Tuesday, March 16, 2010

And then there was disquiet

And then there was disquiet

My immediate-ish reaction
I'm still processing the various responses to my last post, and to meg's
first post
and 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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

I'll keep you posted.

edited for clarity and typos


Jonathan Dresner said...

Excellent points, all around. The responses from MN really were inadequate. One of the things that I love about the web, frankly, is how easy it is to cite sources, to trace and evaluate the origins of information.

Not to add to your disquiet, but the tension of profit applies to many journals as well. The major journal publishers -- and databases -- are for-profit operations, and their margin of profit depends on the volunteer services of authors who surrender their copyright and peer reviewers who give them editorial aid and academic legitimacy. In that case, though, the process is, at least, transparent, and authorship is public and credited.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Jonathan -- thanks. And it's funny, but that last point is one of the ones that my colleague, who has been on the editorial board of several journals, mentioned to me. Still, I think it's the 'once-removed' thing that gets to me, and I hope that academic journals will require permission or full credit before sites link to articles or reprint substantial amounts of them. I'm happy to have people read something I've published, but I think the extended possibilities should be made clear.

Anonymous said...

I think that in the case of a journal, it depends on the authors to give them content and credibility, but authors get something they need in response. Being scraped and put on MN brings in ad revenue for MN, but provides nothing to the authors. For me, that's an important distinction (I have no problem with for-profit if the content providers get something out of it).

Digger said...

The troubling thing I see is, as you mentioned in your previous post on this, that the MN folks present AS COLLEAGUES at academic conferences. And then do all the things you mentioned with other peoples' work. Not professional journalists, perhaps, but apparently wanting to be seen as professional academics.

The defensive responses are all classic excuses when someone doesn't want to take responsibility for their actions.