On Ethics and Transparency
How much do you need to know about who I am and how I deal with issues, people and organizations that might relate to my writing? What do you need to know about my ethical standards? How much disclosure assures adequate transparency?
I’m moved to write about those issues based on three blog posts and reactions to them. Lawrence Lessig posted “Disclosure statement (ala Joho)” at lessig blog (www.lessig.org/blog/) on June 4, 2007—and posted a revised version, “Disclosure statement and statement of principle, 1.1,” on June 11, 2007. The first drew a dozen comments; the second (which includes responses to some of those comments), eleven comments as of July 9, 2007. Lessig’s post was in turn prompted (partly) by David Weinberger’s “Disclosure statement” at Joho the blog (www.hyperorg.com/blogger/), most recently updated on February 3, 2007. Sarah Houghton-Jan posted “Accepting vendor perks -or- How unbiased are you?” on June 18, 2007 at LibrarianInBlack (librarianinblack.typepad.com); in addition to direct comments on the post, I’ve read three other posts related to it. Finally, Meredith Farkas posted “The boundaries of disclosure” on July 5, 2007 at Information wants to be free (meredith.wolfwater.com/wordpress/) and at least one other blogger commented on that post.
I’ve written about ethics and blogging before (several times), but I’m not sure any of those essays would do much to inform this discussion. If you’re interested, look in C&I 3:11, 5:3, 5:7 and 7:6—but you really needn’t bother.
Here’s part of Lessig’s disclosure statement and statement of principle. I could presumably quote the whole thing—as you would expect from a founder of Creative Commons, the blog operates under a Creative Commons “attribution” (BY) license—but it’s close to 2,300 words, and I’d like to keep this essay to no more than 4,000 total. I’ve reformatted excerpts to conserve space. Read the whole thing: It’s five times as long as these excerpts and quite an essay.
How I make money: I am a law professor. I am paid to teach and write in fields that interest me…
I also get paid for some of my writing. I write books that are sold commercially… I have been commissioned to write articles for magazines. But in all cases, while I may contract about the subject matter I will address, I never contract about the substance.
I have (though rarely) been paid to consult on matters related to my work. If I have, I conform my behavior to the NC Principle articulated below.
I am sometimes paid to speak. If I am, I will contract as to subject matter (e.g., whether the speech is about innovation, or copyright, or privacy, etc.). I do not contract as to substance. In addition to an honorarium, I also accept payment to cover travel expenses.
I am not compensated for my work with nonprofits.
Tech:…If ever anyone sends me a product to review, I am resolved not to write about it.
Business Attachments: I have no regular clients. I am on board of a number of non-profits… I serve on no commercial boards. I don’t take stock-options to serve on boards or advisory boards.
The non-corruption principle: The simple version is just this: I don’t shill for anyone. The more precise version is this: I never promote as policy a position that I have been paid to advise about, consult upon, or write about. If payment is made to an institution that might reasonably be said to benefit me indirectly, then I will either follow the same rule, or disclose the payment….
“Corruption” in my view is the subtle pressure to take views or positions because of the financial reward they will bring you. “Subtle” in the sense that one’s often not even aware of the influence…
The NC principle is about money. It is not about any other influence. Thus, if you’re nice to me, no doubt, I’ll be nice to you. If you’re respectful, I’ll be respectful back. If you flatter me, I doubt I could resist flattering you in return. If you push causes I believe in, I will likely push your work as well…
If you believe I am following my principle, then you can still believe I am biased because I’m a liberal, or wrong because I’m an idiot, or overly attentive because I’m easily flattered, or under-attentive because I punish people who behave badly. All that the NC principle promises is that I am not saying what I am saying because of money.
I may admire Lessig’s stance but can’t say I’m in the same position. He admits he’s in a privileged position—Stanford doesn’t expect him to raise money, the law school doesn’t require him to teach any particular course or write about any particular subject, he’s a tenured professor.
I like this statement: “I may contract about the subject matter, but I never contract about the substance.” For my professional speaking and my writing outside work, at least, I’d like to make the same assertion, and it’s an interesting and important distinction.
When Lessig says, “If ever anyone sends me a product to review, I am resolved not to write about it,” I demur for myself. For years I reviewed title CD-ROMs; with very few exceptions, those were all sent to me for free. I’ve been sent books (which are, after all, products) and have reviewed them, not necessarily noting that I received them free. For anything more substantial than a $30 paperback or $25 CD-ROM, I believe transparency is essential. If someone offered me a check for a favorable review, I would turn it down (and quite possibly blog about the offer).
I find it interesting that Lessig distinguishes between money and other forms of influence. That may only be realistic. I don’t know that it’s possible to remain free of all influence without becoming a hermit.
Do I subscribe to Lessig’s non-corruption principle? No, I don’t (and Lessig explicitly says he’s not calling on others to follow him). Some commenters raise objections I see as valid—particularly regarding the refusal to espouse a policy that you’ve been paid to work on. If I agree to work on something I believe in, and am paid for that work, it is appropriate for me to disclose that paid work if I am arguing the merits of that particular thing. I don’t believe that, for me and for many others, it is appropriate to say “I won’t take a position on that, since I’ve been paid to work on it.” To claim that money corrupts at that level is convenient if you’re privileged enough to be above it all; most of us are not so privileged.
As to the business attachments—well, nobody’s asked me to serve on a board (corporate or other) or offered stock options, so the question hasn’t come up. The tiny amount of single stock we purchased in an individual company (Gateway) was basically a waste of money (due to stupidity on my part); all of our other stock, such as it is, is in broad mutual funds.
Lessig sets a high bar for discussing policy—a bar high enough to eliminate many important voices as well as minor comments like me. Sarah Houghton-Jan also sets a high bar in somewhat different directions, albeit with overlap.
It appears I inspired this post (it begins with my name), and in this case I am quoting most of the post, omitting text related to Michael Gorman and whether it’s appropriate for him to post at Britannica blog:
I believe that the values that one holds as a professional librarian, and also as a writer, depend greatly on objectivity and the ability to keep an even eye on things around us…
If I quit librarianship today I wouldn’t blog/write/etc. for a for-profit company that is selling something, particularly something within our field. Why? I have professional values that require objectivity and others in the field know my name, and trust me to give good advice…. There is a certain level of trust that exists once you’re in the public eye, and to ignore it, to pretend it’s not there, does a disservice to yourself and to your readers/followers/cheerleaders.
I wouldn’t eat a lunch provided by a vendor, or take a gift, or anything else. I’ve never accepted anything from a vendor other than the cheap swag offered at conferences. I do think that accepting anything—money for writing, a lunch in hopes that you’ll buy their product, etc.—clouds your judgment… I’d like to believe that we all could keep our objectivity, above all of that schmooze, but I don’t think it’s possible.
Writing for a publication usually is for something peer-reviewed at some level. You submit something to them in the hopes they’ll publish it. If they choose to, you get some dough (maybe). It’s different to write for a professional publication (online or in print) than it is to write for the company itself, which is what it is when you’re writing for their company blog…
I guess it’s this—with publications, authors are the ones starting the association. We submit materials, they choose whether or not to use it, and we get something out of it in the end (maybe). When it’s the other way around, the company initiating the association, that’s when it gets fuzzy. So...
“If you give us quality material we can use in this professional publication, we might publish it and will give you $500”… vs. “Here’s $500. Write something for our company’s publication.”
I think that #2 invites bias...invites ass-kissing...invites jeopardizing one’s integrity…
I guess that’s my line: if you’re doing it for a company (directly) and for money or some other reward, or otherwise gaining some kind of benefit from association with that company, then I do believe you lose your objectivity. Maybe that’s a high standard, but it’s mine and I’m sticking to it.
I commented, “While I’d like to believe I have fairly strong ethical standards, they’re not the same as those outlined here.” The three posts I encountered discussing the blog took interesting approaches.
Ø Steven M. Cohen, whose blog is published by Information Today and who does other work for them, agrees that he may have lost his objectivity. “Would I criticize ITI more than, say, ALA or LJ? Of course not. I wouldn’t bite the hand that feeds me. Would you? Doubtful.”
Ø Karen Coombs posted “Bias, objectivity and authority” on June 22, 2007 at Library web chic (www.librarywebchic.net/wordpress/). She “respectfully disagrees” with Houghton-Jan on “just how objective we really can be.” She also relates the discussion back to Lessig’s post and notes that most of her writing and speaking is done for cash. More excerpts:
Truthfully I don’t think we can be objective. So much of our opinions and judgments are based on experience and everyone’s experience is different so it creates different biases in each of us. Personally, I don’t strive for objectivity because I know I won’t get there; instead I try to be honest about my biases.
When I deal with vendors I judge them by the quality of their products and the services they provide. One piece of good service is listening to your customers and trying to make improvements based on their feedback. Gathering this feedback results in what Sarah calls schmooze, but I think that this is necessary. I like talking to vendors because it gives me ideas and just because I do business with a vendor doesn’t mean I’m not willing to criticize them…
None of us can be truly objective. All we can do is try to and be honest about what our influences and not be afraid to speak our minds.
Ø Christina Pikas posted “The purpose of vendor interactions” on June 19, 2007 at Christina’s LIS rant (christinaslibraryrant.blogspot.com). She says “the Librarian in Black has it wrong. I think she misunderstands many (most?) librarian-vendor interactions.” Pikas does eat their lunches or whatever, asks them pointed questions, tells them her experiences—and talks to small and large vendors alike. Pikas doesn’t believe “there is anyone on this earth who is unbiased.” Commenting, John Dupuis notes that he not only eats their food, he also serves on some vendor advisory councils—helping make products better while enjoying some perks.
Ø Houghton-Jan commented on both the Coombs and Pikas post, recognizing others could reasonably disagree but feeling she’d been overinterpreted:
I’m happy to be disagreed with on this, but I think many people are reading more into my post than is actually there. And a lot of people haven’t even read the original post, and are just going off of the comments others make. You can certainly talk with a vendor. You have to in order to get stuff. You can certainly write for a journal that pays you. But is the journal telling you to write about a particular topic, perhaps one that shows their sister companies in a favorable light? Or is the vendor buying you dinner and giving you gifts to try to get you to buy their product? This is where I have a problem.
I don’t find other posts referring to Houghton-Jan’s post, but there may be others who misinterpreted what she was saying. That’s irrelevant for my purposes.
I don’t disagree with Sarah Houghton-Jan. She’s stating her own policy. I don’t see how I can disagree with that as being her policy. It’s not a policy that I follow or one that I would choose to follow if I could start from scratch. Where do I differ?
Ø I do write for for-profit companies. I write a column for EContent Magazine (published by Information Today) and used to write a column for Online Magazine from the same publisher. I’ve written a piece for Google (unpaid, unfortunately). There have been cases where an editor suggested possible topics—although never a case where an editor instructed me on either the topic or approach I should take.
Ø I will certainly dine on a vendor’s dollar—and, frankly, I don’t see an ethical distinction between dining with my editor at ALA Editions (part of a nonprofit organization that sells books and other publications to libraries). being fed by OCLC (a nonprofit that sells services to libraries) and being fed by, say, Innovative or ExLibris or SirsiDynix. (Full disclosure: I’m fairly sure SirsiDynix has paid for my drink at some point, and I’ve certainly attended lavish receptions held by several vendors—receptions that substituted for meals in some cases.) Microsoft sells products and services to libraries, and I was one of several library people who attended MSN Search Champs 4, a two-day event in Redmond where Microsoft paid for lodging and meals and gave us significant gifts, in exchange for a form of free consulting. I don’t doubt the ethics of the other library people I know who were there, and they’ve not been afraid to attack Microsoft. Neither have I.
Ø Most of my paid writing is not peer-reviewed. To me, true peer review implies possible rejection. In the last few years, I’ve mostly written columns. While the editor might terminate the column for poor performance, it would be very unusual for an editor to reject a specific column. So, in effect, the publisher is paying me money and saying “Here’s $X: Write something for our publication.” Sometimes “something” is specified, at least as to subject (but not treatment). I have no problem with this.
Ø I believe I would be willing to blog for a company under the right circumstances, but those circumstances would necessarily include editorial freedom—and it would have to be a company I already approved of. Is that shilling? I don’t believe so. I’m not saying “I’m Walt Crawford and I want you to buy X’s product.” I’m saying “I’m Walt Crawford and I respect X enough to appear on their blog.” Does that invite me to jeopardize my integrity? Perhaps—but I don’t believe it has that effect.
Ø I’ve done several dozen paid keynotes (and nearly a hundred paid speeches in all) over the years. Many, possibly most of those keynotes have been sponsored by companies: State library conferences and other conferences regularly seek corporate sponsorship for keynoters. Some of the keynotes and speeches have been for vendor-run organizations. In those cases, I knew exactly who was paying my way. In other cases, I usually don’t know until I see the program.
Ø As for personal association, I have a lot of acquaintances and friends in all aspects of the field. For that matter, there’s no firm line between Vendors and Customers—if a friend who works for an academic library goes to work for a vendor, they’re still a friend (and vice-versa). In this case, I doubt Houghton-Jan would disagree. Of course, I’ve been a Vendor employee for almost three decades, at least to many librarians: RLG was a nonprofit, but it certainly made most of its revenue by selling products and services to libraries.
Houghton-Jan urges a form of detachment as the basis for objectivity. I prefer to think in terms of transparency—making sure you know about issues that might bias my commentaries. Transparency requires disclosure. How much disclosure? That’s a tricky question.
Farkas posted “The boundaries of disclosure” on July 5, 2007 at Information wants to be free. It’s about a different kind of disclosure than that practiced by Lessig. She’s talking about self-disclosure—writing about yourself and your work on your blog. It’s an interesting essay, worth reading on its own. Farkas discusses “overdisclosure,” the point at which you’ve said more than is appropriate.
Extreme overdisclosure becomes TMI, too much information, and it can cause a variety of problems. Farkas discusses a case that I’d put in the TMI category, although the blogger in question disagrees. Reading the post section, I was surprised: It seems well over my own limit for what belongs in a public forum. Not that I haven’t seen that in library blogs; there was one librarian blog (pseudonymous) that was astonishingly and depressingly full of TMI, and finally shut down when the blogger’s self-destructive tendencies reached crisis point.
But it’s rare. Most bloggers, at least most libloggers, manage to maintain a balance between appropriate disclosure and overdisclosure. Farkas (who used to be a therapist) offers an interesting guideline:
There have been times that I’ve wanted to write something I was feeling passionate about, only to stop myself when I realized that my only purpose in writing it was to vent. If I can’t think of how my writing will inform, educate, challenge, make people think, or start a conversation, I won’t publish it. Perhaps this only reflects my thinking on the subject of personal disclosure, but I think it’s probably a good rule of thumb for a blog in which you are representing yourself professionally.
Trying to keep the personal and the professional completely separate doesn’t work very well, as a number of people have said; it particularly falls down in blogging. But there’s personal and then there’s personal. One guideline mentioned in a comment bears thinking about: If this isn’t something you’d bring up in a conversation with a total stranger, maybe you shouldn’t be blogging about it.
I have faith in my own ethical standards. I attempt to operate transparently, to provide full disclosure where I believe there’s any question of possible bias or influence. I may not always succeed in the latter: I’m not about to provide lengthy disclosure statements before each essay or column or book or speech.
As already noted, I’ve been paid to write or speak for commercial enterprises and nonprofits that make money by selling products to libraries. I’ve made most of my living designing and writing software that, directly or indirectly, supports such paid services. I have friends among vendors and among librarians in libraries. I have no qualms about sharing meals with such friends, regardless of who’s paying. I don’t believe it’s difficult to distinguish between normal social occasions and attempts to bribe, but I’ve never really been in a position where someone would wish to bribe me.
I generally avoid writing in areas where there’s likely to be a perceived conflict of interest with my employer, unless I’m writing as part of my job (and that’s always obvious in the result). So, for example, I don’t write about ebooks now (but might in the future) and I don’t write about online catalogs or cataloging services.
My primary ethical guideline is the Primary Standard: Treat other people at least as well as you would like to have them treat you.
I subscribe to the essential blogging and writing guidelines: I don’t tell secrets (or at least I try not to). I don’t blog about “private people” by name without their advance permission. I try to avoid personal attacks. I’m willing to disagree with the statements of people I like and to agree with people I’m less fond of—but I admit that, in a tiny number of cases, I ignore people I can’t deal with.
Beyond that, I try to maintain some level of fairness (which isn’t the same as objectivity) and I try to disclose my biases. I believe in transparency more than I believe in objectivity.
I’m certainly willing to write for pay, unless I smell something wrong with the arrangement. I’m certainly willing to discuss topics for articles or speeches. Would I agree to a situation in which I was told how to write, not just what to write about? Generally, no—but under the right circumstances (e.g., for a primary employer where the writing is clearly “work for hire” or for an occasion when it’s fully disclosed) I might. Does that make me a shill, real or potential? I don’t believe so.
Maybe I haven’t said anything here that isn’t obvious from my writing—I suspect my biases are painfully transparent. I believe Lessig and Houghton-Jan offered statements worth considering. I also believe people who write or speak should think about these things from time to time—not necessarily to codify your own standards but to see whether you’re comfortable with who you are and what you’re doing. For now, I am.
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