Archive for the ‘work’ Category

Aaron Swartz, open access, and why bother

Monday, December 15th, 2014

By way of recap: for the past four years I’ve been Boston University’s institutional repository librarian. I’m writing this as a private citizen, but since this post is about why I do what I do, it’s relevant.

I spent the evening knitting. It’s hard to convey how rarely I get an opportunity to just sit and knit. Between the full time, bursting at the seams job and the child and the household, I don’t just sit down and knit. I don’t just sit down and do anything. But there’s a holiday gifting idea in my bonnet, so here we are.

Along with knitting, I finally watched The Internet’s Own Boy. It’s 1h45m long. Since you’re reading this blog post on the internet, if you haven’t already seen this documentary about Aaron Swartz, you should. I’m allergic to telling people they “should” do anything—but you should. It directly affects the rest of your life, and all the ones that follow.

It’s not even worth trying to recap Aaron Swartz, but here are some highlights. He was intimately involved in the creation of Reddit, Demand Progress, the RDF standard, and Creative Commons, among too many other initiatives to list. He had a history of making information publicly available—including court documents that were public in the first place, but for which PACER charged obscene amounts of money, effectively making the most comprehensive documentation of the U.S. justice system inaccessible to entire socio-economic classes of people.

Swartz also contributed a big-data analysis of the Westlaw database to a study at Stanford that revealed widespread corruption in law publishing. (That article doesn’t credit him, but I’ll give Kahle and Lessig the benefit of the doubt.)

In 2011 Swartz was a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, about which then-director Lawrence Lessig wrote: “The work of the Center? Studying the corruption of academic research (among other institutions) caused by money.” Whether he decided to download massive numbers of academic research articles from JSTOR for research purposes, or political-activist ones, or both, will remain unknown. But download them he did, by the tens of gigabytes, using MIT’s network.

This should be review for you, so I will only highlight what happened next. Swartz got caught; MIT, JSTOR, the state of Massachusetts, and the FBI’s cyber crimes division got involved. The state and JSTOR brought charges against him, which were later dropped. The federal government brought a lawsuit containing four charges against Swartz; the number of charges was later expanded to thirteen. They offered a number of plea deals, all of which would have involved pleading guilty to a felony, and all of which Swartz refused to take. In January of 2013, Aaron killed himself.

The documentary dives far further into the messy complexity of this. The interviewees include Lessig, Tim Berners-Lee, Quinn Norton, the Swartz family, Brewster Kahle, and numerous other collaborators. The film has a decidedly political stance from the beginning, but makes a convincing argument about the powers involved in the struggles around freedom of information on the internet. This argument is unsympathetic towards the U.S. government, specifically the Obama administration, and with good reason. At the same time as this administration has failed to prosecute what the film calls the biggest crime of our time, the Wall Street machinations that led to the economic collapse, they chose to prosecute the hell out of a young activist researcher in order to make an example of him. Plenty of other damning activity, legislative and otherwise, let’s see: SOPA/PIPA, TPP, NSA spying, net neutrality vs tiered internet access — you haven’t been living under a rock, you know this is a problem.

Now imagine the mainstream media’s coverage of the recent police murders of Black men (and women, and children) being the only thing to which the entire country, the entire world had access. Could the current iteration of the civil rights movement (and it is that) have flared up if the internet were openly censored by the U.S. government, instead of merely by commercial interests?

Enabling open access to academic literature is the way that I’ve chosen to contribute to addressing this dangerous interlocking tangle. In conversations with faculty I usually emphasize other true things: there are individual professional advantages for them, of making their work openly accessible. Increased citation, increased serendipitous opportunities for collaboration and presenting, an establishment of their public voice much earlier in their careers than was possible only 20 years ago, increased opportunities for peer review—all of these are true and valid, and come with the nice side effect of encouraging faculty to learn more about copyright, and how to retain and exercise it in a way that most benefits their purpose, which (stop the presses) publishers often de-prioritize in favor of profit. Helping to fix the thoroughly broken academic publishing system, and maximizing benefits of knowledge dissemination for individual researchers, is a great service to us all.

But that exists alongside, and does not nullify, knowledge workers’ civic obligation to disseminate the fruits of our research in a way that benefits the largest number of people. It benefits the workers, yes—but it also benefits humanity in ways we can never predict. The documentary describes one case of a high school kid coming up with an early detection test for pancreatic cancer, but there are others, and their possibility is precluded by toll access to the results of previous research. In cases where marketplace profits have been all but exhausted (most of everything ever created), retaining millions of articles behind $35-per-item paywalls when they’ve already been digitized, and the expenses of that are recouped, is nonsensical. Seriously, what would be possible if all our recorded knowledge were digitally accessible to everyone? What problems would we be able to address?

Open access (OA) issues and a more proactive approach to copyright are still met with overall researcher indifference, and this is frustrating given how closely aligned OA is with things (like careers and social justice issues) they more consciously care about. Likewise with administrators, so many of whom are surprised to find OA topics directly relevant to their work. I think it’s worth the trouble for all knowledge workers to become knowledgeable in open access and copyright issues, both for personal benefit, and for the benefit of everyone else. And for all of us, it is worth periodically reminding ourselves the consequences of not working toward open access.

Here’s that documentary again. For all its white-affluent-male-ness, it’s worth watching. Thanks for reading.

University presses, open access, and public engagement

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

It’s been all baby [almost] all the time around here, and I’m ok with that, but right now I’m at Digital Humanities 2012 in Hamburg and totally jazzed. Do take a look at the #dh2012 hashtag on Twitter if you like this sort of thing.

Someone on my library’s internal mailing list pointed to the recent NYTimes article “Plan to Close University of Missouri Press Stirs Anger.” In particular, the following bit:

Scholars argue that university presses are vital for academic discourse. They publish erudite texts that commercial presses do not, giving scholars a forum to share and further research. Professors often rely on them to publish the works they need for tenure and promotion. But they are usually money-losing operations. The presses at the University of Chicago, Oxford and Cambridge are the only ones widely believed to be profitable.

I started writing a response to that, which meandered around a bit and became a blog post. Here it is.

That quote above is a fantastic argument FOR open access. All three of these presses have quite liberal OA policies for articles published in their journals (the following are default policies, which may vary by journal):

– Cambridge UP allows immediate sharing of preprints* and postprints*, AND allows dissemination of publisher’s version after a quite reasonable 12mo embargo;
– Oxford UP allows immediate sharing of preprints, and puts a 12mo embargo on postprints;
– Chicago UP allows immediate sharing of preprints, puts a 12mo embargo on postprints and publisher’s version, and actually encourages institutional repositories to use the publisher’s version.

Most other academic [journal] publishers, including both large-commercial and small university-based, for the most part don’t allow IR deposit of the publisher’s version, not by default anyway. Talking with them about, say, political science or anthropology articles from the 1980s often prompts them to rethink this policy: the revenue they’re likely to get from those articles is miniscule at best.

This is only to say: and the havoc that the digital world has played with scholarly publishing, and the concept of open access, doesn’t actually have much to do with the viability of a given university press. Higher-administrative support does, and innovative thinking does (with regard to both journals and monographs; for the latter, see MIT Press and Penn Press). It’s extremely disappointing that the administration of the University of Missouri seems to be giving up. I wish we were holding on more strongly to venues for dissemination of academic research.

Then again, there’s an awful lot of dry, bad academic publishing going on. Certainly the books/articles with broader public appeal are the more likely to survive. And that may be a good thing. I’m writing this from the annual Digital Humanities conference. Yesterday I found out that the rules have changed for academics in the UK: they now practically have a mandate to engage the public in their research. The mandatory review process that they go through every few years will be specifically looking at their level of public engagement. In addition, I hesitate to add, to the academic integrity of their work.

This is mindblowing. Can you imagine what would happen if this were a dimension of tenure review here in the States?


*I keep needing to remind myself: preprint is author’s original version, as submitted; postprint is a misnomer, it’s the author’s final accepted manuscript, after post-peer-review corrections but before final layout and copyediting.

SEASR for Digital Humanities

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

This week I’m at my second Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria. Last year, I took the large project management course, and it was tremendously useful in managing several projects, including ESTHR. This year I decided to try my hand at SEASR (pron. “Caesar”), or Software Environment for the Advancement of Scholarly Research.

The complex toolkit has great potential. The course has been frustrating, in part (though not wholly) because SEASR’s documentation is not at all geared toward your average digital humanist, or what I know of my diverse kind, anyway. I thought that the best thing I can do with my class time today was to write some documentation. Here it is. It’s in no way complete; just the beginning of an overview of SEASR for digital humanists. Please feel free to repost, augment, comment here with your augmentations and have me edit this post to reflect them, what have you.

At the end of this post, I propose the beginning of a list of categories into which all components and flows might be subdivided, each component/flow probably listed in more than one category. This would help humanities scholars with no prior experience with SEASR, or even some of the functionality it affords, get oriented in using it.

I also propose that we need a lot more detailed information for each component and flow. The SEASR team has already begun this process, but given the project’s maturity and the fact that it’s in its third year of being taught at DHSI, such (again, humanities-scholar-oriented) documentation is sorely lacking.

I should say that, unless ESTHR or another one of my projects decides to pursue use and development of SEASR, I am unlikely to add to its documentation after the end of this week.  I ardently encourage SEASR’s developers and managers to devote significant resources to documenting this great project, such that it may be usable by the wide diversity of researchers who stand to benefit by it.

OK, here we go with the overview.Continue Reading SEASR for Digital Humanities

Say, what’s your number?

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

The astute readers will notice that #reverb10 pretty much ended for me when the new job began. So it goes these days, but I can’t complain: exciting stuff is afoot. Since I last wrote, I started the job, got some things done, took a road trip with Julie and got more things done, and went back to that Vipassana center for another ten-day stay, this time serving (sitting a bit, mostly cooking and cleaning).

So much to say about all that. But right now, there’s a more pressing matter. Somehow, in transferring my iPhone to sync with another computer’s library, I lost all my contact records. Did I have your info? Would you like me to? If yes to either or both, please email me to let me know what I should have for you. Thanks!

#reverb ten: wisdom

Sunday, December 12th, 2010

(I’m participating in Reverb 10. You can, too!)

What was the wisest decision you made this year, and how did it play out?

I’m learning to let go of absolutes. So you’re on notice, #reverb10: I’m going to ignore the acme aspect of many of your prompts. Frankly, the wisest decision I made this year isn’t anyone’s business, and I don’t feel like writing cryptically.

One wise decision I made this year was to apply for a new job. It took me a while to come around to applying, mostly because I haven’t entirely internalized that what appear to be absolutes in academic language are actually quite flexible notions. It took a friendly face and a nudge to apply, and I’m glad I did! First of all because I rocked the interview by making it personal, allowing myself to be openly passionate about the issue at the core of the job: open access to knowledge. The best thing I can do to address my pacifism and liberal socio-political stance is to help people acquire knowledge. I’m ok bringing the Pollyanna if that’s the way to most fully contribute to my world. (There are other worlds than these)

And second, because it worked. Tomorrow I’ll be starting my new job as BU’s Institutional Repository Librarian. Nifty, eh? Terrifying—and I’m as excited as can be. Here’s hoping I’ll have the wisdom to help move this thing forward. Advice and suggestions — particularly from more experienced repo rats — welcome.

#reverb10 two: obstacle

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

(I’m participating in Reverb 10. You can, too!)

Writing. What do you do each day that doesn’t contribute to your writing — and can you eliminate it?

I was at a loss as to how to start answering that, because I don’t think of myself primarily, or even in second place, as a writer. But then a friend reminded me to substitute my own creative mode for writing. Right.

So, here’s what I do every day that prevents me from making new things, whether they be food or web pages or, er, “work” (generating new content as part of my job, but I am lucky enough to not separate “work” from “life”): I escape into others’ stories.

At home, I watch TV. To my occasional chagrin, Hulu and Netflix and YouTube all carry content with good storylines, and I’m a sucker for those. I watch things like Doctor Who and House and Fringe. And Glee, mostly because choir (including show choir, but 30-150 of us instead of a dozen) was my favorite part of the high school experience. And movies, sometimes. These stories are so wholly unconnected to most of the rest of my life that I just tune it all out. The constant noise in my head stops for those fifty minutes. I also watch brain candy, like medical dramas and (until I lost interest, because the stories are too formulaic) Bones. That’s to escape in another way.

Books have good stories too, but I tend to read while commuting. Ever since I became multilingual, first learning English and then almost immediately throwing myself into Italian, reading is a more conscious act than I’d like. Skimming is difficult; most reading processes take a lot more time than they did when I was eleven. Losing myself in a book is hard, so I don’t use them to escape so much as practice diving again and again.

Could I eliminate these compelling distractions? Of course. Here’s the thing, though: I don’t want to eliminate them. Sure, they can siren-sing me into oblivion. And sure, I’m not creating as much as I’d like. But these escapes give me two important tools. One is inspiration; input is at the core of everything. The other is a place and time to let things percolate subconsciously—a restful night’s sleep for creativity. So it’s a matter of finding balance. Balance is difficult for me to find, let alone sustain. The only way I’ve found to deal with this is iteration, practice, which is hard! It’s hard in itself, and it’s also hard because it involves shedding deeply ingrained assumptions of what activities constitute wasting time and, if I’m not careful, carry a dose of guilt (an unproductive time and energy sink).

At work, I read a lot—and sometimes catch myself at reading just for the story, failing to notice when an article (or blog post, or tweet) might lead me to new thoughts and new work. Escaping into stories that way, just to find out what people are doing without reflecting on how it ties into my own work, is no more damaging than escaping into television—but it is more wasteful. So at work, I work on my reading skills and on remembering that all those authors I read are writing about things directly relevant to what I do. Again, practice; but this time, instead of balance, the goal is increased mindfulness.

#reverb10 one: word

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

(I’m participating in Reverb 10. You can, too!)

One Word. Encapsulate the year 2010 in one word. Explain why you’re choosing that word. Now, imagine it’s one year from today, what would you like the word to be that captures 2011 for you?


I feel solid, personally—about time, I tell ya. It’s been a long three years since my separation from my life partner, and that’s ceasing to define me.

I’ve sunk my roots into Boston even further. Home feels like home. People feel like my people. Everything is always in transition, but many days this year I’ve been struck by how living feels. It feels like it did when I was a kid: sometimes, I’m not distracted by whatever’s in my head. Time goes more slowly. My filters aren’t filtering out quite so much of the world. I notice more little things—not beautiful little things, but ordinary ones. The sounds of street traffic, out there, all the time. The shuffle of the old lady passing by my window. People’s movement through Davis Square, in aggregate.

A ton of new knowledge acquired. This grounds me in my profession. Speaking of which: I have a new job. It’s still at BU, and starts in a couple of weeks, at which point I’ll write more about it. The job is also grounding: it will draw much more fully on my skillset, and further solidifies my geographic position.

I keep wanting to write something about Mark, and how our relationship relates to Word of the Year for me—it does in a cardinal, astounding way. But I haven’t yet figured out (again, post-divorce) how much I want to write about my personal life involving other people. So, redacted.

Taking up weight lifting again has helped my body feel more sound. Pun intended!

So: compared to this time last year, much better grounded.

Next year could have so many defining words that would thrill me. One possibility I wouldn’t mind: joy.

the rule of beauty

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

Recently, Martha Nell Smith was awarded the Distinguished Scholar-Teacher Award by the University of Maryland, where she teaches. At the second of the above links you’ll find a video of her lecture, given on the occasion of this award, “The Humanities Are Not a Luxury.” In the wake of SUNY Albany’s astonishing decision to cut some key programs—French, classics, Russian, Italian and theatre—Smith talks with humor and a stable sort of passion about the humanities as an essential, indispensable part of what we do and are. Here are some of the things that she says:

There is no frigate, no bus, no plane, no space ship, no car, no train—none of these is like a book, like a song, like an operatic voice, like a painting, like a sculpture, like a drama. To help us imagine other lands and cultures, to help us cultivate that kind of compassion and empathy required for democracy, for practicing equality as a fundamental value, instead of the more primitive ‘better than’.

And also:

We should remind our administrators that the kind of education that enabled broad access to highest quality instruction and research, and made these United States a world leader—that kind of education can never be a gated community. And it must be worldly, reaching beyond any nation-state. Healthy, too, are reminders that business management is really not the best metaphor for knowledge workers. As was noted in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a better metaphor for knowledge workers is that of gardener. We work in fields. We cultivate.

What I’ve been pointing out is that unless you’re at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values. You don’t know the metaphor and its strength, and its weakness. You don’t know how far you may expect to ride it, and when it may break down with you. You are not safe in science, and you are not safe in history, unless you are at home with the metaphor.

Smith rejects the rhetoric of a crisis in the humanities, a phrase often uttered. For more on the state of the humanities, see Stanley Fish’s recent NYTimes opinion pieces: “The Crisis of the Humanities Officially Arrives” and its sequel, “Crisis of the Humanities II.” I find it more than a little odd that not once does Fish mention digital endeavors of any kind, but can’t say I’m surprised. He didn’t mention them two years ago when asking whether the humanities would save us, either. I don’t subscribe to Fish’s opinions, but the articles and comments on them are thought provoking. Martha Nell Smith’s lecture, on the other hand, I heartily endorse. It’s well worth the hour and ten minutes it’ll take to watch the video.

poetry is not a luxury

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

I came into work early today, and am taking some time to watch Martha Nell Smith‘s Distinguished Scholar-Teacher lecture titled “The Humanities Are Not a Luxury: A Manifesto for the Twenty-First Century,” given this month at UMD. I love listening to Martha Nell talk: her perceptiveness and her wicked sense of humor are a good in the world. So, as much as I wish there were a transcription of the lecture, I think the video is worth watching, and recommend it. (The lecture proper starts around minute 11-12.)

Meanwhile, though, have a quote from Audre Lorde:

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.

when it rains

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

This coming week, everything happens at work. Tomorrow takes the cake, though: have to deal with a file share permissions emergency first thing; four meetings in the afternoon, back to back; and then the first evening session of the web application development course I’m taking. Then Friday I’m teaching the first iteration of the two-hour digital research methods workshop I wrote about here some weeks ago.

Exciting, all of it, but scary. On top of this, my mom is sick. (This is the part I’m compartmentalizing like crazy, because it would easily send me into panic if it were allowed to, and that’s just not helpful to anyone.)

On the plus sides, today was full of social goodness. Went to a brunch-and-Gattaca-showing, which was brilliant. Took a friend (and myself) shopping at a Russian supermarket. We were both sort of unreally happy with the experience, and talked and talked in the car both ways. Housemates were almost as pleased, and partook of the tasties. Then we watched Torchwood.

It’s pouring in every sense but the rainy. The weather is cool enough for sweatshirt and a scarf. All my nerve endings are at attention. Life’s edges are rather ill-defined, and frightening in this. Wouldn’t trade it, even if sometimes I need to be talked down from scraggly fear trees.