This week I ran an unscientific poll on Facebook: "Poll: When scheduling a meeting, does "if need be" offer helpful flexibility or annoying ambiguity?"
I was envisioning a scenario in which every time proposed has the "if need be" option. Let's say there are three possible times: 10 am Tuesday, 2 pm Tuesday, 11 am Wednesday. In theory, everyone could pick the "if need be" option for each time slot -- leaving it up to the scheduler to determine if there is sufficient "need" and then make an arbitrary decision about when to hold the meeting. But not being arbitrary, of course, is exactly what the poll is supposed to achieve.
That's how I see it. Many of my poll respondents (aka my kind Facebook friends) disagree. They find "if need be" helpful -- should enough people select that option, they will look to move their own meetings to accommodate the emerging favorite slot. Which is admirably other-centered. (Of course, this assumes that one clear "if need be" favorite emerges). And in any case the binary yes/no approach is too constrictive, in this view.
That makes sense, especially once the group being scheduled reaches a certain size (8 or more people?) and it would be impossible to land on one time that works for everyone anyway.
But for smallish groups, forego "if need be." People should claim their schedules, say yes or no, and not offload what should be a collectively determined decision onto the meeting organizer. Harrumph!
For the first time in forever (maybe ever), Pi Wen and I recently caught a film on its opening night.
This was Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg. It's based on a true story, of a socialite with an awful singing voice who nonetheless performed at Carnegie Hall.
Jenkins's husband St. Clair Bayfield spares her from the knowledge of her terrible voice as an act of love. Esteemed vocal coaches say nothing to Jenkins because they want her money. Whether from greed or kindness, the end result is the same: Florence Foster Jenkins believes she can sing well even though she most definitely cannot.
Or at least this is the case in the film -- it is hard to believe that the real-life Jenkins was as clueless as her screen counterpart. Helberg plays her accompanist, Cosme McMoon.
Although Jenkins's case is extreme, and the film plays it as farce, there are genuine ethical dilemmas here. If a person is blissfully unaware of their lack of talent and causing no harm to themselves or others, why shatter their illusion? Or is this framing itself an illusion, as the lack of talent causes some discomfort in others at the very least? If you choose to tell someone that their talent is only in their head, do you do it gently and risk that the message will be lost? Or in a tear-off-the-bandaid fashion that leaves no doubt about the truth of the matter, but at the cost of hurt feelings?
In the film Jenkins does finally learn the harsh truth, from a caustic newspaper critic (a Hollywood trope if I ever did see one). In the end her husband could not her spare her. The review is so rough that one wishes he had let her down ever so gently (but not too gently) many years before.
That dean, Roman Kochan, replied with a tart missive to Allen. Kochan's message, in essence, was that Allen had stepped out of his lane and had best step back.
What was the fuss about? Allen accused one of Kochan's librarians, Gabriel Gardner, of promoting Sci-Hub. Yes, Sci-Hub, the site that publishers hate ("piracy") and researchers love ("it's so easy.") Now with over 50,000,000 papers and counting -- many if not most obtained through such dubious means as computer hacking -- Sci-Hub is the strongest threat yet to publisher paywalls and revenue streams.
Rather than evolving their business models, the main response by publishers so far has been to double down and build two-factor authentication schemes to protect their current revenues. This nerdy instance of whack-a-mole continues apace.
Back to Tom Allen, CEO of the Association of American Publishers (AAP). Allen's beef with librarian Gardner was that Gardner had not shilled sufficiently for AAP during a recent ALA presentation. Allen wanted Gardner to proclaim Sci-Hub illegal, immoral and detrimental to all human life. But Allen alleges -- on the basis of very scant evidence -- that Gardner encouraged people to use Sci-Hub. The more probable version of events is that Gardner simply noted that Sci-Hub is easy to use (it is). Allen charges instead that Gardner aided and abetted lawless behavior, but that's plainly ludicrous.
Let's not be too harsh -- Allen is just doing his job, throwing some red meat to his base of angry publishers. This is blatant propaganda, easily dismissed.
Nonetheless Allen's gambit does pose an interesting question: How should we discuss things that are clearly illegal (in the court of law sense) but are much more ambiguous ethically?
For Sci-Hub fits squarely into this frame. There is absolutely no doubt that the site is illegal, sourced by still-in-copyright materials Sci-Hub does not own or license.
And yet. The very fact that publishers can copyright, and profit by, the results of what is often taxpaper-funded research is unconscionable. It's legally permitted but morally outrageous. Even if we grant that publishers add value to scholarly communication (and I do) this does not mean they need the iron grip on content they currently have in order to make a profit. It's the system we've chosen to build, not the only system we ever could have.
Sci-Hub is far from blameless in this equation, as it falsely impersonates people and steals network credentials in order to obtain articles. But, of course, no such actions would be necessary if all scholarly content were open access at the time of publication.
So back to the question: what to do when something is legally forbidden but ethically ambiguous? Say so. Librarians discussing Sci-Hub with anyone should say, "This is illegal but the laws are bad. Live within these constraints AND seek to change them." Of course, most people listening will ignore the legal constraints (Sci-Hub is damn easy) and do nothing whatsoever to change copyright law. It's up to librarians and progressive attorneys to take that part on.
In 2012 the Republican Party conducted an "autopsy" to learn lessons after Mitt Romney's defeat as President, with the goal of retaking the White House in 2016.
Given that the 2016 GOP nominee is one Donald John Trump, this line from the report feels prescient: "If our Party is not welcoming and inclusive, young people and increasingly other voters will continue to tune us out." (Page 10)
Huh. Part of me feels the delicious schadenfreude in all this, in certain moods I look upon the GOP's implosion with delight. But most of the time I'm just sad about it. The Grand Old Party has been a vibrant and essential part of our democracy for more than 150 years, and in the space of just one year it gave away its soul to a most unworthy recipient. Trump has not simply coarsened the dialogue, stoked hate and embarrassed America. He has brought a great party down too, as collateral damage for his ego.
Some background: Aaron Swartz, tragically, committed suicide at the age of 26. At the time Swartz was under federal indictment for "data theft," after downloading millions of articles from JSTOR via a server at MIT. Swartz -- even in the course of his brief life -- had already become a long-time advocate for open access to scholarly and legal information. He saw his actions regarding JSTOR as a clear moral good in the service of increasing access to information. The argument against Swartz was that he was a brazen thief of copyrighted materials.
In the immediate aftermath of Swartz's death I wrote a post on this blog, "Clarifying Copyright." This was in response to a San Francisco Chronicle feature that offered contrasting takes on the meaning of Swartz's legacy, some of which reflected an incorrect understanding of the purpose of copyright. In my post I noted that copyright law -- which exists as an incentive to the production of creative works, by offering control over that work's distribution "for a limited time" -- was misapplied to scholarly works. Novelists and journalists write (among other reasons) in order to put food on their table -- of course they deserve copyright protection, and of course they should be paid.
The authors of scholarly research articles and books do not write in order to earn a livelihood, as they have sources of income already -- they write so that their ideas and knowledge are shared. For this group copyright actually presents a barrier to sharing their work, rather than acting as an incentive to create that work in the first place. But our notions of copyright are (still) one size fits all.
In this context it is important to note that Aaron Swartz's two prominent "illegal" downloads involved running scripts to perform a bulk download of the transcripts of court trials (the PACER case) and of the results of scholarly research (the JSTOR case). He was not finding a way to ferret out the next great American novel from someone's hard drive and post it online for free.
With that, let's go back to Pesca and Peters. Their conversation (which takes place between minutes 6-23 in the provided link) begins well. Pesca and Peters establish who Swartz was, providing necessary and interesting biographical detail. Then, around minute 11, they start delving into Swartz's ideals and describe his efforts to make it easier to access legal materials (PACER).
Then, at 15:30-15:35, Pesca states, "It's seems he's a bit of a zealot." Pesca goes on to say that surely journalists need to make a living and that, more generally, some types of content should be paid for at the point of sale. Peters, bless him, promptly corrects Pesca: "it's important to make the distinction between journalistic work and academic research papers." This is the exact distinction I outlined just above, between people who are writing to eat and those who are not.
If this crucial nuance is lost on an intelligent observer like Mike Pesca, heaven help us if and when our policymakers decide to review the copyright code.
Pesca's question gave me a sad sense of deja vu. Shortly after Swartz's death, Wesley Yang wrote a detailed profile of Swartz in New York magazine. It's a thoughtful and thorough review of Swartz's legacy. But deep within it we find this troubling paragraph:
"The moralistic language spoken by the Open Access movement—with its invocations of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks—may seem slightly perplexing to those of us raised with the common-sense view that works of science, art, and culture circulate in our society through institutions that fund them by charging fees to the public to access them. But the partisans of the open Internet were informed by a different experience and set of ideals than the rest of us, those of a techno-utopia that really existed and has been continuously under siege ever since John Perry Barlow, the former Grateful Dead lyricist turned Internet visionary, co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation and declared the independence of cyberspace as a self-regulating realm of perfect freedom beyond the reach of any territorial government’s laws."
There's that claim again -- that Swartz and other open access advocates believe that everything ever written should be free at the moment it is written, and that nobody should ever get paid for anything even if all authors die of starvation as a result.
That's not what Swartz stood for, and that is not what open access is about. Open access assumes that scholars have other sources of income for their livelihoods (generally a university affiliation of some variety), and that they write their work to be read and not to be paywalled.
Swartz broke through a few big paywalls, and found himself in deep trouble because his contemporary values did not accord with antediluvian copyright laws. The best way to honor his legacy now is to make what he was fighting for is as crystal clear as humanly possible, and to keep on pursuing that goal.