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July 2005
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September 2005

Gibberish on Google

Blake points to an article by Graeme Philipson chastising publishers for being irrelevant, outdated, anachronistic and obsolete.  Not to mention greedy and blatantly exploitative.

Give me a break.   I have no quarrel with the notion that current copyright laws are not working effectively in the digital age; but demonizing all publishers and proclaiming the dawn of the grand new age just makes me tired.  Philipson offers a caricature of the intent and effect of copyright law in which all publishing entities are evil, greedy bastards, desperately clinging to the rotten, crumbling edifice of the past, while the truly enlightened move on into the great new future where all of the world's knowledge is freely available and humankind can step confidently into the noble future (preferably over the corpses of the publishers).

Well, Philipson has a column to get out, and I suppose it'd be too much trouble to bother with a lot of inconvenient nuanced facts.  For example:

That most publishers are working hard to figure out how to embrace the digital age, despite the fact that they don't think it's in their interest to just close up shop and do something else;

That many publishers are cooperating with Google on the print for publishers project -- it's the library project that they object to;

That despite what Google says, the wholesale copying that they are doing is certainly not protected by fair use and the publishers have every right to object -- regardless of what one would prefer the outcome to be;

And that the history of copyright is a complicated struggle that seeks to balance many interests, and is clearly not just a giveaway to those greedy, grasping publishers.

Personally, I'm disappointed that Google didn't do a better job of laying the groundwork for their library project and I'm still somewhat astonished and baffled by the strategy -- and the fact that several major libraries were willing to go along.  Is this an attempt to force change in copyright law (in which case it is quite an audacious gamble and I wish them success), or did they really believe that courts would interpret fair use in their favor?  Time will tell.

We definitely need a transformation of intellectual property law.  The balance has tilted dangerously toward a strong copyright world in which too much content is indeed bottled up and restricted, far beyond the actual intent of those who created it.  The work being done by the Creative Commons is, perhaps, the best attempt to set a new direction that will actually get us somewhere. 

But rhetorical flourishes like Philipson's are useless.   I'm all for charging boldly into the digital future -- but we still need to have our facts straight.

MLA Board

Tomorrow is the deadline for turning in my background information for the MLA Board election.  Along with a picture and an update of professional activities, I am supposed to provide no more than 300 words addressing the following:  "Identify an issue of strategic importance to MLA.  Focus on what you can bring to the board to help address it."

Something like this, I think.  Not that  I'm satisfied with it (but when am I ever...?)

For health sciences librarians, the thread that binds our daily actions to our purpose is the health and welfare of an individual human being. Over the past decade, the ways in which we can provide the essential link between the members of our communities (patients, consumers, health care providers, educators, students, researchers) and the information that they need have been dramatically increased. Whether in hospitals, medical schools, corporations, or as freelance consultants, we can be much more effective than ever before. Taking advantage of these opportunities, however, requires rethinking how we engage with our communities, and requires a focus on what librarians do rather than only on what libraries provide. Libraries are important; but librarians make the essential difference, and the library walls should no longer hold us back. 

MLA has a key role to play in helping us imagine the multitude of new ways in which we can become indispensable to our organizations. By defining the community in which we engage with each other, by providing the continuing education avenues in which we learn new skills and develop our talents, and by presenting the dynamic image of 21st century librarians to the public, MLA is an invaluable asset in helping each one of us become more effective every day.

As a member of the Board of Directors, I can draw on my twenty-plus years of experience to help our members articulate a clear vision of what 21st century librarians bring to the organizations in which they work and to help the association develop the practical programs and services that will help each one of us develop those possibilities to the full.

The essential thing is that the future is about librarians, not libraries.

How Do I Get Myself Into Things Like This?

I've been one of the faculty advisors to the UAB Lecture Series Committee for seven or eight years and I have never seen as excited a  response from the students on the committee to any suggestion for a speaker as we got when someone mentioned that Jon Heder and Aaron Ruell might be available.  I was the only one of the advisors who had actually seen the film or had any idea how much of an underground hit it had become.  I spoke in favor of it, and between that and the obvious excitement of the students, we were able to make it happen.  I presume this is why Lura (staff person for the committee)  asked me to be the MC for the event.

I picked up the DVD on Friday, and we watched it again last night.  I enjoyed it more than I did the first time, because I knew what I was getting into.   The first time, the emotional resonance brought back enough of what I so often felt in my early high school days as to make watching some of the scenes positively painful.  I assume that's why it's become so successful with people for whom those years are not far in the past -- or not in the past at all.  In my own case, there are many days and many circumstances when I feel that they're not in the past at all.   This one, for example.

We're expecting somewhere between three and five thousand people to the arena tomorrow night.  Heder & Ruell will talk for ten or fifteen minutes and the rest of it will be question & answer, and my job will be to introduce them and then to keep the flow going for the next hour or so.  I'm petrified.   Just before we start, I will be feeling exactly like Pedro did before he went out to give his speech.  The difference between Pedro and me is that I know that as soon as I start, the nerves will vanish and I'll do just fine.  There's a lot to be said for getting older.

Hurricane Watch

A Fred Wilson from San Francisco, drinking at Pat O'Brien's last night, is quoted as saying, "The only dangerous hurricanes so far are the ones we've been drinking..."  Lah-dee-dah, Fred.  I suppose he can be forgiven for being an idiot about hurricanes since he's from San Francisco.  But if Katrina does indeed hit New Orleans at 160 mph, there's going to be nobody drinking at Pat O'Brien's for a very long time to come.

It's still early, of course.  Last fall Ivan looked to be heading straight to New Orleans for awhile and then veered east and wasted the Alabama Gulf Coast.  But as of two hours ago the National Hurricane Center is predicting a direct hit on New Orleans at midday tomorrow.  If it doesn't shift course pretty soon...

As bad as Ivan was for Gulf Shores (and I will still never forget driving down to see John & Ev two months after the storm and seeing how blasted everything still was), it's scarily unimaginable what would happen to New Orleans with that kind of a storm.  The older parts of the city would all be underwater, and with so many of those old buildings being pretty creaky from age and termites, there wouldn't be a lot left when the water recedes.  (That's if the water recedes, depending on whether the levees survive.)  But even more worrisome than that is all of the petrochemical plants just north of the city.  Flood those, and you've got a permanent toxic waste dump where the city used to be.  How are they ever going to come back from that?

John & Evelyn came up Friday evening and intended to stay until this morning (they were planning on going to a wedding last night), but when they saw the weather reports yesterday morning, they decided to head back right away.  They've been down there long enough, and been through enough, to know that you don't mess around with hurricanes.  Fortunately they've got the routine down but, as John said, there's just an awful lot that needs to be done.  And you'd rather go through all of that prep and be spared than to get caught thinking you were going to escape the path.

The AP story says there are 100,000 people who lack the transportation to get out of New Orleans.  The mayor finally ordered a mandatory evacuation this morning and says they'll try to bus people to the Superdome.  I suppose you have to do something.  Damn, I'm going to miss New Orleans.


When Maja called to ask me to do my copyright & plagiarism lecture again this term I asked her if there was anything she wanted me to do differently from last year.  "Oh, no, no -- it was perfect.  But just one thing.  You said that it was important for them to build their work on a mix of quotation and paraphrase, and I ended up with reams and reams of cut and paste quotes.  I want them to put it in their own words, so don't talk about quoting."

I've been doing guest lectures on copyright for many years now, but it's just in the last few that I've been asked to incorporate plagiarism as well.  Faculty concerns about plagiarism have skyrocketed.  It is so easy to do.  But there's a deeper problem as well -- throughout the educational system we do a lousy job of explaining the concepts to students.   Most of them manage to get through their entire high school and undergraduate careers without anyone ever systematically explaining copyright, plagiarism and how they interrelate.  They know that plagiarism and copyright infringement are bad -- but they have only the fuzziest of notions as to what that really consists of.

This is reinforced every time I do one of these lectures.  Typically I'm speaking to relatively small groups of upper division students (Maja's group this year was comprised of seven students in the doctoral program in Maternal and Child Health), and it is clear from their questions, comments, and body language that this is the first time that anyone has gone through these concepts with them in depth.  And they are typically horrified as they realize that many of the practices that they've routinely indulged in fall on the wrong side of the line.

The two most common misconceptions:  If I use something and it's for educational purposes and I give a citation for it, I'm protected from copyright violation; and, if I put it into my own words it's not plagiarism and I don't have to provide a citation.  The most troublesome concept to grasp: How do I know when something is "common knowledge" and I don't have to provide documentation?   "When in doubt," I tell them, "check with your persnickety professor."  She smiles.

Granted, this isn't easy stuff.   And a one hour session with me is not enough to give anybody a solid grounding; but by the time the students have gotten to where these folks are, that's about all the time that can be spared.   In this class, they'll probably come out okay; I know from Maja's syllabus that she'll focus as much on research skills and the appropriate way to put together a research paper as she will on the content of the course (adolescent sexuality); but I also know that many professors don't do that.  (I'm still astonished at the incident a few years ago where an NLM-funded post-doc added my name as author to an article he submitted to a journal simply because I was on one of his advisory committees.  He thought it was a nice gesture.  Nobody had ever explained appropriate standards of authorship to him.)

Lynn and I talked about it at dinner the other night, after I'd done the lecture.  We both learned basic research & documentation skills in high school (she was on Guam and I was in smalltown Wisconsin).  Maybe it wasn't widespread then either and we were just fortunate in our teachers.  In any event,  it sure isn't happening now.  We are doing a grave disservice in sending people through the educational system without ever training them in the basic rules and standards for properly making use of the intellectual and creative work of others.

Cover Bands

It's been a long time since I've heard a cover band.  Long enough that it was startling to hear these guys do spot on versions of U2 and Police songs.  I liked the music.  But I thought the band was wasting their talents.

Mum and I had finished a wonderful dinner at Mimma's.  I hadn't been quite sure what to expect.  The Brady Street area was just coming together when I lived here thirty years ago, and I never spent time there.  Mum found the restaurant a dozen years ago when, as she says, she came down to "spring Dad from the hospital" when he was here at the Parkinson's clinic.  She came back a couple of months ago with her friend Helene and has been talking about it since.  I thought, from her descriptions, the website and the location, that it would be sort of a casual and relaxed college hangout, but it was very elegant with a splendid menu and astonishing wine list.  And even a grappa list on the dessert menu!  And a Steve-class waiter named Steve!!  (Remind me to explain what a "Steve-class waiter" is).

When we got back to the hotel, she wasn't ready to call it a night, and we were both thinking of that cool little jazz place we'd stopped at last year, although neither of us could remember the name.  We parked the car and walked over the bridge.  It was the Velvet Room, and they were having a block party.  Mum was enjoying hanging out with the youngsters; I was just bemused by what the band was doing.  The singer did a good job with Bono -- not so good with Sting.  Excellent guitar player.  But why would you want to do that?

I give SG a hard time when he wants to duplicate band riffs on the songs that we do with the Pigs.  "We ain't a cover band," I'll snarl.  If the song's worth doing, I want to do it my way. 

The Poets

I don't think I"ve ever read a biography or autobiography of someone that I've actually known.  Flying up to Wisconsin to go to IrishFest in Milwaukee seemed a pretty perfect time to read James Liddy's The Doctor's House.  It's short enough -- more a set of prose and verse poems trailing the story of his life than a narrative -- that I was able to finish it as the plane was sailing over Lake Michigan.

Liddy was far and away the most influential undergraduate professor that I had.  (Despite my being a philosophy major it was the poets I hung out with).  I'd try to take whatever class he was offering on Tuesday & Thursday afternoons.  We'd meet after lunch in the Gasthaus, the beer garden located in the student union (this is Wisconsin in the seventies after all -- the Gasthaus sold more beer than any bar in Milwaukee).  There was always a group of half a dozen or so gathered round him and we'd drink a couple of pitchers before heading off to class.  After class I'd spend the rest of the afternoon & evening exploring the other passions and depredations of that time of my life, but would meet the poets at Axel's, a tiny bar a mile or so off campus at 11:30 or so for a bit more drinking and talking before bar time was called at 1:00.

The talk was endless and always alive and always probing and questioning, full of laughter and life and danger and quick wit.  I met Penglase, the predatory English professor who was rumored to try to go through the girls in his English 101 classes in alphabetical order (finally fired for a drunken, naked spree through the halls of the department); Joe Henry the IRA terrorist, on assignment in the US, working at the Miller Brewing Company and raising funds to send back;  Miriam Ben-Shalom, the Jewish lesbian poet who later achieved some fame for suing the Israeli government for kicking her out of their army for being gay; Jim Chapson, Liddy's quiet and sweet poet soulmate, with the sad face and the exquisite lyrics.  Great stuff for a small town boy who'd been afire with the love of language since he was three.

I'd known that Liddy had spent several years in San Francisco prior to coming to Milwaukee, hanging out with the beats.  I hadn't realized that he'd also done stints in New Orleans and Ohio, or that he was in his first year at UWM when I met him there.  Magisterial he was at 41, and I presumed he'd been there for years.  That's what it's like when you're 19 and in the big city for the first time.  You don't realize that everything around you is flowing and change; that what you see wasn't there a week before you dropped into the mix, that everybody is just making it up as it goes along, and that you're part of it now, too.

It's Just Chatter

Email discussion lists are a lousy way to actually have a discussion.  Drives me nuts.  Two current examples:

The Google library project.  Endless noise on the lists about whether or not it's a good thing, and how progressive it is and what the ultimate benefits might or might not be and is Google a bully or not.  This all swirls around what is ostensibly a discussion of whether or not what Google is doing is covered by Fair Use.  It is obvious that most of the discussants don't have a clue about what the law actually is.  One message fusses about why it should be a problem for Google to be doing the digitizing because, after all, libraries can digitize their books so what's the problem having a third party do it?  A thread of messages follows that topic off into the distance.  But libraries can't digitize the books they own except under very narrow circumstances.  That is very clear in the law.  But what fun would the discussion be if anyone actually paid attention to the law?  The Google library project may ultimately be a good thing.  It may be in society's best interests.  But under current copyright law it is not legal for them to do wholesale copying of copyrighted works without permission.  Nothing could be clearer.   Most of what's on the lists is just noise.

The other example is, admittedly, somewhat murkier.  There's a case before the Kansas supreme court regarding a policy that KU has issued making explicit its claim that it owns the copyright of everything produced by its faculty, under the work for hire clause of the copyright law.  This is a very contentious issue for universities (and I expect to see it become more of an issue at UAB during the coming year).  But there are two distinct issues here that tend to be garbled in the online discussions -- what is the law, and what should policy be.   Many of those who are outraged at the thought that universities might claim ownership of scholarly articles and classroom materials simply ignore the legal question.  It is undoubtedly bad policy for universities to get into a fight with their faculties over scholarly articles, but that doesn't change the fact of the law.  One correspondent goes on at length about whether or not what a professor does is done on "company time".  His argument appears to be that it can't be work for hire because professors don't keep regular hours.  The law says nothing about "company time".  There are only two issues:  Is the individual an employee?  Is the work done under the scope of employment?  Not is it done on company time, or were company resources used, or were they specifically directed to do it by a supervisor, or was there specific oversight, etc., etc...  The fact that the law has unfortunately consequences doesn't change the fact of the law.  More noise.

Maybe I just have a bad attitude towards all this.  I keep thinking that the people who spend a lot of time arguing on the lists are actually trying to figure things out, but that's probably wrong.  It's recreation.  It's like sitting in the bar and arguing about college football.  Nobody expects to "win" the argument, or to change anybody's mind, and nobody really cares what the outcome is.  I shouldn't take any of it so seriously.

Somebody To Vote For

Anybody know how long you need to be a Texas resident to be eligible to vote for governor?  I'd be willing to commute for awhile just for the opportunity to vote for Kinky.   

All of the news in the papers yesterday was depressing -- more killing in Iraq, Jewish settlers being torn from their homes, W seeking "balance" in his life by going for a bike ride while the white crosses proliferate down the road...  The work day was intense and long, and when I finally got home, so tired and beat that I was snappish with Lynn, I poured some Macallan and sat down to read the recent profile in the New Yorker.  I felt a lot better right away.

The first time I saw the Kinkster was in Kansas City in the late eighties.  I was there for an MCMLA meeting and I found out that he was doing a performance and book signing at a local club.  I remember walking a long way from the hotel through some somewhat seedy parts of town (the locals were a little freaked when I told them the next day what I'd done), and having a wonderful time.   He played guitar for about an hour, telling stories in between, and then signed copies of his latest mystery (his second, I think).  I came away with a signed copy of the book, a guitar pick with his name on it, and a matchbook emblazoned "Kinky for Sheriff" (he hadn't been elected).   I thought he was brilliant, and while I've never been a huge fan of his books (not my type of thing), I've tracked his progress over the years and my admiration has only grown.

The next time I saw him was recently (a year or so ago?) when Jake arranged for him to do an event at the Stephens Center.  Not much guitar this time, and he didn't have any picks to hand out, but the stories were bolder and better and the man himself was having a good time being iconic.  He was just starting to talk about running for governor but still hadn't quite decided on the campaign slogan --  "Why The Hell Not?" vs "How Hard Can It Be?"  At that point it was all just part of the schtick, but, as the New Yorker article relates, the response that he got was more than he'd expected.  And he started to really think, why the hell not?  And now it's a real campaign.

It could happen.  And the very fact that it is possible is a clear indication of how frustrated we are with the political establishment and how truly unrepresentative our government has become.   Ventura in Minnesota, and the Governator in California are part of the same phenomenon.   The notion that we could put somebody in office who actually speaks his mind, doesn't try to hide his faults & failings, and wants to try to do something good is so thrilling to most people it trumps disagreements about particular policies or issues.  Kinky is so iconoclastic that you can't imagine that there's anybody who would agree with all of his positions on issues (he's self-contradictory so that includes him as well) but who cares?   

Willie Nelson is hosting a little lunch event at his ranch on September 24th.  If I wasn't going to be out of the country that week, I'd be there.   

I wonder if I can find somebody in Texas to give me a visiting professor gig for awhile....  Isn't it about time for me to take a sabbatical?

The Future of Peer Review

I think I rejected my last article yesterday.   There are six reviewed manuscripts left on my desk, and, based on my initial review and the reviewers' comments, it's likely that I'll accept them.  I still need to go through them in detail, collate the reviews, and send them back to the authors with my instructions for revision.  It's still possible that I'll come across flaws that'll make me change my mind about one or another of them.  And it's no sure thing that the revisions will be done on time or that I'll end up accepting the revised version after all.  I have quite a collection of articles from the last five years that passed the initial review but, for one reason or another, never made it into the JMLA.

And then there's all of the final editing to do for the January and April issues, plus the NAHRS supplement, so I've got plenty of work to do before I actually quit being the editor.  But I'll get through those last six manuscripts today, and that'll be another significant milestone.

By coincidence, the Boston Globe published an article yesterday about the upcoming International Congress on Peer Review.   The idea for the first congress arose back in the mid-eighties, and, if I'm remembering correctly, Drummond Rennie was among those leading the charge.  He and quite a few other medical editors were concerned that the double-blind, anonymous, confidential system of peer review was seriously flawed and that there was no evidence demonstrating that it was actually effective in improving the quality of the published literature.  The congress was intended to provide a forum for research on the topic and discussion of alternate methods of peer review.  After nearly twenty years and hundreds of papers (the proceedings are published in special issues of JAMA), there is still little evidence and no consensus.  The Globe article does a good job of summarizing the arguments pro and con, with quotes from Rennie and Drazen, and they're the same arguments that were being made twenty years ago.

In going back through the proceedings of the previous four congresses, it becomes clear that this is an extremely difficult area to study.  A slowly increasing number of journals are using more transparent forms of review, but it's done as a matter of faith, not because there's clear evidence showing that it's a better system.

My own bias is that more transparency is a good thing.  I raised the issue a couple of times with the JMLA Editorial Board, but the consensus there was always to keep the reviews confidential, and I never pushed it.  I think most of the reviewers that I've worked with over the years have done a pretty good job, and I don't really think that the necessity of signing them would have made them work harder -- although it probably would have increased their anxiety over what they had to say.

I expect that, regardless of the findings presented at the upcoming congress, we'll continue to see a move toward more transparent, open peer review.  The technology that's available now encourages it, as does the culture of the internet.  I don't think the wikipedia model is quite right for biomedicine -- while I like the idea of lots of people being able to easily participate in open review, the accountability side of things requires that we know more about who is doing the reviewing than we do in wiki-world.  It may well be that the comments of the bright first-year med student are more probing and useful than the ramblings of some distinguished but sloppy chair of the department of biomedical sciences, but I'd still want to know who is who.