Reading, Privacy, and Scholarly Networks

Sarah Bond published a column on Forbes.com this morning on the importance of not for profit scholarly networks. I’m thrilled that she mentioned not only my blog post but also the work we’re doing at Humanities Commons. But if she hasn’t convinced you that it’s time to #DeleteAcademiaEdu yet, maybe this will: Friday, the network launched a new “prime” feature that allows members to pay to see the identities of users who are reading the work they share. That is to say: if you are reading things on Academia.edu, the network may sell your user info.

That they’re offering to sell this info to the author of the work involved does not make it okay. This is a frightening violation of the privacy standards that — a key point of comparison — libraries have long maintained with respect to reader activity. And selling your data to authors may only be the beginning.

I don’t want to read too much into the fact that they launched this “feature” on inauguration day. But the coincidence really begs scholars to become even more vigilant about where they’re sharing their work, and what networks they’re supporting as they access the work of others.

Academia, Not Edu

Last week’s close attention to open access, its development, its present state, and its potential futures, surfaced not only the importance for both the individual scholar and the field at large of sharing work as openly as possible, with a range of broadly conceived publics, but also some continuing questions about the best means of accomplishing that sharing. As I mentioned last week, providing opportunities for work to be opened at the point of publication itself is one important model, but a model that may well have occluded our vision of other potential forms: the ease of using article-processing charges to offset any decline in subscription revenue possible as previously paywalled content becomes openly available is so apparent as to have become rapidly naturalized, allowing us to wave off the need for experimentation with less obvious — and less remunerative — models.

Among alternative models, as I noted, is author-originated sharing of work, often in pre-print forms, via the open web. Many authors already share work in this way, whether posting drafts on their blogs for comment or depositing manuscripts in their institutional repositories. And recently, many scholars have also taken to sharing their work via Academia.edu, a social network that allows scholars to build connections, get their work into circulation, and discover the work of others. I’m glad to see the interest among scholars in that kind of socially-oriented dissemination and sharing, but I’m very concerned about this particular point of distribution and what it might mean for the future of the work involved.

Here’s the crux of the matter:

The first thing to note is that, despite its misleading top level domain (which was registered by a subsidiary prior to the 2001 restrictions), Academia.edu is not an educationally-affiliated organization, but a dot-com, which has raised millions in multiple rounds of venture capital funding. This does not imply anything necessarily negative about the network’s model or intent, but it does make clear that there are a limited number of options for the network’s future: at some point, it will be required to turn a profit, or it will be sold for parts, or it will shut down.

And if the network is to turn a profit, that profit has a limited number of means through which it can be generated: either academics who are currently contributing their work to this space will have to pay to continue to access it, or the work that they have contributed will somehow be mined for sale, whether to advertisers or other interested parties. In fact, Academia.edu’s CEO has said that “the goal is to provide trending research data to R&D institutions that can improve the quality of their decisions by 10-20%.” Statements like this underwrite Gary Hall’s assessment of the damage that the network can do to genuine open access: “Academia.edu has a parasitical relationship to the public education system, in that these academics are labouring for it for free to help build its privately-owned for-profit platform by providing the aggregated input, data and attention value.” The network, in other words, does not have as its primary goal helping academics communicate with one another, but is rather working to monetize that communication. All of which is to say: everything that’s wrong with Facebook is wrong with Academia.edu, at least just up under the surface, and so perhaps we should think twice before commiting our professional lives to it.

The problem, of course, is that many of us face the same dilemma in our engagement with Academia.edu that we experience with Facebook. Just about everyone hates Facebook on some level: we hate its intrusiveness, the ways it tracks and mines and manipulates us, the degree to which it feels mandatory. But that mandatoriness works: those of us who hate Facebook and use it anyway do so because everyone we’re trying to connect with is there. And as we’ve seen with the range of alternatives to Facebook and Twitter that have launched and quickly faded, it’s hard to compete with that. So with Academia.edu: I’ve heard many careful, thoughtful academics note that they’re sharing their work there because that’s where everybody is.

And the “everybody” factor has been a key hindrance to the flourishing of other mechanisms for author-side sharing of work such as institutional repositories. Those repositories provide rigorously protected and preserved storage for digital objects, as well as high-quality metadata that can assist in the discovery of those objects, but the repositories have faced two key challenges: first, that they’ve been relatively siloed from one another, with each IR collecting and preserving its own material independently of all others, and second, that they’ve been (for the obvious reason) institutionally focused. The result of the former is that there hasn’t been any collective sense of what material is available where (though the ARL/AAU/APLU-founded project SHARE is working to solve that problem). The result of the latter is that a relatively small amount of such material has been made available, as researchers by and large tend to want to communicate with the other members of their fields, wherever they may be, rather than feeling the primary identification with their institutions that broad IR participation would seem to require. So why, many cannot help but feel, would I share my work in a place where it will be found by few of the people I hope will read it?

The disciplinary repository may provide a viable alternative — see, for instance, the long-standing success of arXiv.org — but the fact that such repositories collect material produced in disciplines rather than institutions is only one of the features key to their success, and to their successful support of the goals of open access. Other crucial features include the not-for-profit standing of those repositories, which can require thoughtful fundraising but keeps the network focused on the researchers it comprises, and those repositories’ social orientation, facilitating communication and interconnection among those researchers. That social orientation is where Academia.edu has excelled; early in its lifespan, before it developed paper-sharing capabilities, the site mapped relationships among scholars, both within and across institutions, and has built heavily upon the interconnections that it traced — but it has not primarily done so for the benefit of those scholars or their relationships.

Scholarly societies have the potential to inhabit the ideal point of overlap between a primary orientation toward serving the needs of members and a primary focus on facilitating communication amongst those members. This is in large part why we established MLA Commons, to build a not-for-profit social network governed and developed by its members with their goals in mind. And in working toward the larger goals of open access, we’ve connected this social network with CORE, a repository through which members can not only deposit and preserve their work, but also share it directly with the other members of the network. We’re also building mechanisms through which CORE can communicate with institutional repositories so that the entire higher-education-based research network can benefit.

Like all such networks, however, the Commons will take time to grow, so we can’t solve the “everybody” problem right away. But we’re working toward it, through our Mellon-supported Humanities Commons initiative, which seeks to bring other scholarly societies into the collective. The interconnections among the scholarly society-managed Commonses we envision will not only help facilitate collaboration across disciplinary lines but also allow members with overlapping affiliations to have single sign-on access to the multiple groups of scholars with whom they work. We are working toward a federated network in which a scholar can maintain and share their work from one profile, on a scholar-governed network, whose direction and purpose serve their own.

So, finally, a call to MLA members: when you develop your member profile and share your work via the Commons, you not only get your work into circulation within your community of practice, and not only raise the profile of your work within that community, but you also help support us as we work to solve the “everybody” problem of the dot-com that threatens to erode the possibilities for genuine open access.

I logged in to Skype for a conference call yesterday afternoon and immediately received a message letting me know that it was the birthday of someone with whom I’ve collaborated on a few projects.

Don’t get me wrong — I have actually come to like Birthday Facebook, both the notifications and the resulting pile-on of greetings, which seem to me the best purpose that the network has come to serve. But Birthday Skype feels a bit more intrusive somehow, something like your kitchen telephone reminding you that it might be nice if you called your Great Aunt Helen every once in a while.

I did send a quick message of the “wow, weird, but HBD!” variety. I did not, however, send the Skype-minutes-gift-card that was on offer. (Sorry, collaborator.)

Communities

[Crossposted from The New York Academy of Medicine’s Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health, which has published a cluster of posts previewing a panel I’m presenting on at the AHA.]

The overwhelming tendency toward openness in digital networks presents both opportunities and challenges for contemporary scholarship, and in particular for the traditional structures that have facilitated and disseminated scholarship such as membership-based scholarly societies. Some of the challenges are obvious, and have been discussed in many other fora. The increasing demand for free access to products around which revenue models have long been built, for instance, challenges organizations to reinvent their fundamental orientation toward their stakeholders. For scholars, the network’s openness presents an increasing potential for information overload and an increasing difficulty in finding the right texts, the right connections, the right conversations at the right time.

All of these challenges are of course balanced by opportunities, however, as the network also presents the possibility of greatly improved access to scholarship and more fluid channels for ongoing communication and discovery amongst scholars. These opportunities suggest that an important role for scholarly societies will be in facilitating their members’ participation in these networks, helping to create new community-based platforms and systems through which their members can best carry out their work. Insofar as scholarship has always been a conversation — if one often conducted at a most glacial pace — the chief value for scholars should come in the ability to be full participants in that conversation: not simply getting access to the work that other scholars produce, but also having the ability to get their work into circulation, in the same networks as the work that inspired it, and the work that it will inspire. For this reason, the value of joining a scholarly society in the age of the network is less in getting access to content the society produces (the convention, the journal) than in the ability to participate.

However, this opportunity points toward a deeper, underlying challenge, for societies and scholars alike: building and maintaining communities that inspire and sustain participation. This is nowhere near as easy as it may sound. And it’s not just a matter of the “if you build it, they won’t necessarily come” problem; problems can creep up even when they do come. Take Twitter, for instance, which developed a substantial and enthusiastic academic user base over a period of a few years. Recently, however, many scholars and writers who were once very active and engaged on Twitter have begun withdrawing. Perhaps the drop-off is part of an inevitable evaporative social cooling effect. Perhaps at some point, Twitter’s bigness crossed a threshold into too-big. Whatever the causes, there is an increasing discomfort among many with the feeling that conversations once being held on one’s front porch are suddenly taking place in the street and that discussions have given way to an unfortunate “reign of opinion”, an increasing sense of the personal costs involved in maintaining the level of “ambient intimacy” that Twitter requires and a growing feeling that “a life spent on Twitter is a death by a thousand emotional microtransactions”.

Gartner Hype Cycle

What is crucial to note is that in none of these cases is the problem predominantly one of network structure. If we have reached a “trough of disillusionment” in the Twitter hype cycle, it’s not the fault of the technology, but of the social systems and interactions that have developed around it. If we are going to take full advantage of the affordances that digital networks provide — facilitating forms of scholarly communication from those as seemingly simple as the tweet to those as complex as the journal article, the monograph, and their born-digital descendants — we must focus as much on the social challenges that these networks raise as we do on the technical or financial challenges. To say, however, that we need to focus on building community — or more accurately, building communities — is not to say that we need to develop and enforce the sort of norms of “civility” that have been used to discipline crucial forms of protest. Rather, we need to foster the kinds of communication and connection that will enable a richly conceived panoply of communities of practice, as they long have in print, to work in engaged, ongoing dissensus without reverting to silence.

[Image: Gartner Hype Cycle, by Jeremy Kemp. Shared under CC BY-SA 3.0 license. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hype_cycle#mediaviewer/File:Gartner_Hype_Cycle.svg]

Dear Hosting Provider

Weirdly, when our team said “let’s upgrade our server” got a message saying “we’re going to upgrade your server,” we didn’t expect you to redirect our DNS entry to a machine so new that it has no files on it. Not just no files, but no configuration whatsoever. And no users, so no way to, I don’t know, configure the machine such that one can put files on it.

I know. Silly us.

No worries, though. It’s not like we were running a large-scale scholarly community that depends on the goodwill of its volunteer participants, whose goodwill varies directly with the perceived stability of the platform.

Thanks, however, for giving the team a bit of clarity on the whole “hey, do we want to stay with this hosting provider or look for another one that might be better suited to our needs” business!

Love,
@kfitz

Disagreement

Tim McCormick posted an extremely interesting followup to my last post. If you haven’t read it, you should.

My comment on his post ran a bit out of control, and so I’m reproducing it here, in part so that I can continue thinking about this after tonight:

This is a great post, Tim. Here’s the thing, though: this is exactly the kind of public disagreement that I want the culture of online engagement to be able to foster; it is, as you point out, respectful, but it’s also serious. The problem is that I think this kind of dissensus is in danger as long as our mode of discourse falls so easily into snark, hostility, dismissiveness, and counterproductive incivility.

I don’t think it’s accidental that we are having this discussion via our blogs. I had time to sit with my post before I published it. You had time to read it and think about it before you responded. I’ve had time to consider this comment. And not just time — both of us have enough space to flesh out our thoughts. None of this means that by the end of the exchange we’re going to agree; in fact, I’m pretty sure we won’t. But it does mean that we’ve both given serious thought to the disagreement.

And this is what has me concerned about recent episodes on Twitter. Not that people disagree, but that there often isn’t enough room in either time or space for thought before responding, and thus that those responses so easily drift toward the most literally thoughtless. I’m not asking anybody not to say exactly what’s on their minds; by all means, do. I’m just asking that we all think about it a bit first.

And — if I could have anything — it would be for all of us to think about it not just from our own subject positions, but from the positions of the other people involved. This is where I get accused of wanting everybody to sit around the campfire and sing Kumbaya, which is simply not it at all. Disagree! But recognize that there is the slightest possibility that you (not you, Tim; that general “you” out there) could be wrong, and that the other person might well have a point.

So in fact, here’s a point of agreement between the two of us: you say that we need to have “the widest possible disagreements,” and that “to be other-engaged, and world-engaged, we need to be always leaning in to the uncomfortable.” Exactly! But to say that, as a corollary, we have to permit uncivil speech, public insult, and shaming — that anyone who resists this kind of behavior is just demanding that everyone agree — is to say that only the person who is the target of such speech needs to be uncomfortable, that the person who utters it has no responsibility for pausing to consider that other’s position. And there, I disagree quite strongly. (As does, I think, Postel; being liberal in what you accept from others has to be matched by being conservative in what you do for the network to be robust.)

I do not think that it should be the sole responsibility of the listener to tune out hostility, or that, as a Twitter respondent said last night, that it’s the responsibility of one who has been publicly shamed simply to decide not to feel that shame. There’s an edge of blaming the victim there that makes me profoundly uncomfortable. But I do think that we all need to do a far better job of listening to one another, and of taking one another seriously when we say that something’s just not okay. That, I think, is the real work that Ryan Cordell did in his fantastic blog post this morning. It’s way less important to me what the specific plan he’s developed for his future Tweeting is (though I think it’s awesome); it’s that he took the time to sit down with a person he’d hurt and find out what had happened from her perspective. It’s not at all incidental that they walked away from their conversation still disagreeing about the scholarly issues that set off their exchange — but with what sounds like a deeper respect for one another as colleagues.

This has all become a bit heavier than I want it to be. I have no interest in becoming the civility police. Twitter is fun, and funny, and irreverent, and playful, and I want it to stay that way. But I really resist the use of shame as a tool of either humor or criticism. Shame is corrosive to community. It shuts down discussion, rather than opening it up. And that’s my bottom line.

Spoilerz!

Dear major television scholar who appeared at the very top of my Facebook feed this morning, where I could not avoid you (and I think you know who you are): sticking the word “spoiler” immediately before a most appalling revelation about that episode I didn’t have the chance to watch last night does not absolve you of that revelation’s appallingness.

I’m not generally one to get all up in arms about spoilers, but this one was particularly egregious. Is it reasonable to ask that in the interest of general politesse, you tuck your spoilers below the fold for at least the first 24 hours, especially when they’re being pushed my way, rather than me seeking them out?

In practical terms, for FB, that would mean warning me in the main post and then sticking the spoiler in a comment. This would give me a second to make the choice of whether to continue or not. It’s just not that hard.

Peer-to-Peer Review and Its Aporias

Over the course of last week, a huge number of friends and colleagues of mine posted links and notes on Twitter and around the blogosphere about Mike O’Malley’s post on The Aporetic about crowdsourcing peer review.

It probably goes without saying that I’m in great sympathy with the post overall. I’ve invested a lot of time over the last couple of years in testing open peer review, including the experiment that we conducted at MediaCommons on behalf of Shakespeare Quarterly, which has been written about extensively in both the Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times. And of course there was my prior experiment with the open review of my own book manuscript, whose first chapter focuses in great detail on this new model of peer review, and which has been available online for just over a year now.

It’s gratifying to see other scholars getting interested in these wacky ideas about reinventing scholarly publishing that I’ve been pushing for over the last several years. In particular, the entry of scholars who are relatively new to the digital into these discussions confirms my sense that we’re at a tipping point of sorts, in which these new modes, while still experimental, are beginning to produce enough curiosity in mainstream academic circles that they’re no longer automatically dismissed out of hand.

All that said, I do feel the need to introduce a few words of caution into these discussions, because the business of open peer review isn’t quite as straightforward as simply throwing open the gates and letting Google do its thing. O’Malley argues that Google “is in effect a gigantic peer review. Google responds to your query by analyzing how many other people — your ‘peers’ — found the same page useful.” And this is so, up to a point; Google’s Page Rank system does use inbound links to help determine the relevance of particular pages with respect to your search terms. But what relationship Page Rank bears to the category of folks you might consider your “peers” — however democratically you construct that term — needs really careful consideration. On the one hand, Google’s algorithm remains a black box to most of us; we simply don’t know enough about how its machine intelligence self-adjusts to take it on faith as a reliable measure of scholarly relevance. And on the other, the human element of Page Rank — the employment of Search Quality Raters who evaluate the relevance of search results, and whose evaluations then affect the algorithm itself — and the fact that this human element has been kept so quiet, indicates that we haven’t yet turned the entire business of search on the web over to machine intelligence, that we’re still relying on the kinds of semi-secret human ratings that peer review currently employs. [1]

To put it plainly: I am absolutely committed to breaking scholarly publishing of its dependence on gatekeeping and transforming it into a Shirkyesque publish-then-filter model. No question. But our filters can only ever be as good as our algorithms, and it’s clear that we just don’t know enough about Google’s algorithms. O’Malley acknowledges that, but I’m not sure he goes quite far enough there; the point of opening up peer review is precisely to remove it from the black box, to foreground the review process as a discussion amongst peers rather than an act of abstracted anonymous judgment.

That’s problem number 1. The second problem is that peer review as we currently practice it isn’t simply a mechanism for bringing relevant, useful work into circulation; it’s also the hook upon which all of our employment practices hang, as we in the US academy have utterly conflated peer review and credentialing. As a result, we have a tremendous amount of work to do if we’re going to open peer review up to crowd-sourcing and/or make it an even partially computational process: we must simultaneously develop credible ways of determining the results of that review and, even more importantly, ways of analyzing and communicating those results to other faculty, to administrators, and to promotion and tenure committees, such that they will understand how these new processes construct authority online. It’s clear that the open peer review processes that I’ve been working with provide far more information than does the simple binary of traditional peer review’s up-or-down vote, but how to communicate that information in a way that conventional scholars can hear and make use of is no small matter.

And the third issue, one that often goes unremarked in the excitement of imagining these new digital processes, is labor. Most journal editors will acknowledge that the hardest part of their job is reviewer-wrangling; however large their list of potential peer reviewers may be, a tiny fraction of that list does an overwhelming percentage of that work. Crowdsourcing peer review presents the potential for redistributing that labor more evenly, but it’s only potential, unless we commit ourselves to real participation in the work that open peer review will require. It’s one thing, after all, for me to throw my book manuscript open for review — a process in which I received nearly 300 comments from 44 unique commenters — but what happens when everyone with such a manuscript uses a similar system? How much time and energy are we willing to expend on reviewing, and how will we ensure that this work doesn’t end up being just as unevenly distributed as is the labor in our current systems of review?

This difficulty is highlighted by the fact that many of the folks who have written excitedly about the post on The Aporetic are mostly people who know me, who know my work, and yet who were not commenters on my manuscript. Not that they needed to be, but had they engaged with the manuscript they might have noted the similarities, and drawn relevant comparisons in their comments on this later blog post. This is the kind of collaborative connection-drawing that will need to live at the forefront of any genuinely peer-to-peer review system, not simply so that the reviews can serve as a form of recommendations engine, but in order that scholars who are working on similar terrain can find their ways to one another’s work, creating more fruitful networks for collaboration.

There are several other real questions that need to be raised about how the peer-to-peer review system that I hope to continue building will operate. For instance, how do we interpret silence in such an open process? In traditional, closed review, the only form of silence is a reviewer who fails to respond; once a reviewer takes on the work of review, she generally comments on a text in its entirety. In open review, however, and especially one structured in a form like CommentPress, which allows for very fine-grained discussion of a text section by section and paragraph by paragraph, how can one distinguish between the silence produced by the absence of problems in a particular section of a text, the silence that indicates problems so fundamental that no one wants to point them out in public, and the silence that results from the text simply having gone overlooked?

And that latter raises the further question of how we can keep such a peer-to-peer review system from replicating the old boys’ club of publishing systems of yore. However much I want to tear it down, the currently existing system of double-blind peer review was in no small part responsible for the ability of women and people of color to enter scholarly conversations in full; forcing a focus on the ideas rather than on who their author was or knew had, at that time, a profoundly inclusive result.

That blind review is now at best a fiction is apparent; that it has produced numerous flaws and corruptions is evident. It’s also clear from my work that I am no apologist for our current peer review systems.

But nonetheless: I’d hate to find us in a situation in which a community of the like-minded — the cool kids, the in-crowd, the old boys — inadvertently excludes from its consideration those who don’t fall within their sphere of reference. If, as I noted above, our computational filters can only ever be as good as our algorithms, the same is doubly so in a human filtering system: peer-to-peer review can only be as open, or as open-minded, as those who participate in it, those whose opinions will determine the reputations of the texts on which they comment and the authors to whom they link.

[1] Most of this information came to me through a conversation with Julie Meloni, who also pointed out that for a glimpse of what a purely machine-intelligence driven search engine might produce, we can look at the metadata train wreck of Google Books. For whatever reason, Google has refused to allow the metadata associated with this project to be expert-reviewed, a situation that becomes all the more puzzling when you take the Search Quality Raters into account.

Past and Future

For the next few days, my “Five Years Ago” block at right will be filled with post-Katrina posts. After all these years with the blog, it still feels very odd to have such a record of past trauma, the detail of what was going through my head in those days when I desperately needed someone around me to understand how bad things were in New Orleans.

The power of this kind of record is part of what makes me agree with Paul Carr’s assessment: what I’ve gained in immediacy and community via Twitter, I’ve lost in preservation, longevity, even permanence.

It’s this kind of thing that has me torn between the precious little time I have for this kind of writing and the desire to keep those thoughts somewhere I might get back at them five years from now.

The Late Age of Print, Audio Edition

From Ted Striphas comes news of an exciting project: the crowd-sourced production of a text-to-speech audiobook version of his fantastic book, The Late Age of Print. Ted has opened a wiki for the project, through which interested volunteers can help him clean up the text for audio conversion. Instructions and details are available on the wiki.

This is an exciting project, not least for its attempt to manage the labor involved in creating a public resource that will be given away freely. I hope you’ll get involved.