Right And Wrong In Cyberspace

EDUCAUSE ended with a lively session about ethical behavior in the digital world. It could have gone on for hours – and I would have listened to the four experts for that long. Clearly, we are in unknown territory, and the experts covered the spectrum from defending censorship and banning resources when it is for the greater good to allowing a free for all in cyberspace environment to allow for a “re-norming” of ethical behavior. While the discussions about the new nature of public information (we need to realize that so much of our lives is now publicly accessible – what’s on your web site?) and privacy/security of information were good, I think the most challenging issue for the panelists was their discussion of plagiarism. Clearly, cheating is never right, but the real issue debated was the use of detection software – there are many ethical issues here. As one speaker asked, “Why do we treat students as potential criminals?” Unfortunately, other than a comment from an audience member, little was said about plagiarism avoidance as a solution to the “countermeasure” war. The most salient point I heard was from the speaker who said that with respect to the ethical issues discussed, we have already lost the current generation (I assume he means millennials) – they are set in their ways. We could debate that but I think you know what he means. If they think it’s all right to plagiarize, illegally download, or practice other ethically questionable behavior, no faculty member or librarian will likely change their attitudes. He said we need to start educating the next generation, or at least have an educational system in place so that we can begin to create the necessary cultural change that will perhaps instill more ethical behavior in cyberspace. Hmmm, offer user education to create cultural change. That sounds like a familiar theme with respect to the changing culture of student research. Is it too late to reach the current generation with user education? I think not, and maybe that’s a debate for another day. The complete post is not there yet, but it appears someone will be blogging this session at the EDUCAUSE site – should you want more details.

Risk or Reward in Google Print?

First, authors sued Google over their library project. Now it’s publishers’ turn, according to an article by Scott Carlson in the Chronicle – “5 Big Publishing Houses Sue Google.”

When Google first announced their library project I figured this was an interesting way to call the question: what does fair use really mean in a digital age? Google believes not only that this project would be good for the publishing industry, but that it’s within fair use. Jonathan Band agrees in an ARL report – but clearly the old concept of “copy” needs tweaking in a digital era. These will be precedent-setting cases to watch.

Academic librarians tend to frame our understanding of – and conflicts about – intellectual property around issues of scholarly communication. But as Nancy Ramsey points out in a New York Times article, “The Hidden Cost of Documentaries,” the implications for culture are far wider and more complex. We need to be aware of copyright issues beyond scholarly communication. Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture and Siva Viadhyanathan’s Anarchist in the Library are interesting approaches to the big picture.

Incidentally, Lessig’s book is free online from his site; Vaidhyanathan’s is full-text searchable through Google Print and Amazon. So far, civilization as we know it hasn’t fallen as a result. And it didn’t stop me from buying both in print.

I can’t help wondering – if lending libraries were invented today, would publishers lobby to delete the “first sale” doctrine from copyright law, arguing it enables a harmful form of organized piracy?

Beyond the Bomb Builder at the Reference Desk – When Information Has Social Costs

A standard ethical question raised in library school classes is some variation of dilemma of the hypothetical bomb builder who comes to the reference desk asking for information. You’re the reference librarian–what do you do? David Wessel in “Better Information Isn’t Always Beneficial,” in the Wall Street Journal (free) points to more subtle cases of information ethics in which technology makes it easier and faster to obtain information that has detrimental social costs, such as finding out which judge is more likely to grant you a patent or rigging Congressional districts so that one party is guaranteed to win. Librarians tend to think that more information is always better and anything less is censorship. These examples, however, call that view into question. Discussion of the social costs of the use of information fits into standard five of the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education to “understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and use information ethically and legally.”