Blogging Groups and Ethics
Do you blame Roy Tennant when the Annoyed Librarian writes posts that undermine librarianship and libraries?
I’m guessing you don’t. Whoever the Library Journal incarnation of the Annoyed Librarian might or might not be, I’m certain Roy isn’t part of it. But his blog is part of the same group—the group of paid blogs on the LJ website. Does that result in guilt by association?
I know my answer: No, that would be absurd. Which makes one story in this collection interesting because it involves a similar form of guilt by association, in a very different group where most bloggers aren’t paid for their posts. The story involves science but also librarians. It involves me, very indirectly—and it may have implications for what library-related bloggers should consider for the future.
Some of you have already figured out the story I’m referring to: ScienceBlogs and Pepsico. Many of you haven’t and won’t much care. While one focus here is on that series of events and its possible implications, I’m adding discussion of posts that might be vaguely related or wholly unrelated but that I find relevant to the title above—including a few notes about blogging lists and awards.
The title above could be read a couple of different ways, especially if you add punctuation. Is it about blogging, groups, and ethics? Not really—but it may be about blogging groups and blogging ethics as well as blogging in general. And, since some discussions of blogging ethics took place on blogs that are members of blogging groups—and may have changed groups over the past year or so—it all takes on an Ourobouros feel.
Seed Magazine started ScienceBlogs, a network of several dozen science blogs united by banner ads (and loads of sidebar ads), tabs for various “channels” and both a common primary domain and the use of TypePad. There have been some great blogs on ScienceBlogs (where bloggers are known as “Sciblings”), including a handful of information science bloggers such as John Dupuis.
Full disclosure: I was briefly part of the ScienceBlogs (SB) community, by invitation—partly because I thought Walt at Random might reach more people, partly because (let’s be honest here) SB offered potential pay once you reached certain pageview levels, levels that—based on my own log analysis as done by Urchin at LISHost—would yield enough income to be significant for a mostly-retired writer. Why “briefly”? Because Google Analytics as implemented at SB showed me with less than 5% of the pageviews I had at LISHost—numbers so pathetically low that I’d never see a dime and wondered whether anybody was reading at all. Also because it didn’t take long to learn to despise TypePad’s editing tools and, by contrast, learn to appreciate WordPress’ WYSIWYG mode. I moved to ScienceBlogs on June 13, 2009—and moved back on September 17, 2009. My pageviews returned to normal (but when I tried Google Analytics at Walt at Random, they dove back to almost nothing). None of which has anything to do with the saga that follows.
On July 6, 2010, SB launched Food Frontiers, “a blog sponsored by PepsiCo.” The move was not well received, to put it mildly. A day later, SB had added a big disclaimer on the sponsored blog, added a banner saying “advertorial” and started looking for “other graphical and technological changes that will further distinguish these kinds of blogs from those of independent bloggers, so that our readers can fully evaluate the merits of each.” If you read the July 7, 2010 post at Page 3.14 explaining these changes, you’ll see a fair number of comments indicating that they weren’t enough—that some (many?) Sciblings felt that the presence of this sponsored blog undermined the credibility of their own blogs on the same site. On July 8, “A Note from ScienceBlogs” on Page 3.14 announced, “We have removed Food Frontiers from SB.”
A three-day wonder? Not so much. I didn’t pick up on it until mid-July, and the consequences of that briefly present ad/blog continue through this writing, at least indirectly. A few items:
• Some SB bloggers left or threatened to leave, making their reasons very clear. It appears that more than a quarter of the Sciblings departed within a day or two, including some of the highest profiles. Many have now joined new science blog groups, one of them—Scientopia—formed as a collective of science bloggers, many if not most of them bloggers who left SB. You’ll find a good set of early links on departures and changes at coturnix.wordpress.com/2010/07/10/the-pepsigate-linkfest/ and an interesting piece of inside-baseball humor at phylogenomics.blogspot.com/2010/07/pz-myers-will-reveal-his-decision-on.html.
• Dorothea Salo founded a new blog, The Book of Trogool, on SB during the brief period I was there—and wrote “Small fry, blogging networks, and reputation” on July 8, 2010 at that blog. At the time, she and her cobloggers hadn’t made a decision—but eventually they did. She has much to say about blogging within librarianship—and it’s sobering, if not directly related to this flap:
[L]ibrarianship is a very difficult profession to blog in. It doesn't like blogs or bloggers, or social media generally, much less trust them or those who engage with each other and the world using them. Because libraries and librarians feel beleaguered, they especially don't like discourse critical of libraries or librarianship in social media coming from one of their own. Library vendors aren't fond of critical discourse in librarian blogs either. For individual librarian bloggers or public social-media figures, this has absolutely meant trouble at work. I'm one example, but very far from the only one—and I earned my problems more than most folks I know in similar straits.
This leaves the beleaguered library blogger who wishes to continue to blog with a few options. One is to be part of a group blog to create strength in numbers; In the Library with the Lead Pipe is a sterling example (and a fabulous blog; if you're interested in libraries from the inside, this is not one to miss). Another is to adopt some of the trappings of the formal library professional literature, such as length, exclusivity, and beta-reading-oops-I-meant-peer-review. ItLwtLP does this as well. A third option is to find a blog home with enough accumulated strength of character and good reputation as to afford some protection—and now you know why I chose ScienceBlogs.
That’s just part of the post. It’s worth reading…at its new address as part of Scientopia Blogs (in her case, scientopia.org/blogs/bookoftrogool/). Of the others in “Information Science” who’d been on SB when I was there, Christina Pikas also moved Christina’s LIS Rant to Scientopia—and John Dupuis kept Confessions of a Science Librarian at SB, explaining why in the tersely eloquent “Pepsigate: Yes, I’m staying” (posted July 12, 2010).
• Bora Zivkovic, “Coturnix” of A Blog Around the Clock, wrote his departure post on July 19, 2010—having taken longer than some, partly because SB was “a big part of my life” for four years. The post is more than 8,200 words long and I’m not ready to summarize either the detailed history of science blogging or his other comments. For many people, BZ’s departure was extremely important—and if I’d still been on SB, it would have mattered to me as well. Or, as John Dupuis put it: “Bora = ScienceBlogs. Bora = science blogging.”
• David Appell wrote an odd commentary on “Pepsigate” in the July 20, 2010 Guardian: “PepsiCo and the shame of the bloggerati.” Shame? Yep. According to Appell, Pepsi was “hounded out” by the “bloggerati,” “a shameful response from nearly all parties involved” and “suppression of free speech.” I missed the part where Sciblings said PepsiCo employees should be denied the ability to blog anywhere and I’ve missed the new legal principle that a private entity can “censor” by failing to continue accepting paid commentary. Appell may be right—that is, a “conversation” between PepsiCo and SB readers might have been revealing—but saying PepsiCo was “chased by a mob” is hyperbolic nonsense. Perhaps UK commentators don’t understand that “freedom of speech” does not guarantee a platform; at least in the US, I can’t go to a publisher and say, “If you don’t publish my rants, you’re a censor.” Well, I can—and I can be escorted out of the place when the publisher stops laughing. (In fact, Food Frontiers was and is published on PepsiCo’s own blog platform.)
• Anne-Marie Deitering posted “Word of the day: Advertorial” on July 20, 2010 at info-fetishist. As she notes, there’s nothing new about advertorials (and magazines and newspapers have different standards for how strongly they’re labeled as such), and is unhappy because (attempted) advertorials “are wrecking one of my favorite places to go on the Internet,” namely SB. It’s a striking essay with additional links, including one to a Columbia Journalism Review discussion.
• Bringing the discussion up to date, you might want to check Bora’s “Thank you!” post on July 22, 2010; Cameron Neylon’s discussion of “The Nature of Science Blog Networks” on July 25, 2010 at Science in the Open (cameronneylon.net/blog/)—which includes a faulty projection that “there won’t be” a new science blogging network; another long, thoughtful post from Bora (5,500 words) on July 27, 2010, “Science Blogging Networks: What, Why and How”; and various posts as Scientopia started operations. Consider, for example, “Welcome back!” on August 2, 2010 at Book of Trogool…or, for that matter, John Dupuis’ “Scientopia: A new kind of online science blogging community” on August 4, 2010, written from his new position as the sole remaining librarian blogger at ScienceBlogs.
There’s more to it than ScienceBlogs and Scientopia, of course. Nature has a small set of independently written blogs. Wired seems to be starting a science blogging network. Discover hosts blogs. There’s a Science 2.0 blog network. And, as introduced on August 20, 2010 by BZ, there’s now Scienceblogging.org, “Your one-stop shop for the most recent science blogging,” an aggregator hosting feeds from SB, Scientopia, Discover, Scientific American blogs, PLoS blogs and many more—perhaps too many to be a coherent operation. It will be interesting to see how this works out.
I added the heading above when I was outlining this essay. I’m not sure there’s much to say.
There are such groups, to be sure—groups of bookbloggers (not all librarians), the LJ and SLJ “groups,” those who have blogs on their LISNews accounts and probably more I’m not aware of. What there aren’t, as far as I know, are networks of the nature of Scientopia or ScienceBlogs. There have certainly been groups or rings of library blogs with various forms of self-identification and navigation, but those don’t seem to be particularly healthy, and relatively few of the more prominent blogs are part of such rings or lists.
Would a liblog group make sense? How would it work? What advantages would better-known and lesser-known liblogs see in a group? How would it be administered? What would make it worthwhile—for bloggers and for readers?
I don’t have answers. Maybe there aren’t any. Apparently lots of readers had the ScienceBlogs “last 24 hours” page as a home page of sorts, going there to see what’s new in science blogging. When I want to see what’s new in liblogs, I bring up Google Reader (I much preferred Bloglines, but that’s gone away), usually finding 40 to 80 posts over the last 24 hours—from a range of some 500 blogs. Would I switch to a group page? Would you?
You’ve probably seen the lists. If you have a liblog, there’s a good chance you’ve been on one of them. My odd little blog, Walt at Random, has been on several—including a prime example, “The Top Fifty Library Blogs,” posted April 21, 2009 at GetDegrees.com. It’s fairly typical of the breed: A list that praises a fair number of blogs—and appears on one or more of many sites that all relate to commercial higher education and are typically sponsored by some of the big for-profit institutions.
The list itself is no better or worse than others of its kind. It’s a little unusual in that it includes as one of the “top fifty” blogs one that has a name I refuse to print here (not personal animosity, just language) and has ten “blogs” that aren’t blogs at all, but rather Twitter handles. Oh, and one of the fifty was (and I think is) primarily lots of numbered lists of resources…and appears on a site primarily devoted to online education, primarily represented by for-profit institutions. The worm Ourobouros again comes to mind.
Some of us who appear on these lists believe that the lists primarily exist so that we’ll link back to them, thus bringing lots more people to these sites touting for-profit colleges. I’ve never provided that link love but many have, and quite a few who aren’t on the lists seem to think the lists are meaningful and link to the posts.
Is this an ethical issue? I’m not sure. I’ve seen enough dead and nearly-dead blogs on some lists to suspect they’re not the result of painstaking current evaluation and research (and, frankly, I’m unwilling to buy that some of those on the April 2009 list could be part of The top 50 liblogs, if such a beast existed). I regard it as a form of linkspamming; others clearly do not.
It turns out to be hard to discuss these sites and lists without getting into trouble of one sort or another, especially if you do link to the original post. To take an example from 2009, Steven Bell posted “These Predictions Throw Caution to the Wind” on August 3, 2009 at ACRLog—a tongue-in-cheek commentary on “25 Predictions for the University of the Future,” which appeared on associatedegree.org. (Sense a pattern in these URLs?) He found the list laughable, at least partly because so many of the “predictions” were for things that are well-established reality in today’s higher education. He added some far-out futuristic predictions along the same lines: All predictions that might have been futuristic in 1995, but have the same predictive value in 2009 that I would have in saying that a self-identified black man might be elected President. And, sigh, some people took his post seriously or took it as an opportunity to warn us about “affiliate sites,” all these sites that link to elearners.com (but are not actually run by elearners.com). Bell posted a followup, “I Never Fell Off the Turnip Wagon,” on August 11, 2009, noting that he fully understood the nature of these sites and lists.
A related August 3, 2010 post at Ellie <3 Libraries (ellieheartslibraries.wordpress.com) notes the issues with affiliate sites:
I suppose I am hyper aware because I have an ex who used to design these things, but I’m still shocked every time I encounter someone (or at least a professional) who doesn’t know about affiliate sites…
Both this site (http://associatedegree.org) and Learn-gasm—who has the top 100 blogs post going around currently (www.bachelorsdegreeonline.com)—are sites designed solely to earn revenue through click-throughs…
All of the links to request more information on any of the schools on either of those sites are affiliate links e.g https://search.collegedegrees.com/ forms/university-of-phoenix/publisher/bachelorsdegreeonline
The “bachelorsdegreeonline” at the end is a tracking mechanism to allow collegedegrees.com to reward sites that send them visitors. Just like libraries can send people to Amazon and get a kickback. The difference is libraries are trying be helpful—these sites are not.
While all the schools linked to are legitimate schools, both are misleading sites since they only link to schools that offer an affiliate kickback. They also only link to forms to enter your contact information at third party sites, not to the actual school websites.
While the content of the top 100 blogs and 25 predictions lists is completely non-objectionable, the fact that librarians are taking these sites seriously is. [Emphasis added.]
It’s not just librarians. Wired blogs have linked to some of the many blog lists at these sites as though they were legitimate “top 25” or “top 100” selections. (There’s more to the August 3 post, worth reading directly.) On the other hand, The ADL Librarian did a nice takedown on August 6, 2010 of yet another list along these lines, “100 Best Blogs for Librarians of the Future” on bachelorsdegreeonline. This writer noted what I’ve also noted but haven’t written about, because I’ve generally chosen to ignore such lists altogether: Namely, that the lists tend to include blogs that aren’t current, which strongly suggests they’re not evaluated carefully.
As a general rule, any time you see a post that promises some number of “Top” library blogs in any specialty or in general, start by looking at the site. If it’s one of the many that exist primarily to promote for-profit online education, take the list itself with an unusually large helping of skepticism. There’s nothing inherently wrong with for-profit education, online education or both (assuming accreditation and that the institutions aren’t loan mills). But, well, I’m not willing to say what “The” top 50 or top 25 or top 100 library blogs are, and I’m guessing I know a whole lot more about the field than almost anybody putting these lists together. I can identify the 50 most prolific bloggers for a given period, but quantity isn’t quality—and I don’t believe there is or can be one list of “the” fifty most important blogs in the field.
Quite a few of us—several hundred, I believe—received email from Salem Press along these lines:
Congratulations. Your blog has been nominated for a Library Blog Award by readers of it. You should be thrilled so many think so much of what you have to say.
I say “us” advisedly: Yes, just as Walt at Random has been on some of those numbered “top” lists, it was one of several hundred liblogs and library blogs in the running for these awards. It didn’t win one of the modest cash awards (for the top three blogs in each of five categories), but it is one of the gold-starred blogs in the “General Library Blogs” list, and I find that I’m in good company there. (Salem Press put the blog in a different category, but corrected that when I asked about it.)
Does Walt at Random now carry a badge saying that it’s a gold-star Salem Press blog? No, and neither do most others. Checking the sixteen winners (there was a tie in one case), I find that none of the General winners display a badge but one third-place “quirky” blog does, as do the first-place “academic library” blog, the first and second-place “public library” blogs and the first and second-place “school library” blogs. That’s six out of sixteen; the majority of winners have chosen not to add badges.
Salem Press got some publicity by doing this award, but it also put together some good lists. I found the lists a valuable addition to my 2010 liblog project, locating a fair number of blogs I hadn’t otherwise encountered.
Steven Bell posted “Thanks But No Thanks Salem Press” on March 28, 2010 at Designing Better Libraries. He’s not interested: “The only award I need is to know that DBL has readers who find value in our posts.” He thinks the profession could do without award proliferation and that awards tend to go to “the same old blogs time and time again.” He suggests rejecting the enticement to enter the competition—but, in fact, Salem Press wasn’t inviting bloggers to enter a competition, merely informing us that we were already candidates.
This isn’t a critique of Salem Press. I understand their desire to recognize the good work of librarians and bring it attention, and I respect their good intentions. I just wonder if there’s a better way to do it than establishing one more unproductive competition.
Bell finds particular value in LISNews’ annual “Blogs to Read” list—and maybe I shouldn’t cite that, since I’m on the 2010 set of ten.
And here things get interesting. While DBL didn’t win, a different Bell blog did win third place, which he found odd since it’s a “filter blog.” He donated the cash award to a librarian scholarship fund. Comments on the post are interesting and revealing, including one from the lead judge at Salem Press who suggested they should be something like “Library Blog Huzzahs” rather than awards as such. Were the winners the usual suspects? Not really. While one award is puzzling (a blog that doesn’t seem to belong in its category) and one third-place winner will, for good reason, show up in every Top X Liblog list, several of the awards are for lesser-known blogs.
I like the idea of “Library Blog Huzzahs.” I’m generally unhappy with “The Top X Blogs” lists on for-profit educational affiliate blogs. I don’t believe there’s any way to avoid rankings and grades: that’s the way the world works, and I’ve done my part. But my liblog studies specifically point out blogs that stand out in one particular metric; there isn’t, and shouldn’t be, any sense of “these are the best blogs” or “these are the most important blogs.” Indeed, one metric that I’ve carefully avoided listing blogs for is Google Page Rank (I say how many liblogs have high values, but not which blogs those are), and that avoidance will continue.
I love encountering a new liblog where the blogger has something interesting to say. The lists that accompanied Salem Press’s awards led me to more than a handful of such liblogs. I count that as a good thing.
Should you think about ethical considerations for your blog? Probably, at least once in a while. Should you state those considerations? Couldn’t hurt—as long as you’re telling the truth. Should you pledge to follow somebody else’s set of ethics—and display a badge or ribbon or something to indicate that pledge? That’s a different issue entirely, one that comes up from time to time and always makes me uneasy.
Doug Johnson’s “Blue Skunk Seal of Approval,” a July 11, 2008 post at The Blue Skunk Blog, falls into the former category. Excerpts from Johnson’s own guidelines (which is illustrated with the Seal of approval, sunning itself on the rocks)—noting that Johnson is a school librarian:
Ø I will not endorse or mention a product (at least without a heavy-duty disclaimer) which I don't have experience using in our district. This is important. While the product itself might look very cool, it's only through experience that one learns about little things like support, compatibility, bug fixes, situational customizations, and unintended consequences of use…
Ø I will not accept any form of remuneration for reviewing or writing about a product... This includes trips, gifts, cash, cars, call girls or dictatorships of small countries. Not that any of these things have actually been offered to me.
Ø I don't take paid advertising on my blog or website.
Ø I don't wear t-shirts, baseball caps, or underwear with corporate logos. (I do have a hip flask with the ALA logo on it, however.)
Ø I do write "blurbs" for books and/or products that I've actually read or used and liked.
Ø I try to keep my recommendations my personal recommendations—not the school district's.
He offers the disclaimer that, for the right price, “I would probably say just about anything.” He suggests the right price might be around $100K, offers an old but appropriate joke and notes the virtues of working in a field where the temptations aren’t that tempting. (My guess is that Johnson is exaggerating his willingness to be bought, but what do I know?) Note what Johnson does not say—for example, he doesn’t say he wouldn’t take a vendor’s meal or drinks, but he doesn’t accept quid pro quos. More importantly, he’s stating his code, not proposing that other people should follow it.
I can’t skip over this June 12, 2009 post by Lilia Efimova on Mathemagenic. It’s an excerpt from Efimova’s blogging-related dissertation and reconstructs “events, readings and weblog posts that shaped my understanding of the research ethics.” Go read it in the original.
I’m not sure what to make of this article, which appears in the June 2009 New Media & Society (nms.sagepub.com/content/11/4/575.abstract). Written by five people at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, it “explores the ethical beliefs and practices of two distinct groups of bloggers—personal and non-personal—through a worldwide web survey.” The survey, of a “stratified purposive sample of 1224 bloggers,” asked about beliefs and practices for truth-telling, attribution, accountability and minimizing bias. The authors conclude that the two groups differ on ethical issues, but both believe attribution is most important and accountability least important—and “bloggers themselves” support a code of blogging ethics.
Really? I can’t tell—because this isn’t an OA journal, and I’m unwilling to pay $25 for one day’s access to the article itself. Ah, but a search of the full title does yield a PDF. Some notes on reading the article:
• Except for passalong invitations, the survey only went to bloggers with email addresses on their blogs.
• “Personal” and “non-personal” is based on one question: “Which one of the following best describes the content of your weblog?’ (e.g. ‘A kind of personal journal’, or ‘A nonpersonal weblog, e.g. topical.”
• The survey took place in February 2005; most responses were from the U.S.; 73% were tagged as personal blogs. (Personal bloggers were mostly female and only 22% married; topical bloggers were predominantly male, somewhat older and 41% married.)
Then we get to the heart of the survey and things get tricky—partly because, for both sets of bloggers, the mean scores for each category of ethical belief are within a narrow range. “Personal bloggers valued minimizing harm more than non-personal bloggers”—but while the difference may be statistically significant, it’s not a big difference (4.99 vs. 5.35). Similarly, ethical practices are all within a narrow range (but they’re also self-reported: Would you report that you don’t give a damn about who you harm?). The authors appear to claim that topical bloggers behave more ethically than personal bloggers, but this is a case where I wonder whether the results mean much of anything.
Do bloggers really agree that an ethics code is needed? Turns out “slightly agree” is the best you can do—and even at that, only 56% of personal bloggers and 53% of non-personal bloggers “at least slightly agree” that an ethics code is necessary. And, of course, the bloggers weren’t responding to a proposed code—they were responding to the idea of a code. The paper says “there was strong (if not enthusiastic) support for an ethics code”; I think that overinterprets the data.
Getting to the appendix, things get even more interesting and questionable. One item for the “truth-telling index” is “I make changes to my previous weblog posts.” How on earth can this be considered part of truth-telling? Further down, in the accountability group, is “I correct any misinformation in my weblog”—and if you answer that question affirmatively, you must also answer “I make changes” affirmatively. There are statements that seem to demand one answer—e.g., “I write abusively about others in my weblog” and “I discriminate against a particular group or groups when I blog.” Gee, how would I answer those questions?
I don’t see the explicit question or statement regarding an ethics code, so can’t comment on it. In general, though, I don’t find that this study provides convincing proof that bloggers are ready and eager to embrace a code of ethics. Ah, but here’s how a press release on the article leads off: “Whatever their reason for posting their thoughts online, bloggers have a shared ethical code, according to a recent study published in the journal New Media Society, published by SAGE.” Well…maybe. Most survey respondents responded to a set of slanted statements in the most acceptable manner: This is scarcely shocking or evidence of a shared code.
The more you track websearch results for something like this, the stranger it gets. One post interprets personal vs. non-personal this way: “Non-personal bloggers (i.e. you’re blogging for clients)…” Beep. Absolutely wrong, but thanks for playing. Did this blogger actually read the article, seemingly a prerequisite for comments? The link is to the abstract, and getting something that wrong suggests that the full article wasn’t read. Most items on the web are basically the SAGE press release—indeed, I found no items either through Bing or Google suggesting that anybody had read the article in full. The ethics of commenting on something you haven’t actually read? No comment.
That’s Sarah Houghton-Jan’s title for a July 28, 2009 post at LibrarianInBlack. She’s encouraging bloggers to sign up for what’s effectively an ethical code at the Blog with Integrity website (www.blogwithintegrity.com).
As these things go, Blog with Integrity is both short and (reasonably) benign. I’d certainly sign up for four of the six clauses without much question, and realistically I’m probably on board for all six. (The two I’m less certain of: One that begins “I treat others respectfully, attacking ideas and not people” and one that goes “I always present my honest opinions to the best of my ability.” In the first case, it’s a nice idea but I reserve the right to attack a person as the sum of their actions. In the second, I agree that, as a whole, a post should represent my honest opinion, but there’s a lot to be said for setting up scenarios whether as strawmen or legitimate positions.)
I’d quote the whole thing so that you could see whether it’s so unexceptionable that everyone should take the pledge—but the page has an explicit copyright statement (not necessary), does not carry a Creative Commons license and has no indication that it’s OK for me to quote the whole home page.
The site has sponsors: the Council of Public Relations Firms, Johnson & Johnson, and Wiley. Those firms sponsor webinars on the pledge. At this writing, 4,330 bloggers had signed the pledge. Offhand, I see maybe six liblogs—but also scores of duplicate and triplicate entries, probably hundreds of sites that aren’t blogs at all, a whole bunch of mommyblogs and babyblogs and a great many blogs that appear commercial in nature. Six organizations have signed on as supporters—two leading to 404 pages, the rest primarily social marketing or editorial sites. Overall? I’m not impressed.
You know where I’d expect to see a seal saying that a site blogs with integrity? On a blog that does no such thing. I think most readers of Walt at Random trust that there’s a real Walt Crawford behind the blog and that my principles aren’t for sale. I think that’s true for most libloggers—I’m fairly certain Doug Johnson’s readers aren’t looking for a Seal showing that he’s actually following a code. But if you are on the take or given to ethical shortcuts, well, wouldn’t a nice big seal showing how much integrity you have be a good thing? There’s no enforcement mechanism, no way to become aware that Blogger X is lying.
Did I mention mommyblogs? Meredith Farkas wrote “This is not my blogosphere” on November 22, 2009 at Information Wants To Be Free discussing these blogs and the extent to which they’re being corrupted by compensated reviews, that is, bloggers being paid (by a company) to try out a product and write about it. When she read a post with a disclaimer about being a “compensated” review (“paid” is such a harsh word), she was stunned to find that comments weren’t from people horrified by the practice—they were people wanting their own freebies and compensation.
Little did I know how common this sort of thing was in the mommy-blogging world. Coming from a blog community where compensated reviews are anathema, I have a strong sense of disgust when I see people getting money or perks from a company whose product they are reviewing. It makes me not only not trust what they are writing about that product, but what they write about everything else becomes suspect. So it was surprising to me to see a post like this show up on an otherwise great blog without anyone batting an eyelash (other than to try and win some free stuff).
She looked into mommyblogs a little more and found “tons of bloggers” who will write positive reviews for free products or other compensation. Indeed, BlogHer is in the business of connecting advertisers with female bloggers who will review their products and makes no bones about it. There’s a lot more to this post, well worth reading (oh, c’mon, it’s Meredith, do I even have to say that?), and it does make me wonder about the large number of mommyblogs on the Blog with Integrity site. Does posting a disclaimer make it OK—if you only post positive reviews?
I commented on the post after another person had noted free CDs for music bloggers:
Providing review copies of CDs, and books, and DVDs and…back in the day…CD-ROMs is fairly standard practice, and not inherently fraught with ethical problems, given two rules: First, the provider has no expectation that a review will actually appear; Second, the provider has no expectation that the review will be positive. As soon as there’s a quid pro quo, it’s ethically questionable, no matter how many disclaimers you use. (That’s why, in looking for a Cites & Insights sponsor, I specifically say “someone in an area that C&I doesn’t cover.”)
I’ll stand by that, although, in practice, the free CD-ROMs I used to receive when I was writing review columns usually didn’t come directly from the publishers, but rather through the magazine. The comment after mine is about the Blog with Integrity site—and I wonder about the stated claim that the pledge is “an indication that the person displaying the badge understands the issue and takes it seriously.” It’s an indication that the person claims to understand the issue and take it seriously.
Just to make questions of formal blog guidelines more complicated, consider that question. Is it? Some bloggers claim it is—and if it is, shouldn’t they be expected to follow at least as rigorous ethical codes as professional journalists?
Eric Schnell asks “Do conference bloggers and tweeters need to follow media rules?” in a June 4, 2009 post at The Medium is the Message. He notes a report from ScienceInsider that Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is amending its policy for meetings to require that scientists who are bloggers follow the same rules as reporters—which, among other things, requires that they get a presenter’s OK beforehand if they plan to blog or twitter about a presentation. Schnell quotes a scientist-blogger, Andrew Maynard, on his own considerations and thoughts on the issue. Maynard doesn’t believe that bloggers and Twitterers are generally acting as journalists—but does suggest reasonable guidelines for when it is and isn’t OK to tweet or blog. It’s a complicated issue, particularly given conference presentations that discuss unpublished research results: Is it inappropriate for a blogger to write about such results, but legitimate for the researcher or their institution to issue premature press releases?
The Cold Spring Harbor changes came about because of a specific incident—one in which a scientist (on ScienceBlogs) posted about a conference in ways that a media outlet considered inappropriate. Anthony Fejes wrote about this situation in “The Rights of Science Blogging,” a June 4, 2009 post at Fejes.ca (or look up “Anthony Fejes,” since his blog has moved to a new science blogging group host). Fejes looks at Cold Spring as “trying to suppress blogging, instead of embracing it” and offers some counterpoints you might consider worth reading (noting that library conferences rarely involve issues of this sensitivity or magnitude). For example:
Unless the conference organizers have explicitly asked each participant to sign a non-disclosure agreement, the conference contents are considered to be a form of public disclosure. This is relevant, not because of the potential for people to talk about it is important, but because legally, this is when the clock starts ticking if you intend to profit from your discovery.
So once you’ve said something in a public forum, you’re on record—and bloggers should be free to discuss what you said. “When academics stand up in front of an audience, it's always something that's ready to be broadcast to the world. The fact that it's then being blogged to a larger audience is generally irrelevant at that point.”
Fejes considers Cold Spring’s argument that “the material being blogged may not be an accurate reflection of the content of the presentation. His response: “I'm entirely prepared to call B*llsh!t on this point.” [Fejes’ Bowdlerization—I’m happy to use “Bullshit” without alteration.]
Given a journalist with a bachelor’s degree in general science, possibly a year or two of journalism school and maybe a couple years of experience writing articles and a graduate student with several years of experience tightly focused on the subject of the conference, who is going to write the more accurate article?
Then there’s “journalistic control”—the extent to which an institution wishes to assure that “content is presented in a manner befitting the institution at which the conference took place.” Fejes doesn’t buy this either: “If the quality of the article is good, what right does the institution have to dictate the way it's presented by anyone who attended?” Basically, Fejes says, you either have to have a closed [session] or an open [session]; you can’t hold different attendees to different standards. Then there’s the final issue: Whether bloggers are journalists. He ducks an answer, saying it’s a continuum and noting, “Most bloggers work in the niches where journalists are sparse.”
Fejes concludes: “Treating science bloggers the way Cold Spring Harbor treats journalists doesn't make sense.” He gives some reasons why, but I’m not sure I buy it: Maybe an appropriate response is that Cold Spring Harbor shouldn’t be so restrictive with journalists.
Or maybe that’s not the issue at all. Maybe it’s a question of norms within a field and whether those norms are explicit or implicit. If you’re ready to read 9,000 words on a narrow piece of the topic, read “All the Conference Stuff That’s Not Fit to Print,” posted June 17, 2009 at On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess… by “Isis the Scientist.” To Dr. Isis,
A scientific conference for me is a safe place where I get to interact with professional colleagues I have not necessarily seen in a long time. I get to bring them novel data, discuss the implications, and probe them for ideas on how I might progress and how we might collaborate. I don't attend scientific conferences to report my findings to the public. I attend to report my data to my peers and network.
So, she says, if you’re at such a conference and want to tweet or post about something somebody says, you should ask them personally beforehand. As far as Dr. Isis is concerned, scientific conferences are, by default, “closed” even if that’s not explicitly stated. The post isn’t all that long—but the comments are, and it becomes clear that some other scientists don’t share the notion that conferences are automatically “safe places” where you can present data with sample sizes of one or two and discuss it, without fear of stuff turning up elsewhere. Some conferences, explicitly labeled as confidential, may have that status. Others do not. One commenter noted that geosciences conferences would typically be assumed to be open for comment—but possibly biomed conferences (or some of them) are different.
Another comment uses one of those tricky terms: “semi-private communications.” To some of us, “semi-private” is like “a little pregnant” or “somewhat dead.” Have you been to conferences where, although the program (or interest group discussion) is open to any attendee and there’s no sign or announcement of confidentiality, you can reasonably assume nobody will post, tweet or otherwise discuss publicly what happened in the room? Would you consider that the norm? Clearly not in librarianship, and it’s hard to believe it’s generally true in the sciences (but I’m speaking from a position of profound ignorance).
In practice, the issue may not be “is blogging journalism?” but “when can you assume confidentiality?” Daniel Macarthur, the blogger-scientist in question, clearly agrees that confidentiality is appropriate when asserted and wouldn’t violate it, but doesn’t assume it’s automatic. Dr. Isis appears to assume “confidential unless explicitly labeled otherwise.” That’s a big gulf. Macarthur wrote “Dr Isis discusses conference blogging” the next day (June 18, 2009) at Genetic Future, his ScienceBlog blog. He thinks Dr. Isis misrepresented his stance—but he’s also changed his policy to assume confidentiality as a default, rather than assuming openness as a default:
If no official conference policy exists, I will seek advance permission from speakers where possible (and if the conference is small and feels private, in every case), and if this isn't possible I will restrict my coverage to (1) material already available in press releases or online abstract books; and (2) broad conclusions (as opposed to specific details) that will be of interest to my readers but highly unlikely to be seen by anyone as violating the presenter's sacred data.
Norms do matter. One cogent comment exposed one issue that may or may not be in play: You can’t have it both ways. If a conference issues press releases and posts abstracts of presentations on public websites, there’s no legitimate basis for saying that people can’t tweet or post about sessions that aren’t explicitly labeled as closed in an otherwise-open conference. Otherwise, you’re saying that only coverage that the organizers like is legitimate—and that’s unacceptable.
The last word on this matter—for this essay, at least—came in a Nature editorial on July 9, 2009, “How to stop blogging.” The gist is in the tease: “Organizers have only two options for their meetings: open or closed.” That’s simplistic—you can have explicitly closed sessions within an open conference (ask any member of an ALA awards committee)—but it’s probably right in general. The editorial goes on to say that halfway solutions (e.g., Cold Harbor’s “ask permission first” or a “put a logo on your off-limits presentation”) aren’t sustainable. That might be true…which leaves invitational meetings, known to be off the record for all concerned, as possibly the only cases where you can assume nobody will be tweeting or posting about your comments.
I caught odd glimpses of a discussion among scientists and bloggers in June 2009. The direct incident had to do with sauropod vertebrae or, if you prefer, dinosaur necks. Three scientists published a paper on the topic in an open access journal—and blogged extensively about it, including “unofficial supplementary information online.” You’ll find a core list of the paper and posts at “Taylor, Wedel and Naish (2009) on neck posture,” posted at Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week, svpow.wordpress.com/papers-by-sv-powsketeers/taylor-et-al-2009-on-neck-posture/. As a partial aside, I should note that “Choosing a journal…” partway down the list of posts offers some really interesting notes on the process of selecting a journal, including a solid case for open access.
Digression aside, some folks were unhappy about the extent to which blogging had increased the scope of the report beyond the actual published paper. One response says “none of this blog stuff really counts in the peer-reviewed world of ‘real’ publications.” Comments take this further, seemingly objecting to any serious critiques of science within blogs: “Can these critiques be considered by other scientists during their own work? Can they be cited? No. This blog is not peer-reviewed, it cannot be cited in a conventional journal or book article, it has no guaranteed archive that I am aware of, and it can be modified by the authors at any point…”
A blog post can’t be cited? Certainly not on the basis of it being a peer-reviewed article, but is that the only way something can be cited? In the broader world, that’s nonsense. (I do it all the time.) If the argument is that no discussion of scientific issues that is not itself peer-reviewed can be considered a contribution to the discussion, something is deeply, dangerously wrong. Another comment points out that “written communications” have long been citable; if they can be cited, why can’t blog posts?
I’m with Nathan Myers (a “total outsider”):
If there is no way to cite a blog posting in a published paper, surely that indicates something wrong with the process of publication. The present system of publication wasn’t handed down from a mountaintop, it was invented, and has since evolved under particular conditions. In many ways it is suited to the needs of naturalists, and in many other ways it is barely tolerable, but constrained by external circumstances. Students who grew up tolerating those infelicities are used to them, but that is no argument for keeping them. Now those external circumstances have all but passed away, and there can be no acceptable reason for the process not to adapt…
“Coturnix,” then at A Blog Around the Clock on ScienceBlogs, asked, “Why or why not cite blog posts in scientific papers?” on June 11, 2009. He’s had blog posts cited in scientific papers and discusses the issue. He denies that blog posts lack peer review: They’re post-reviewed, as readers will point out errors in comments. He also notes that scholarly articles regularly cite other non-peer-reviewed sources such as “book chapters, books, popular magazine articles and even newspaper articles” in addition to “the ubiquitous ‘personal communication.’” (Read the comments on this post; you’ll get some insights into the extent of elitism among some, certainly not all, scientists—elitism that might or might not be justified.)
The folks at SVPoW found this whole thing interesting. Consider this from “Blogs, papers, etc.: some more random thoughts, from Mike this time” (June 13, 2009):
We all know that blog entries are Not Sufficiently Published to be citable, at least in most journals; but are they Too Published to let you re-use the same material? When you submit to most journals, they ask you to formally state “this material has not previously been published”—is that true if we’ve blogged it? I am guessing different editors would answer that differently.
This is a different case but equally troublesome: Does blogging about something make it unpublishable? The writer has been “reasonably careful” not to blog anything that might become a paper—but did post about something that became “half a manuscript page (of a total of 75 pages)”. To him, it’s “unofficial online supplementary information.” But there’s more. While blog posts might not (or might) be citable, “It seems pretty clear that these forms of ‘grey publication’ do count in establishing people’s reputations among their peers.” That’s certainly true, if unevenly, in librarianship. But:
Conversely, it’s clear that blogs, however rigorous and scientific, count for squat when it comes to committees… [Gives an example of important blogging]…when his tenure committee comes to count up the impact factors of the journals he’s published in, those articles will count for nothing. One day that might change, but not while impact factors still exert their baleful influence.
There’s a lot more to the post—and you might also want to read “Yet more uninformed noodling on the future of scientific publishing and that kind of thing,” posted June 16, 2009. (Among other things, it ponders the use of Google Page Rank, or something like it, as a crude measure of document reputation—and I admit to using GPR in my blogging studies not as a measure of reputation or quality but as a crude measure of apparent popularity and influence.)
Bobbi Newman writes Libraries and Transliteracy and, as with many libloggers, runs it as a wordpress.com freebie rather than paying to host her own domain. Which led to a June 10, 2010 post, “Apology for Unwanted Google Ads on this Blog.”
She viewed the blog without being signed in to wordpress.com and noticed a discreet little Google ad near the bottom of the page. It surprised her:
I have had multiple blogs with wordpress.com over the years and never seen a Google ad on any of my sites. I did some investigating and discovered that those ads are placed there by wordpress.com. You can pay 29.95 a year to have them turned off.
She’s not happy.
To say I am unhappy is an understatement. I love wordpress.com for blogs, is it the one I recommend to anyone looking to start a blog or web presence. I’m not so much unhappy about the ads but the fact that I have been blogging with wordpress.com for FIVE years and had no idea this was happening. I am angry that I was not better informed, that bloggers have NO control over the ads on their site, that the bloggers that write for LaT do so on their own time and dime because they believe in it. I choose wordpress.com because I thought it was the “best” free option for bloggers, but it is not really free. Would I have chosen it anyway knowing about the ads? Maybe. I don’t know.
She apologizes for the ads. I agree that wordpress.com should have been more explicit about its terms. On the other hand…
I pay a (small) three-figure sum to have Cites & Insights, Walt at Random and my probably-pointless personal pages (waltcrawford.name) hosted by LISHost, and a two-figure sum to retain the domains for those sites (except Walt at Random, which uses a LISHost subdomain name). I guess that, if I chose to use a free blogging service, I would assume something’s paying the server bills and bandwidth—and ads do seem like a logical possibility. I know that, if I sign up for adwords or adsense on any of my sites, I have little or no control over what ads will appear—and I assume David Lee King (to give one example where ads appear even in RSS feeds for blog posts) doesn’t actually select the ads that run. (At least I hope that’s the case, given some of the ads.) “Free” is one of those tricky things: Somebody, somewhere has to foot the bills.
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