What I'm finding really interesting is how this is playing out. The internet is a wonderful place. I love it. But I think we often forget about the ramifications of how internet communication works. I fully believe that there would have been no story for IHE to write had the MN folks just said that they had been remiss -- or even hadn't realized that people had issues with their policies -- and agreed to start attributing their sources carefully. But the internet is also a weird place. If you make assertions that might be challenged, you can bet that someone will challenge them on their blog.
Update: I have some more thoughts to add to this, in part due to some things unearthed by a colleague, in part due to my thoughts on what I see as MN's rather inadequate response, which to me says, "Fuck you."
My immediate-ish reaction I'm still processing the various responses to my last post, and to meg's first postand follow-up, in which she responds to Medievalist.net's comments. She says a lot of the things I would say, but most of you know that I'm not one to let that stop me entirely. And honestly, I feel that there should be a response from me, because despite a promise from MN to start attributing their work (which seems to have begun on the MN site, if not on the sister sites -- I haven't checked those), I feel a greater disquiet than before.
One of the things that meg pointed out was that, even though she and I wrote very different posts, the responses were identical. And to me, they were fairly predictable. I think that's really the source of the feeling. I was hoping that the response would be something along the lines of Jon Dresner's suggestion in the comments: MN would apologize for not attributing the sources -- or even simply say that they had not realized it was an issue for so many of their readers, and fix the practice. I know! How naive was that? However, I was really not at all surprised when the response was initially one of outrage, followed by defensive statements that I can't help but read as:
their practices were within the range of professional standards, especially when we consider that we are not talking about professional journalists, or what I like to call the "everybody else does it" defense;
they were simply trying to provide a valuable service to us, and had been doing so for a while, aka "and you should be grateful";
complaints that they had not been contacted and would certainly have responded positively if they had only known, because oh, dear, no one has ever complained before or, "you never gave us a fair chance so really, you are the unethical bad guys;"
assertions that they are in it to make money, because they love all things medieval, but it doesn't pay the bills, or "you are gatekeeping and trying to keep us from our livelihood!"
Here's the thing: These defenses are all about the herring rouge, about distraction and redirecting the focus of the arguments. Meg and I, each in our own ways, and for overlapping, but also different reasons, were complaining about what we saw as a problem in standards and practices. The responses bordered on the ad feminas. Not only am I not buying it, but I think that responding to the specific comments in more detail than meg has really dilutes the importance of the issues at stake here.
Why this is important and what is at stake
There are several reasons:
I think that we live in a world where the borders of public and private information, of copyright, fair use, and non-attribution have been gradually eroding for rather too long. I think that these things are important in general, and are especially important in scholarship and journalism. It isn't enough for me that a talking head or newspaper or blogger says something -- News Corp and other organizations have demonstrated that they can call all of the shows on their news channels 'news' and huge numbers of people will give their opinions the same amount of credence that they will give to a report on NPR or the Washington Post. So when I look for news, and when I send people to look for news, I want to be able to verify it.
I teach. I teach history. Some of the most important things that I think the field of history can teach us are to consider our sources, to interrogate them, and to run them through well-informed filters for context and subtext, as well as the more obvious information. In order to do this and do it well, citation and attribution are of paramount importance. As I tell my students, we do not cite merely to avoid charges of plagiarism, but also to enter our own reading and writing into a larger academic or cultural conversation. Knowledge is cumulative, yet the model practiced by MN in not granting attribution prevents us from entering into that conversation.
We, as readers academic or not, need to be able to make up our own minds and use the critical skills that I mentioned above. Omitting references makes it impossible for us to do so. We are forced to trust all statements equally, because we haven't been given all the information. Given that the Googling I and others have done shows that not all of the news items are in fact press releases, and some have been, as Peter says, "inadvertently someone's blog piece or news article they wrote for another publication," I can only say that taking more care, and providing references would have obviated this problem.
Standards are important. They are especially important for those who choose to trade on a particular sort of persona. When MN and its staff trade on their connections to academia, they are obligated to follow those standards. I welcome more fluid boundaries between the professional academic and the enthusiast. Some of my favorite blogs are those that focus on being a public scholar and forging those ties. I think it is disingenuous at best to suggest that a site that promotes its connections by linking to scholarly articles and producing interviews with scholars should then fall back on the much lower standards of some forms of journalism. And again, this is a red herring: as others have pointed out in comments, attribution is also de riguer amongst responsible bloggers, academic or otherwise.
Those are the main issues as I seem them. They all boil down to one simple thing, however: being seen to be open and honest is preferable to leaving the reader wondering if what she is reading is kosher in terms of reliability or legality.
And the disquiet
I said I didn't mind the fact that MN is for-profit. And I don't. But that doesn't mean I'm comfortable with the fact that I see things written by people I know who are publishing as a requirement to their careers, and not for money, being used to give a third party money. A colleague pointed out that many journal publishers would likely be perfectly happy to trade the links for the publicity, and I think that's likely true. This is why I did not bring up before MN's policy of linking to the download sites for journals like Early Medieval Europe. MN stated on the faceook page that this was all done by invitation and with permission, and really, I figure if an online publisher has a problem, it's up to them to issue a DCMA complaint. But I do resent that MN does not seem to think that this is an issue. As before, I do -- without a statement that says that an article is linked to with permission of the copyright holder, I wonder. And, for example, free content does not always mean "you are free to link to this without asking." Sometimes it means, "you don't have to pay for it, but you have to ask the copyright holder if it's ok." Given the responses from MN, I am not confident that this is happening. I would be more confident if there were a statement that permission had been granted, even if it were a general disclaimer clearly visible at the top or bottom of the page. After all, that is not only the scholarly, but also the journalistic standard.
So yes, there has been a positive response by MN in regards to our (and I mean all of those who have commented here and at other venues) concerns. And, while I was writing this, Peter contacted me via email with what seems to be a genuine willingness to try to bring the site to a place where we can feel comfortable sending our students. So despite the fact that I am still disquieted by the fact that I don't really think they get the issues, I'm hoping that this post and further dialogue will help.
Over at xoom, meg raises some very good questions about the growing blog news aggregation service that is Medieval Newsand its larger entity, Medievalists.net. It advertises itself as "is your source for news, articles, videos and resources about the Middle Ages". And it is, sort of. Although I do tend to be annoyed by that last assertion, since there are, in face, many sources for resources that are very good and not-for-profit, e.g., Monastic Matrix and ORB.
Where I am most concerned, though, is that, if you look over the actual news articles for MN, you will see, as meg points out, that the names and original sources have been stripped out. Again, my concern is not so much about copyright per se: if there are legal issues, they are between MN and the people who hold copyright to the news stories. After all, IANAL, nor do I play one for fun or money. Rather, I'm concerned because I have been sending my students to the site to try to get them to see that what we do is interesting and fun. And they have been going to the site and reading it. This is problematic, because my students are taught that using the writing of others without attribution is plagiarism. At SLAC, if they blogged or wrote a paper in the way that MN blogs news, they would face Academic Integrity charges with penalties up to and including possible expulsion. And now they have access to a site run by people who say they are academics, doing exactly what I have been telling them they can't do.
The scraping of names has another practical problem. Even if my students were to cite the MN news posts, even if they were very careful in their own documentation, there is a very good chance that they would miss that the original article came from the BBC Website, or the Grauniad or elsewhere. And that's not fair to them (although it's a teaching moment in waiting).
Finally, as Janice pointed out in a comment at meg's post, the scraping means that, when doing Google searches for information, because of the way people link to MN, and the way MN posts its news, MN and the posts that link to it come up first -- and I've done a check: often the first 6 or 7 search results all go back to MN, rather than the original source. This means two things: obviously, MN appears to the casual reader to be the original source of the story. This seems to me to be confusing at best. The other thing is that MN makes money from advertising, so that there would appear to be a direct financial advantage to more people going to the MN site, rather than to the original sources. Obviously, I can't say whether or not that is true, or whether it is the intent of the nice people who run the site to mislead people or turn a profit from the uncredited work of others. But these practices make me uncomfortable, and for that reason, I am going to have to suggest to my students that they avoid the site.
This saddens me, because I have met the MN people at the Zoo. They present as colleagues. They present the site as something we should use, and encourage others to use. Unlike the booksellers and publishers, who pretty much stay near the bookroom and the wine hours, they mingle as academics and colleagues rather than as business people. But MN does not feel very collegial to me, because I feel I can't trust it with my students. Perhaps this is a big misunderstanding, and I just can't find the links to the original articles at other sites. But until I can show my students where to go to find what they should be citing, I am going to have to recommend that they stay away from it as much as I recommend they not use Wikipedia.
So I'm several states away from home, visiting my Cranky academic sibling, and having a lovely time. And working, even though it's spring break at SLAC. Yeah, I know -- faculty don't get spring break!! Seriously, I don't know anyone who won't be doing some sort of work, even if it's just catching up. In my case, it's been connected to lots of fun, though. I got to stop to break a really long drive by having a late lunch with an esteemed senior medieval legal historian and his wife, which was really pleasant. And then spent a very pleasant evening decompressing with Cranky, who took me to a really good little restaurant where I pretty much spent my honorarium I earned today by guest teaching for him.
The next day, we went along on a field trip to the art museum at Cornell, where we saw lots of cool stuff, and had some pretty fantastic Japanese food for lunch. The trip was organized by Cranky's Asian art historian colleague, who totally rocks and put up with lots of questions from me. Then home and dinner and hanging out. And grading. Don't forget midterm grading.
Yesterday was more hanging out, more grading, a visit to a winery, and wings with a bit more local beer than was necessary. But all in all, mostly just fun -- have I mentioned that Cranky is a great host? He took me on a walking tour where I managed to not take any pictures, so will probaby do that tomorrow morning. But this is a fantastic town with all sorts of amazing houses and OMG a LAKE VIEW to die for!!
Today, I earned my keep, having met some other nice colleagues and enviously toured the building that houses Cranky's department. I think I sort of scared the students, who clearly were not prepared for the intense seminar exercise I'd sent ahead. But it was still enjoyable, and gave Cranky a break, so there you are. Back after class to grade some more, discover I'd totally b0rk3d my Blackboard grade books, so will likely get yelled at next week for submitting S/U grades for one class, and kind of pushed the limits of "on time." Never again will I try to teach four classes in the Spring. It's insane. I have never been so behind before. argh.
So what's up for the rest of my break? Well, there's the marking I haven't finished, for starters. Then proofing my department's pages for next year's catalogue -- as well as writing up some sample matrices of how majors should progress in their degree programs for my department. After that, another set of reports for a new SLAC initiative that I suspect will end up in my department being combined with another as a program. And I think I have a bunch of reading to do. Welcome to spring break!