather “meant to be grand, optimistic, obvious, and thankful to and for our users, communities, and the tireless librarians who work the front lines every day, upholding the purpose of the Library.” Maybe there’s a bit of mom and apple pie here, the odd gamboling unicorn under a pastel rainbow, but this document too could be the bases of interesting discussions. Are these the things we value? If so, how do we express those values in what we do? And what adjustments will we have to make to live up to them?

For instance, here are some that seem to me excellent fodder for academic librarians to discuss:

The library encourages the love of learning. How can we do that? Can things we do change the experience of students who are stressed, resentful, and likely to find the “most efficient” (least engaging) route to completing a task they don’t want to do in the first place – because lecturing them they should try harder to find more appropriate scholarly sources isn’t likely to do the trick. Are there ways we can work with faculty to make “encouraging the love of learning” a reality? Too often research assignments are a form of hazing – or are based on naive assumptions such as “students will naturally start their research weeks before the paper is due; they’ll be so eager to get going” and “by writing this paper students will get to explore a topic that interests them. It’s the best kind of active learning.” Maybe – but all evidence suggests otherwise. Students won’t love learning by writing papers if you don’t build the right scaffolding and give them a sense that it matters to them personally – that it’s much more than an annoying and difficult task they have to complete to get a grade.

Librarians connect people with accurate information. Okay – but much of the time we emphasize connecting with masses of information and pay scant lip service to evaluating sources (often by distributing a checklist of surface features in the last five minutes of a library workshop). Many librarians feel uncomfortable even suggesting that some information is better than other information. It’s not our place or it’s even some kind of censorship or a demonstration of prejudice which is not allowed. Certainly in an academic setting there’s a temptation to “leave it to the experts” because expertise is highly valued in academia. But sometimes you have to make up your own mind about things you don’t know much about – a bill before Congress, your opinion about immigration issues that’s being hotly discussed in your community, what the best form of education might be for your child who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s. Do the things we teach in our information literacy efforts help our students prepare to address questions that aren’t an academic assignment? Or are we just interested in helping them succeed as students, no mean feat in itself? That innocuous statement that looked like it might be suitable for embroidery on a pillow turns out to be pretty provocative after all!

Librarians should adopt technology that keeps data open and free [and] abandon technology that does not.
We talk a lot about the virtues of access. We talk a lot about the vexing economics of publishing and the tilting of copyright toward owners and away from the public. But do we put our own efforts into solving any of these problems in our libraries? The library director at Harvard says inspiring and wise things about the Google settlement – but my library has to pay a lot to request an interlibrary loan from Harvard. Huh? How can we reconcile our so-called values and our day-to-day practices?

So I’m charmed and inspired by the Darien Statement – but find those feel-good statements still a good springboard for the kinds of discussions that I suspect the Taiga statements were intended to provoke.

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.