Category Archives: Information Ethics

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.

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.