Letter In solidarity with Library Genesis and Sci-Hub

Came across this letter online and wanted to save it here for future reference.

In solidarity with Library Genesis and Sci-Hub

In Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s tale the Little Prince meets a businessman who accumulates stars with the sole purpose of being able to buy more stars. The Little Prince is perplexed. He owns only a flower, which he waters every day. Three volcanoes, which he cleans every week. “It is of some use to my volcanoes, and it is of some use to my flower, that I own them,” he says, “but you are of no use to the stars that you own”.

There are many businessmen who own knowledge today. Consider Elsevier, the largest scholarly publisher, whose 37% profit margin1 stands in sharp contrast to the rising fees, expanding student loan debt and poverty-level wages for adjunct faculty. Elsevier owns some of the largest databases of academic material, which are licensed at prices so scandalously high that even Harvard, the richest university of the global north, has complained that it cannot afford them any longer. Robert Darnton, the past director of Harvard Library, says “We faculty do the research, write the papers, referee papers by other researchers, serve on editorial boards, all of it for free … and then we buy back the results of our labour at outrageous prices.”2 For all the work supported by public money benefiting scholarly publishers, particularly the peer review that grounds their legitimacy, journal articles are priced such that they prohibit access to science to many academics – and all non-academics – across the world, and render it a token of privilege.3

Elsevier has recently filed a copyright infringement suit in New York against Science Hub and Library Genesis claiming millions of dollars in damages.4 This has come as a big blow, not just to the administrators of the websites but also to thousands of researchers around the world for whom these sites are the only viable source of academic materials. The social media, mailing lists and IRC channels have been filled with their distress messages, desperately seeking articles and publications.

Even as the New York District Court was delivering its injunction, news came of the entire editorial board of highly-esteemed journal Lingua handing in their collective resignation, citing as their reason the refusal by Elsevier to go open access and give up on the high fees it charges to authors and their academic institutions. As we write these lines, a petition is doing the rounds demanding that Taylor & Francis doesn’t shut down Ashgate5, a formerly independent humanities publisher that it acquired earlier in 2015. It is threatened to go the way of other small publishers that are being rolled over by the growing monopoly and concentration in the publishing market. These are just some of the signs that the system is broken. It devalues us, authors, editors and readers alike. It parasites on our labor, it thwarts our service to the public, it denies us access6.

We have the means and methods to make knowledge accessible to everyone, with no economic barrier to access and at a much lower cost to society. But closed access’s monopoly over academic publishing, its spectacular profits and its central role in the allocation of academic prestige trump the public interest. Commercial publishers effectively impede open access, criminalize us, prosecute our heroes and heroines, and destroy our libraries, again and again. Before Science Hub and Library Genesis there was Library.nu or Gigapedia; before Gigapedia there was textz.com; before textz.com there was little; and before there was little there was nothing. That’s what they want: to reduce most of us back to nothing. And they have the full support of the courts and law to do exactly that.7

In Elsevier’s case against Sci-Hub and Library Genesis, the judge said: “simply making copyrighted content available for free via a foreign website, disserves the public interest”8. Alexandra Elbakyan’s original plea put the stakes much higher: “If Elsevier manages to shut down our projects or force them into the darknet, that will demonstrate an important idea: that the public does not have the right to knowledge.”

We demonstrate daily, and on a massive scale, that the system is broken. We share our writing secretly behind the backs of our publishers, circumvent paywalls to access articles and publications, digitize and upload books to libraries. This is the other side of 37% profit margins: our knowledge commons grows in the fault lines of a broken system. We are all custodians of knowledge, custodians of the same infrastructures that we depend on for producing knowledge, custodians of our fertile but fragile commons. To be a custodian is, de facto, to download, to share, to read, to write, to review, to edit, to digitize, to archive, to maintain libraries, to make them accessible. It is to be of use to, not to make property of, our knowledge commons.

More than seven years ago Aaron Swartz, who spared no risk in standing up for what we here urge you to stand up for too, wrote: “We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access. With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we’ll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?”9

We find ourselves at a decisive moment. This is the time to recognize that the very existence of our massive knowledge commons is an act of collective civil disobedience. It is the time to emerge from hiding and put our names behind this act of resistance. You may feel isolated, but there are many of us. The anger, desperation and fear of losing our library infrastructures, voiced across the internet, tell us that. This is the time for us custodians, being dogs, humans or cyborgs, with our names, nicknames and pseudonyms, to raise our voices.

30 November 2015

Dušan Barok, Josephine Berry, Bodó Balázs, Sean Dockray, Kenneth Goldsmith, Anthony Iles, Lawrence Liang, Sebastian Lütgert, Pauline van Mourik Broekman, Marcell Mars, spideralex, Tomislav Medak, Dubravka Sekulić, Femke Snelting…

  1. Larivière, Vincent, Stefanie Haustein, and Philippe Mongeon. “The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era.” PLoS ONE 10, no. 6 (June 10, 2015): e0127502. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0127502.,
    The Obscene Profits of Commercial Scholarly Publishers.” svpow.com. Accessed November 30, 2015.  
  2. Sample, Ian. “Harvard University Says It Can’t Afford Journal Publishers’ Prices.” The Guardian, April 24, 2012, sec. Science. theguardian.com.  
  3. Academic Paywalls Mean Publish and Perish – Al Jazeera English.” Accessed November 30, 2015. aljazeera.com.  
  4. Sci-Hub Tears Down Academia’s ‘Illegal’ Copyright Paywalls.” TorrentFreak. Accessed November 30, 2015. torrentfreak.com.  
  5. Save Ashgate Publishing.” Change.org. Accessed November 30, 2015. change.org.  
  6. The Cost of Knowledge.” Accessed November 30, 2015. thecostofknowledge.com.  
  7. In fact, with the TPP and TTIP being rushed through the legislative process, no domain registrar, ISP provider, host or human rights organization will be able to prevent copyright industries and courts from criminalizing and shutting down websites “expeditiously”.  
  8. Court Orders Shutdown of Libgen, Bookfi and Sci-Hub.” TorrentFreak. Accessed November 30, 2015. torrentfreak.com.  
  9. Guerilla Open Access Manifesto.” Internet Archive. Accessed November 30, 2015. archive.org.  

Free & Open Source Software: Notes from a lecture

For a large period of time in computing history software was not seen as the primary component. It was all about the hardware, the machine. The code that made the machine work and useable was simply seen as part and parcel of the machine.

One reason for this may be the way in which we tended to understand software. Another reason may have been that hardware of that size and complexity was not sold, it was leased. The “buyer” therefore was paying for a solution rather than a system. This was a very lucrative way of doing business.

The early punch card system that became the solution for the US Census was the Hollerith Tabulating Machine, these were leased to the Census Bureau. Hollerith’s company would later merge with others to become IBM whose punch card tabulators were leased to governments and organizations around the world. One advantage of the leasing system is that the company could control which cards were used in the system and also charge for maintenance and training.

With digitalisation many companies made source code available and engineers could make changes to the software. Improvements could be included into the code and sold on to the next company.

In 1969, IBM began to charge separately for (mainframe) software and services, and ceased to supply source code. By withholding the source code, only the company could make changes (and presumably charge their buyers for these changes).

The ability to “own” software, or at least control it through copyright was beginning to become a discussion among programmers. For example in 1976 Dr Li-Chen Wang released Tiny Basic under a Copyleft license which included the catch phrase “All Wrongs Reserved” Copyleft_All_Wrongs_ReservedIt is fair to say that the history of free software (and copyleft) truly begins with Richard Stallman‘s attempts to create a “technical means to a social end.” The story behind the creation of free software starts with his attempts to make a printer work and the company’s (who owned the printer) refusal to give access to the necessary code. He launched the GNU Project in 1983.

Free software is all about ensuring that we have access to, and control over, the basic infrastructures of our lives. It is not about having software at no cost – it’s about ensuring that our technology works in ways that suit our lives. In order to enact this the software that is produced by teams and individuals around the world is licensed under the GPL (General Public License) summing up the license is a bit tricky but it is common to refer to the Four Freedoms, to be considered to be Free Software it must:


The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).

The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1).

Access to the source code is a precondition for this. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).

The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3).

A precondition for these freedoms is that the code must be accessible to those who would want to read it. The importance of Free Software is much like the arguments for free speech or freedom of information. It is not that everyone wants, or has the competency, to use these rights but without them all of us are a little less informed about what is happening around us.

Once again it is important to stress Free Software is not about price. Nor is it about doing whatever you like with the code. From the Free Software Manifesto (1985)

GNU is not in the public domain. Everyone will be permitted to modify and redistribute GNU, but no distributor will be allowed to restrict its further redistribution. That is to say, proprietary modifications will not be allowed. I want to make sure that all versions of GNU remain free.

It is a gift with a very clear condition.

Free Software is sometimes confused with Open Source software. They are both similar but they have different conditions:

The term “open source” software is used by some people to mean more or less the same category as free software. It is not exactly the same class of software: they accept some licences that we consider too restrictive…

A common difference that can easily be seen in many open source licenses is the lack of the clear condition that nothing can be made into proprietary software.

Here are the slides I used.

Laughing or crying at Le Corbusier: Every action has consequences

Le Corbusier is one of those names: many have heard of him but few know why. (This is based on a totally unscientific poll I took at a party. It reflects the poor quality of knowledge among my chosen friends, and bad science on my part to generalize it in this way) Anyway, we vaguely associate him with something to do with design and architecture.

If we were to ignore his impact on a generation of architects and urban planners, we can also turn to the furniture line created by himself and his designers and introduced in the 1920s and 1930s. Gorgeous creations of chrome tubes and leather cushions that have been featured in magazines and films for decades, usually signifying luxury or the future but not always. Here is an example of one of his chairs in The Big Lebowski (Ethan Coen, 1998).

Screen capture from The Big Lebowski

For designers, hipsters, and furniture nerds this is all great. But for us copyright geeks, it takes a lot longer before it all begins to get interesting. Le Corbusier died in 1965, but naturally his designs and thoughts are still influential several decades on. We think differently about design because of him. This is all well and good.

The part that makes it difficult to know whether to laugh or cry is the news that Le Corbusier’s heirs (and the holders of his copyright today), after discovering that some of their relative’s work was included in Getty Images enormous photo collection, have sued Getty for making the images available online. The copyright holders won the case: Fondation Le Corbusier v. Getty Images (Paris Court of Appeals, Pole 5, 2nd chamber June 13, 2014). Read more about it over at The 1709 Blog.

Copyright is important and the images involved in the case were not pictures of other things with some furniture in the background. They were clearly identifiable as Le Corbusier, and in the foreground. Additionally the photos did not make any reference to Le Corbusier as having anything to do with the chairs!

So the Le Corbusier family gained some money and can argue that they defended the family honor. But to what expense? Since Getty Images has 80000 images online, will they have to act in some way to prevent other families eager to profit from the remains of their dead ancestors?

Will cases like this scare other archives away from digitizing images and making them available online? The aftereffects of this sort of thing has the potential to drag us back from the cultural bonanza of online archives. Today we go online and find what we want – should the relatives of dead designers have the power to prevent this?

Does sharing the same DNA as a creator make you well suited to decide the fate of her creations?

This post originally appeared here.

Why is copyright law so weird?

When we came across an old Remington Typewriter in a small curiosity shop in Manchester Vermont (founded 1761), the 12-year old looked at it with great curiosity and asked how it worked. He knew it was a writer’s tool but he was unable to figure out how text was produced.

So I explained how to load it with paper, pointed to the ribbon and explained that simply touching the keys would do very little – this was a classic machine where every key needed to be thumped hard to produce an imprint on the paper. The shopkeeper and the other customers (being older) all smiled at the idea that something so simple needed to be explained.

Naturally, everything imaginable has already been done on the Internet, so if you want to get an idea of what this conversation was like, check out the Typewriter episode of the adorable “Kids React to Technology” series:

One of my favorite quotes is that the machine “…types and prints at the same time”. Many of the kids seem to enjoy the tactile nature of typing but they all agree it’s too complicated.

Reminiscing about the typewriter is not only nostalgia. Understanding the technology of the past is vital to understanding the regulations and culture of the present. Take for example something simple like

Ctrl X – Ctrl V

Which, as most people know, are the keyboard shortcuts on a computer for cut and paste. But how many know the reason for cut and paste is that in the analogue world moving section a section of text could literally involve a pair of scissors and some glue. You cut it out and pasted it into the right place.

This is easy enough but it gets even more complex when we talk about law (or culture, but I am limiting this to law). For the longest time, copyright law did not really need to address private copying because the process of copying involved hours of labor and low-quality final output. Physical reality acted as a barrier to the action and therefore legislation was unnecessary. We have no regulation prohibiting people from passing through walls – the very nature of walls makes it unnecessary.

The problem arises when we live through a period of rapid technological change. The law is, and always will be, a slow mover. Most legislators grew up in worlds where typewriters did not need to be explained. Their understanding of the physical realities of copying were created in an analogue reality.

As Douglas Adams writes in Salmon of Doubt:

“I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

So what does this mean? Picture a legislator: they are often (unfortunately) older, wealthy men. For our example, picture Lex, a 60-year old legislator. Lex was born in 1954, he was fifteen in 1969, and hit 35 in 1989.

Technology invented prior to 1969 is perfectly natural: Obviously the typewriter, the radio and television were all natural. Email had been invented but most people were more likely to get a telegram than understand what an email was. The hottest new device – in this area – was the fax machine. Mobile telephones were invented but it was highly unlikely that anyone would ever hold one.

The development of technology between 1969 and 1989 was astounding – this era began with the first manned mission to land on the Moon: one small step and all that. But still Lex would be slowing down in his appreciation of technology; he would be able to use the VCR and he may even have considered buying the bulky Macintosh portable introduced in 1989…but the Internet, smartphones, mobile devices and most things we now take for granted in communications were not even in his imagination. Few people in 1989 thought landlines would be disappearing.

Just because Lex is old doesn’t mean he cannot be innovative. However, the lens through which he interprets the world is formed by a set of technological tools that have, for the most part, been replaced completely or been upgraded beyond recognition.

When Lex talks about copyright, he uses the vocabulary of this era but often his mindset is interpreting the words through the lens of his established technological world. To make matters worse, he is probably interpreting a set of laws that were created in the 1970s by men whose technology visions were set in the thirties. Naturally all these laws have been updated and modernized – but their fundamental nature remains anachronistic.

So the next time you are puzzled by copyright law remember that it wasn’t built for your iPad…it was built by people who never even dreamed of iPads.

This post first appeared on Commons Machinery.

Join the #AttributionRevolution

Proper attribution is important and also usually difficult, or at least time consuming. That’s why anything that can help with this will become an important and useful tool. The awesome crew at Commons Machinery are now looking for beta testers for the Elog.io so if you are a photographer, graphic designer, multimedia artist or just a visual creator please sign up to test this new tool.

Here is the description from the home page:

Elog.io is a new set of tools to make attribution and remixing easy and quick for you. Are you a multimedia artist? Do you design presentations for work or school? Do you find crediting various sources difficult because you have to spend hours on getting the attribution right? Fear not, Elog.io is here!

Elog.io’s tools and services ensure that there is a persistent link between a creation and its context. Be it for a presentation, school assignment, music video or article, you will always have the information you need to know to give the credit people deserve.

We believe that proper attribution is the currency of the information age. Giving due credit encourages people to produce more and share more! Except now, you don’t have to remember: Elog.io will remember for you!

You can sign up to become beta testers for Elog.io here. You can also tweet to us at @elog_io. Join the #attributionrevolution…and you could get special goodies too! If you have questions about our services or specific attribution problems that need solving, write to us at hello@commonsmachinery.se and we’ll make you our top priority!

Join the Attribution Revolution

Waiving Moral Rights

The excellent Technollama has published a WIPO report sexily entitled Comparative Analysis of National Approaches on Voluntary Copyright Relinquishment. The report usefully answers questions of whether countries allow the voluntary reliquishment of copyright and, if moral rights exist, can these be waived.

This is exciting stuff when it comes to open content licensing such as the licenses Creative Commons Zero and Open Data Commons Public Domain.

As Sweden is one of those countries where moral rights cannot be waived it is always an interesting exercise to discuss the ways in which the public domain works and the ways in which individuals and organizations attempt to use the licenses.

Swimmers by Mathias Klang CC BY NC

The report:

“The final section of the report deals with practical issues of copyright relinquishment. Given the unclear legal situation surrounding renouncement, authors interested in making some form of dedication into the public domain may prefer to bypass this uncertainty and choose a licensing option that has similar effects to those that would have taken place if the work’s copyright protection had expired. This can be achieved through the use of open licensing schemes. Two licensing suites are explored in more detail, namely Creative Commons Zero (CC0) and the Open Data Commons Public Domain Dedication and License. Both of these fulfill a dual function. First, they both outright dedicate the work to the public domain. Second, they contain fallback clauses in case it is not possible to relinquish copyright. These clauses grant a license for the work that has the same effect as if the work had been placed in the public domain.

The report ends by listing several examples of copyright relinquishment which usually come from public institutions placing data and some works in the public domain, mostly through the public domain dedication contained in CC0.

The report concludes that while the legal issues surrounding public domain dedications remain clouded, licensing solutions such as Creative Commons (CC) produce a situation in which such questions are less important. The result is that works can be shared freely with others, which for all practical purposes is similar to what would occur if the author had successfully dedicated the work to the public domain.”

Nobody Cites Your Work: Notes from a lecture

Yesterday I was invited to give a talk at the Drexel University Library and in a fit of hubris I decided to attack a problem that many of us in academia face: how to interact with society, engage your students, get your papers read, not become an “empty” entertainer, while avoiding burnout and staying happy… The actual title to the talk was slightly less ambitious but maybe a bit of a downer: “Nobody cites your work: copyright licensing and public engagement”

These are questions which have long been close to my heart but it was great to be given the opportunity to be able to share my thoughts about what we should or could be doing about this. The presentation began with me explaining that there will be no easy answer to all the questions I pose but that we as a community of academics must continue to raise awareness in these issues in order not to be overcome with them. So the talk would really present some issues, solutions, and a critique.

The issues I wanted to address were interaction, students, being ignored, and edutainment.

Interaction: The was a response to the recent critique by Nicholas Kristof Academics, We need you! in which he wrote

“If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.”

and the article by Joshua Rothman Why is academic writing so academic? in which he wrote

“Academic prose is, ideally, impersonal, written by one disinterested mind for other equally disinterested minds”

There have been much written about these two articles and suffice to say that there is a perception problem when the hoards of engaged and enthusiastic academics that I know and work with are being portrayed as dated, distant, and disinterested. I’ve written more on this earlier here and the links are rewarding.  The difference between perception and reality is what makes this a real problem.

Students: Many of our students are as young as 18 years old. This means that they were 8 years old when Facebook emerged. They have been online, using technology, and being shaped by digital technology for all of their lives. In order to communicate meaningfully to them we must be prepared to both demand that they struggle but simultaneously understand that they are shaped by the environment. A quote by Missy Cummings puts this into perspective (BBC The Why Factor: Boredom):

“We’d be lucky today if they had a 20-30 minute attention span, now its more like 5-10, because if their minds wander they immediately go to another information seeking routine like their cell phones… Like it or not this is the new norm.“

Yes of course we can be upset about this development. But more importantly we must accept this development to be part of the reality of teaching today.

Being ignored:This is the incredibly disheartening realization that lies at the heart of academic publishing. Lokman I Meho The Rise and Rise of Citation Analysis

“It is a sobering fact that some 90% of papers that have been published in academic journals are never cited. Indeed, as many as 50% of papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors.”

Between the amount of time academics spend on unsuccessful grant applications and creating articles which are unread it is difficult not to throw ones arms up in the air and scream in frustration.

Edutainment: This is the unreasonable expectation that learning should be fun. Of course learning can be fun. But actually learning the basics of something is a challenge and the pride one feels after mastering something comes as a result of the effort it takes. If it’s all fun then maybe it’s not really effort? The problem that education should be fun is partly caused by the snappy lectures presented in short pithy formats like the TED’s. The TED isn’t about basic education. It’s about small ideas with personal experiences and easy to swallow segments. Imagine trying to learn a foreign language, programming or the finer details of procurement law in TED talks! Unfortunately the talks have sometimes been presented as the future of education. For more on TED’s negative effects and sources to its critics see The Cult of TED harms lectures.

Following a presentation of the issues I wanted to address some of the solutions being put forward social media, open access, and licensing. These were presented with the understanding that taken as general one-size-fits-all solutions they are not particularly usable. The reason for presenting this set of “solutions” was also to enable the discussion on the shallow critics which have been particularly vocal in a couple of articles in The Scholarly Kitchen. First there was CC-BY, Copyright, and Stolen Advocacy and then there was Does Creative Commons Make Sense? these articles were critiqued in the comments but they still stand as a voices of criticism. In particular the latter article attempts to argue that CC is unimportant because copyright law exists. Sad statement, a rebuttal could fill several books… oh, wait it they already exist.

As a slight aside, as I couldn’t resist pointing it out, the existence of law does not in itself protect the individual. I told the audience of the situation where Lawerence Lessig (copyright professor and activist and founder of CC) was sued for posting a lecture online. He argued fair use and eventually won his case. But would many professors have the knowledge, tenacity and support to fight in cases such as these?

Following this I presented a quick intro to Creative Commons licensing including a small description into the progression from version 1 to the current version 4 of the licenses. Then I moved on the lecture to the analysis. Does social media and lowering barriers work and if so how and how much?

The material I presented was a mix of cases with the efficiency of open access and open content licensing in making material available to larger groups of people. These systems also have the ability to make material available to groups who would not have access through the channels we as academics take for granted. When I came to the discussion on whether or not open access helps I used this article Open Access increases citation? A brief overview of two reports

Two different methods and two different results. Which one is more accurate? It is hard to determine. Open Access is not a panacea for all problems. It does not automatically increase the level of citations. But, without doubt, it helps when it comes to getting more visibility, which obviously is of a great advantage for the articles and their authors. There are other factors in play which shape the level of citations for specific paper; for example the Impact Factor of journal,  promotion efforts of publisher and author himself, the chosen subject and field of research, as well as an extended reference list at the end of a research paper. All these factors may have impact on citations level. But all in all, almost all studies into this subject confirm –  direct or indirect –  positive impact of Open Access on level of citations.

The result of everything? Lowering barriers helps academics, social media can increase range. All must be used with knowledge and caution in order not to become worthless and we need to be knowledgeable about our realities in order to carry out a well informed discussion. Now, find your comfort level & share your work!

Here are the slides I used:


Why Nobody Cites Your Articles

Most academics will know that papers are produced and not read. The whole academic publishing system is geared to the production, and not the consumption, of text. The off-the-cuff sad joke used to be that only 8 people would ever read your work (and that included the reviewers and your mother). But it’s actually sadder than that. Lokman I Meho begins The Rise and Rise of Citation Analysis with the chilling words:

It is a sobering fact that some 90% of papers that have been published in academic journals are never cited. Indeed, as many as 50% of papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors.

Hours of intense labor and scientific rigor to produce a text that nobody reads. It’s disheartening. This sad labor is not limited to academic work, there are unfortunately many fields were the output is of little or no consequence and has no impact on its surroundings. But this is a sad comfort for academia.

Academic work is naturally limited and focused. If you want thousands of readers you are in the wrong job. Be happy that you are read and cited. If most articles are never read or cited then the fact that you are cited should be valued much more than it is. Also what about the cases where something is said in passing on social media? Shouldn’t that count for something? Probably not. How would a tenure committee value a tweet?

The real issue is that most articles that are produced are happily dumped into closed information silos. Academics are all too happy to sign away the rights to their articles to the publishers who promptly lock them away – in order to profit by steadily increasing the prices (serials crisis) they charge libraries to subscribe to the journals the academics need in order to publish more articles. The motivation for academics to participate in this system is that our careers are built on publishing in the “right” journals.

tshirtIn order to change this system the ways in which academic careers are determined need to be re-appraised. The production of knowledge and publication are important for science but this cannot mean that this production must be in the “right” journal. The appraisal of the scientific contribution cannot be tied to the brand name of a specific journal but must be about the article content.

In the meantime we must be more wary about handing away our rights, more careful to ensure that we can use and re-use our own texts. This requires strong academics and strong universities in order to stand up to the strong publishers. We must not let things like this happen:

Academic publisher Elsevier has been targeting open access websites and universities that are posting their own academic articles online with takedown notices for copyright infringement. (Wired Magazine, December 17, 2013)

Finally, by maintaining the rights to our own articles and by ensuring they are available to readers outside the academic sphere the knowledge in the articles can be spread beyond the narrow confines of the closed information silos. The knowledge in the articles might be read by more people and maybe, maybe, maybe be cited.

Victorian Transgression, Transgender & Attribution

The hugely popular twitter account @HistoryInPics received a nice publicity puff when Alexis Madrigal wrote about the account in The Atlantic the article was all about the great new spirit of a couple of teenagers running their business. But the article did not mention the ways in which their business was built on copyright violation, sometimes presented false histories and generally produced little of value.

A much better article, provoked by the Atlantic, was posted on the Wynken De Word blog: It’s history, not a viral feed. Here the author thoughtfully explains what is wrong with the feed. The lack of attribution and basic helpfulness to source images and also the ways in which false history is so easily pushed and becomes accepted truth.

Yes, the images do create an interest. But they do not allow any further discussion beyond “cool image”. The learning experience is snuffed out before it even has a chance to begin. Let me demonstrate:

Today this cool image was re-tweeted from the account @historyepics (an account similar to @HistoryInPics). It was entitled Victorian Transgression

victorianJudging by the content the image is old enough to be in the public domain and therefore free to re-use. But it could also be a new photo done in an old style which would mean that the right to reproduce is limited and this could very well be copyright violation. Even if the photo is free to use the lack of attribution is very unfortunate.

The picture is still the picture. It is intriguing and lovely. But what does it mean? Who are the people in the photo? Why are they wearing those clothes? Are their linked arms to be seen as intimacy and acceptance? Or maybe mutual support?

Without any knowledge of the background we can only speculate as to what the image means. Is this a photo of a Victorian transvestites? Is it just a joke (a Victorian lolcat)? Are the couple going to a fancy dress party? Or is this a transgender couple? Is it the result of a wager? Maybe it’s a theatrical image? Is it a protest against social conformity to unreasonably rigid gender roles in Victorian society? Or is it just photoshop?

If this photo is as old as it seems then it is in the public domain and can be spread without any information. But this legal right does nothing to support our learning in general and our knowledge of the specific situation.

If only we had a database containing vast knowledge… Yes, I googled Victorian Transgression and found nothing about the photo. But I did come across these other images. This time they were from Pinterest.

And this

What does it all mean? Is this a useful addition to the knowledge of gender roles in Victorian society? Or is it just shallow eyecandy for us to like and ignore? Without knowing what the picture represents I cannot use it in other settings (like lectures). I could be helping in the creation of false history.

Without attribution (even to a incomplete source) the barriers to actual knowledge and understanding of what we see is to high. All we have is an image that appears across our screens. The reality of the image can only be replaced by our own subjective interpretation without any recourse to facts. The reproduction of content, without sourcing it, takes the knowledge out of its context and makes it one dimensional. Only by showing sources can the onlooker be assisted to a better understanding.

To @historyepics & @HistoryInPics and their ilk who make social media shallow, I say: Images without context is not history. I doubt they care, but I do.