Author Archives: greyson

Fact-finding: Not an ethics-free zone

Hey folks – I’m popping back in here to guest-post today. Still doing the PhD student thing and still won’t be back around regularly. But here’s something I thought we in libraryland should be thinking about. -Greyson

Canadian author/storyteller Ivan Coyote recently published an article about the importance of respecting people’s preferred names and pronouns. The article opens with the following anecdote:

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from a young woman, a college student, who claimed that her professor had assigned her entire class a special little assignment, for extra credits, for students who could track down my legal name and bring it to class. This young woman had tried and tried, she said, to find it online, but couldn’t, and she really wanted those extra marks. Would I be so kind as to just tell her?

I took a deep breath. I was flabbergasted, skin crawling with chill fingers at how totally creepy this felt, an entire college English or writing or queer studies or whatever class assigned the task of violating my privacy for extra credit at school.

Go read the article, really. It’s good. But not what this post is about.

This post is about another article, “Teaching Students to be Rude,” that was written in reaction to Coyote’s column. In this response article, journalist Bert Archer does two noteworthy things that we need to discuss.

  1. Asserts that fact-checking (or, in LIS-speak, information seeking) is a nearly “ethics-free zone” and certainly impolite and invasive
  2. Argues that librarians are very useful because we can and will find anything

You may be wondering what the connection is between librarians and some alleged college student trying to find out Ivan Coyote’s birth name. The connection is Bert Archer’s mind. Although Coyote doesn’t say that the student was a library student (and, in fact, implies the contrary, as library science is a grad degree in North America), Archer assumes it.

Why would Archer assume that it was a library student doing this invasive information-seeking? Because, in Archer’s words,

“I think this sort of assignment is exactly what I expect from librarians.”

Think about that for a minute. Let it sink in. Teaching students to dig up people’s private personal information is “exactly what I expect from librarians.”


We may need some librarian PR here. But not the usual kind. Archer got the “not everything is on the Internet” memo. His experience as a journalist has taught him to value the information retrieval expertise of librarians. He knows that, even in the era of Google and Wikipedia, “Unsearchables remain.” He writes,

“Reporters at the Toronto Star, for instance, know how useful librarians can be. They can ask their in-house librarians anything, and get an answer back quick.”

I am flattered by Archer’s (only nearly true) assertion that librarians can find anything. However, librarians also have ethics and are both students and creators of information policy. Library associations have taken more than one major professional stand in favour of protecting personal privacy.

Skill without ethics is not my librarianship.

It’s not the American Library Association’s librarianship, either. Yes, “Access” is the first of the ALA’s listed Core Values of Librarianship, but it’s immediately followed by “Confidentiality/Privacy.” Also among the core values on the list are diversity, the public good and social responsibility – all items that might give pause to an information professional digging up the birth name of a gender variant individual just to feed the public’s curiosity. The Code of Professional Ethics for Librarians is also offered for guidance when values – e.g., the free flow of information and patron privacy – may conflict with each other.

Archer implies that, were he writing a biographical dictionary entry on Coyote, he could ask a librarian to find out Coyote’s birth name. Honestly, many librarians (especially given a decent research budget) probably could obtain nearly anyone’s birth name, medical histories, library borrowing history, and various other bits of private information. However, would we provide that information to be published? I’d like to think that most of us would not. I would sincerely hope that if Archer asked his librarian to find Ivan’s birth name to publish, the librarian would contact Ivan and subsequently let Archer know that it was inappropriate to include such information in the entry.

Digging up and/or publishing someone’s private personal information isn’t, as Archer states, “Rude.” It’s a violation of privacy. Rude is interrupting someone, or not saying “excuse me” after you belch. Librarians are not known for being rude. They’re particularly not known for violating people’s privacy. And I think it’s a matter of concern that Bert Archer, and now perhaps many people who read his column, think they may no longer be able to trust their librarian with that potentially-embarrassing health or legal question they have.

Let me set the record straight here. Dear world: If you disclose to your librarian, in her/his professional capacity, something private about yourself, we are duty-bound to keep your confidence. Even if you are a public figure, famous author or movie star.

Not because it would be “rude” not to. Because we have professional ethics.

I understand that I will likely differ from Archer on many questions of ethics, as he also thinks it’s just fine and part of the job for a journalist (or, presumably, a librarian) to “ask a heaving mother for a picture of her just raped and murdered child.”

I hope I don’t differ from the majority of librarians on such questions, though.


Disclosure: Ivan Coyote is an acquaintance of mine. Don’t know if having met in person, or having overlapping social circles, makes a difference here, but there it is in case it does. 


Filed under ethics, gender, research, The Profession

Impending changes in blog & life

Most people who read this blog don’t know me personally. So, while this will probably come as no surprise, based on the posts I make, you likely don’t know that my career is about to change in a major way. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be ending my “librarian” job and starting an interdisciplinary PhD program.

Eek! I’m quitting my nice steady librarian job and starting a PhD program! And not even an LIS PhD program, at that!

I’ve been pondering whether librarianship is “once a librarian, always a librarian” or whether, should my path take me farther away from libraries – say, deeper into public health research or some such -  I will ever refer to myself as a “former librarian.” I think it’s the first of these two. (In my experience, when people say they “used to be a librarian” they usually mean that they had a book shelving job in a library once upon a time.)

However, even if I am a librarian-for-life, there are big changes afoot.

I don’t know where this path will take me. I’ve been fortunate to get some nice funding that allows me to be a full-time student, really dig into the research life, and see what I think it holds for me. Right now,  I think I’d love to have a faculty position when I’m done with this degree. That said, I know there are a lot of other things one can do as a librarian with a PhD, including library management, government work, and private sector research. We shall see where things go from here.

One thing I have decided, though, is that I need to curtail some of my “extracurricular” activities related to my librarian work. Including blogging. I started this blog a few years ago because I wanted to hear more LIS folk talk about social justice issues. A few others have joined me over the years, as guest posters or co-bloggers. Now it’s my turn to become the guest poster, and let some others take the wheel on this wordpress dashboard.

I’ll be around, although I’m not sure how much. Ken, my trusty guest-blogger turned co-blogger, will be taking over admin-type stuff, so stay tuned for an announcement from him about further changes to the blog. I think it’s good stuff, my friends, good stuff all around.

Thank you to those of you who read this blog, and especially to those who have commented – publicly or privately – to let me know what you are thinking about information-related social justice issues. It’s been a great ~4 years here. If anyone wants to know what I’m up to over the next few years, or needs to get ahold of me, look here.



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How academic libraries annoy academics

Here’s a story I’m telling because I think libraries need more allies in the academy. As a librarian-slash-researcher-slash-professor I have these weird insider/outsider (or emic/etic) experiences with academic libraries from time to time. In these experiences (here’s one from last year) I can absolutely rationalise why libraries as institutions are behaving the way they are, yet I am also acutely aware of how these behaviours serve to irritate and even alienate academic faculty members based outside the library. The faculty members where I work my research-librarian job value librarianly expertise. They also pretty much never set foot in any of the libraries on campus, to my knowledge. I think this story exemplifies the reasons behind this behaviour.

A little while ago, I  got a revise & resubmit decision on a manuscript under review. As part of the revisions, I needed to find a couple of citations  for something I’d written. I knew what source I wanted to use, and checked the book’s availability in the OPAC. Its status was “available,” so I schlepped across campus in the rain (of course) to get it. However, the book was not on the shelf.

I logged into the nearby library computer terminal to verify that the book was still supposed to be available. This process took me 4 minutes of standing there waiting for the login to load, authenticate and update software. I checked the record. It still said “available.” I second-guessed myself and figured maybe I’d just missed it, so I decided to go back to the shelf and look again. In order to do this I had to log out of the computer to protect my private library account information that I’d had to input as part of the 4-minute process to check the book’s availability status. Back to shelf. Still not there. Checked all carrels and book trucks on the floor. Nowhere to be found.

So, in an attempt to be helpful, I logged back on to the computer terminal and eventually clicked the “report a problem” button on the record’s display. In the form provided, I explained that the book, while listed as available, was not on the shelf, and that given that I didn’t find it lying around anywhere on book truck/carrels or anything on the floor, it might merit placing a trace on the book so it could be found and/or be labelled lost/missing and replaced. I added that it’s was a fairly hot new volume, so I was sure I wouldn’t be the only one looking for it.

Then I logged out and left the library, of course getting caught by the gates on my way out because any public library books in my bag trip the academic library gates all the time and vice versa.

Got back across campus to my desk. Electronically, without leaving my seat, and using Google rather than a library database, I found an openly-accessible article or two that would suffice. Then I received an email from the library, thanking me for reporting the missing book and informing me that requests to have books traced have to be made in person at the circulation desk at the appropriate branch where the book should be located.

Are you kidding me?

I was feeling pretty patient, if disappointed, up until this point. But, first it’s raining (not the library’s fault!). Then, the book that’s supposed to be available isn’t there (these things happen…). Then the dinosaur computers suck 10 minutes of my time logging in and out to verify the status of the missing book and report it missing (okay, this is getting annoying and why does the library still use computers with floppy disk drives in them?). And now you want me to walk back across campus in the rain to go wait in line at the circulation desk to tell you the information I already reported to you? (This last bit is where I run out of rationales…um, perhaps someone frivolously made up and emailed fictitious trace reports once upon a time?)

I didn’t file the report. Sorry. Maybe the next person who fails to find this “available” book will do it. Not me. I have work to do. I’m on a schedule. I’ve already located two freely accessible substitute resources online and ordered a copy of the book I wanted from an online book retailer.

This is why people who have the means to do so avoid going into the library. Because the library is stuck in archaic systems that suck time. And those systems are presented as normal. When you’re grant-funded, or you’re racing the publications clock for tenure, time is money. Spending half an hour or more wandering back and forth around campus with nothing to show for it, all because electronic systems of communication aren’t yet in this century, is not normal to everyone. And it’s certainly not normal for the most productive faculty members on our campuses – those whose voices could be the most meaningful as allies.

I want my faculty colleagues to be advocates for our university library. So I do what I can to give them warm fuzzies about it, pointing out new acquisitions in their areas, noting that online access to the Journal of Important Stuff is brought to their desktop by the library, etc. But some days the library doesn’t make this easy for me. Some days I’m afraid to tell them too much about the library, in case they actually try to use it and have an experience like the one above.

I absolutely know there are budget constraints, time constraints, people-power constraints and bureaucratic time-suck constraints on academic libraries. I can explain why any given problem with the library systems might exist. But I can’t make archaic systems less frustrating and more worthwhile for people who have the option to avoid contact with the library most of the time. And those are the same people I really want out there speaking for the importance of the library. What a conundrum.

I’ve been sitting on this post, mulling it over for a while. I haven’t worked in a library in almost 5 years. Maybe I’m off-base here. Maybe academic libraries aren’t concerned with how the power faculty at their institutions perceive them. Maybe it’s all about the students and the have-nots of academia these days. Maybe it should be. I dunno. I do think libraries are missing out on opportunities to win powerful allies, but perhaps this is a deliberate move? Maybe you readers have insight to share?



Filed under academic libraries, advocacy, funding, technology, The Profession

Censorship & parenting

I had two recent parenting experiences related to book censorship that I thought might be of interest to readers who liked (or liked to hate) my previous posts on creating house rules for my kid’s internet use and/or book rating systems.

1) Those adults don’t know what they’re talking about

I’m on the ALA OIF‘s listserv that sends out info on book/materials challenges all over the United States and occasionally beyond. (For non-librarians, a “challenge” is what we call it when someone wants a library to remove something from the collection, or move it from one section to another to try to hide/censor it.) The other night I followed a link on the list to this video clip about a mom in TX who just won an appeal to get “The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby” removed from her kid’s school library because the book contains the language “poo poo head” in it. This women’s son had previously been suspended for school due to an incident in which he called another child a “poo poo head.”

I showed the clip to my 8yo, because I knew he has and likes that book. I asked him what he thought, and he immediately said, “That’s silly. They don’t even say ‘poo poo head’ in that book.” He paused, thought for a moment and verified, “Nope, they never do.” He went and got the book from his bookshelf to show me. I skimmed through the whole thing, twice, and darned if he isn’t right! Oh, it’s chock full of potty humour: they say “poo poo” and “Deputy Doo-Doo” and “poopy” all over the place, but nowhere in the book does the phrase in question – “poo poo head” – actually appear.

Unless there’s some different Texas edition of the book, all these adults were arguing over a book they obviously hadn’t even read very closely, if at all. None of the online commentors on the news story seemed to catch this point eitherthat this entire book challenge is basically built on the premise that this book retroactively incited a child to say a phrase that doesn’t even appear in the book.

Following up on the concept, though, I asked my kid whether he thought a school library should have any books in which people do or say things they’re not allowed to do or say in school. He looked at me like I’d gone off the deep end, and asked if they were also making sure that Harry Potter and the Bible weren’t in the library too, because people fight in Harry Potter and they do a whole lot of bad things in the Bible!

2) Censorship vs Parenting

The very next day, I ended up having a conversation with a bunch of other moms about whether and how we guide our children away from books we think are too mature for them. One mom, with a young daughter who is an exceptionally voracious reader and capable of decoding material aimed at an adult audience, was having mixed feelings about having taken a book (one of the unquestionably-adult Southern Vampire Series) away from her daughter. On one hand she felt like it was unquestionably the right thing to do – this first grader was in no way ready for such mature themes – but on the other hand she felt a little bit like a censor. I’ve heard other parents express such mixed feelings before.

Here’s my take:

As someone who’s taken classes on the topic, read widely about it and even published about censorship, my take is that there’s censorship and then there’s parenting. People have all different definitions of censorship, but only very extreme views contest a parent’s right/responsibility to help their young (e.g. pre-adolescent) child select age-appropriate reading materials. (Unless your opinion of age-appropriate varies hugely from the norms around you.)

Lester Asheim has a statement to the effect that the goal of censorship is thought control. There’s trying to control what your kid thinks. And then there’s trying to help temporarily protect her from stuff she doesn’t have the emotional maturity to process at this time in her young life. This type of parental responsibility is the very reason we can insist that institutions such as libraries take stances *against* censorship – because it’s not *their* job to decide what your kid reads; it’s your job. It’s the library’s job to provide as wide a range as possible of materials from which you may make your selection.

I have no problem telling a kid of mine (or that I’m, say, babysitting) that a certain book they happen upon is a grown-up book and not for them right now. I would not do this as a library worker, however.While I would only recommend books that were clearly age-appropriate to a kid who was looking for something to read, I wouldn’t tell a child that a particular book wasn’t for them. That’s the parent’s job, not the librarian’s job.

Back to my parenting role, if there was a specific book my kid *really* wanted to read, and I was on the fence about in terms of appropriateness, I’d read it with him and discuss. A few times when my own son was considering a library book that was possibly disturbing, I’ve told him, “Hey, I don’t think you’ll like this book. It’s got some violence I think you’ll find upsetting.” Thanks to being a librarian and knowing other librarians to ask for recommendations, I can usually suggest a good substitute in lieu of the particular book, and so far my kid’s never decided he really wants to read any of the books I have concerns about. I find myself doing this less and less as he gets older, more socially adept and better at handling with scary and sad things.

I’ll never forget my grade 3 teacher telling me I couldn’t take a book she had (fairly bizarrely, in retrospect) deemed a “boy book” out of our school library. My mother came to bat for me and made it clear that she was the person to allow or not allow me to read a given (age-appropriate) book, and that my teacher should no longer try to control me or my thinking/reading like that. It was awesome. Not the book – I mean, it was good, from what I can remember – but the freedom from a teacher arbitrarily deciding what books I could or couldn’t read. Go mom.

In sum, there’s censorship and there’s parenting.

Censorship is deciding that no kid in the school should be allowed to read a book in which the villains use potty humour because it might give the impression that the school condones calling people bathroom names.

Parenting is helping your children find developmentally appropriate media, and working through the hard parts with them when they arise.


ps – Spellcheck doesn’t like “poopy” “poo poo” or “censor.” 


Filed under censorship, Intellectual freedom, public libraries, school libraries, youth

Conference Season Continued: OA advocacy with my researcher hat on

I don’t try to hide it – I believe that we’re in a transitional period to fully open access (OA)* scholarly journal publishing, at least in the sciences. And while I could see this playing out in different ways that have varying impact on equity, concentration of wealth, quality of scientific publishing, etc., by and large I do believe this transition is a step forward for equity and knowledge, through increasing access to information (one of the core values of librarianship).

I’ve been involved with various OA interest group/committee/task forces, as well as policy development and empirical research projects related to advancing the state of OA. I’ve given educational talks, webinars, oral & poster conference presentations, and published articles on various aspects of OA.

Yet, I have come to recognize that some very important “advocacy” work on the OA file may not be writing letters to politicians or giving formal talks, but the informal talks I have with editors in venues such as non-LIS conferences. In other words, sometimes I think that my potential for advancing OA as a member of the research-author community is just as great as that in my role as a librarian, OA advocate and researcher.

I was reminded of this during a recent conference session, when I had the opportunity to talk with a couple of editor-types (journal editors or journal editorial/advisory board members) as they stopped to encourage me to consider submitting work to their journal. Research conferences are natural opportunities for editor-types to publicize their journals and recruit authors/articles of interest. Poster sessions are a natural ground for not-yet-published research that may soon be looking for a home in manuscript form. Therefore, as a poster presenter at a large research conference, one can expect to talk with editors.

In OA advocacy, I think we tend to focus a lot on the author-publisher dynamic in terms of negotiating copyright and advocating for journal policy change. This makes sense on the individual-article level, and to some extent with the advocating for policy-change level. But editors may be quite important for effecting journal level change to OA, and communicating to publishers through another route. Journal editors are often in a crossover position, both researchers in their own right and in a close working relationship with the publishing company managing their journal.** In scholarly communities, editors are often one of “us” – researchers – rather than one of “them” – publishing industry folk. As a researcher’s career advances, it’s often expected that s/he will take on academic community service such as journal editing. And as researchers, they’re still going to conferences in their given field, so journal editor duties, such as scouting out potential articles, dovetail well with their own scholarly interests.

So, when I’m there by my poster and an editor hands me her/his card*** and suggests I consider a particular journal for publishing, I ask if it’s open access. If they say no (generally meaning not Gold OA), I ask if authors are allowed to archive a copy in a repository such as PubMed Central. Most (but not all) say Yes to that now. I let them know about the many funder mandates under which my research group is obligated, and also that it’s important to me ethically and career-wise as an early-career researcher to make my work accessible to the widest audience possible. If I’ve already published the research I’m presenting, I make a point of clearly mentioning that it’s available open access online, so anyone can read it without a subscription. And then we talk about their journal’s new policy matters column, or the scope of their journal, or a question they have about my poster, or whatever else. I don’t sit on the OA point forever, but I do ask it, and generally first thing, when an editor suggests their journal. I think this makes a difference.

Does this make a difference? It’s possible that I’m deluding myself and seeing impact where I want to. I can’t quantify a difference this type of questioning makes, but I have had one or two instances where editors have come back to me in another year or emailed with me much later to let me know that they have moved to OA or checked and will comply with Canadian funder policies (which are generally shorter embargo period than US/UK funder policies).  So I think it helps. And I sincerely encourage other research folk who are also concerned with OA to adopt this strategy when talking with editors.

I’ve talked with publishers at LIS conferences, and it’s not the same thing at all. By now, they expect some OA flak from us pesky librarians. These days, staff from the major publishers are either prepped with the official OA line or else have to defer to the higher powers in decisions about things like OA – their job at the conference  is mainly to “build relationships” with potential customers and ultimately to sell product/subscriptions.

Now, different people have access to different advocacy and policy-making opportunities, and some people I know are senior enough in their fields to, say, be at the table when a major research funder is developing their research policies. This type of access is a major opportunity – and having funder policies in place gives me a much stronger position from which to ask journals to go OA. That said, it’s not my opportunity at this point in my life. And the people at those tables probably don’t need my tips on OA advocacy anyway. But to all those of us who are more junior or just not in those circles, we can influence policy in our own way. Some of it is “loud” and public – professional or scholarly association letters to research funders in favour of OA policies, for example. But I’ve come to think that a significant portion of that is kind of quiet, too. So next time you’re presenting research at a conference, I encourage you to mention OA as a priority (not THE priority – we all know there are many) in your publishing decisions. It matters to editors. They want your submissions.


*Open Access here fairly broadly applied to mean scholarly publications that are free to read online.

**While I recognize that several scholarly journals are published independently, by a scholarly society, or through a “publisher” such as a library that hosts OJS, in my health publishing experience the dominant model in this field is increasingly to be independently edited but managed by a larger publishing company, although the scale of the publishers does vary widely.

***Of course, not all editors self-identify as such when they’re cruising conference posters. I don’t emphasize it as much to everyone, but I do try to mention it when possible, in order to influence fellow researchers and undercover editors – for example I might say, “The first manuscript from this project was published in Journal XYZ and it’s freely available online so you can Google it. The second is currently under review at Journal ABC, an open access journal, so watch for it in the future.”


Filed under OA, publishing, research

Toughening ourselves up as librarian-researchers: Follow up Post #1

I wasn’t aware that I posted my bit about disappointment with LIS conference research presentations smack dab in between the EBLIP6 conference and the launch of the UK-based Developing Research Excellence and Methods (DREaM) project. Serendipity at it’s finest! Thanks for the attention, and for helping me feel less like an isolated downer, folks.

A few interesting things that have come to my attention via links, twitter and the like

In the UK, there’s this Library and Information Science Research Coalition that’s been around for a couple of years now, although I hadn’t heard of it over here in Canada. It was started by the British Library, and CILIP and JISC and a few other partner organizations. The member orgs get together to influence the LIS research agenda. These folks are behind the new DREaM project I referred to above, which is funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and looks cool:

A key goal of the project is to build capacity and capability in the development and implementation of innovative methods and techniques in undertaking LIS research.

Someone also pointed to an article in the journal Library & Information Science Research, which I was vaguely aware of as a journal of LIS research but wasn’t really on my radar as a publishing stuff about LIS research. The article was a commentary bt Ray Lyons on sloppy survey research (that I don’t see openly archived anywhere yet, but hopefully Lyons will do something about that soon), which included the following gem of a statement:

…we in the library and information profession sometimes prefer convenience and expedience over accuracy and thoroughness. Like the most impatient of information seekers, we ignore the fact that inadequate information gathering techniques will lead us quite expediently to the wrong answers.

So true! The same rushed sloppiness we bemoan in information seekers, we too often embody. I mean, I know I do – one of the things I love about being a librarian is that I can beat any of my coworkers in an information duel. I am Quick Draw McInformationist. My “google-fu” is strong and my prowess with controlled vocabularies is stronger. But that’s not the way I should conduct empirical research.

To be continued…Next post will have some thoughts on how we can improve things here/now

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Filed under academic libraries, LIS education, research, The Profession

Update on withdrawn CIHR trials policy

In an only somewhat-overdue update (thanks to conference season interrupting my regular blogging activities – I do write on the road, but need to get sleep & give a read over before I can push “publish” on a post) the Canadian Instutites of Health Research (kind of the Canadian NIH, for US American readers) has put out a new message regarding the missing CIHR trials policy that we’ve been following since late March.

To backtrack a bit, while I was on the road and having fun with research and colleagues over the past month, there was more coverage of the CIHR trials policy disappearance, including Michael Geist’s blog and the National Post. Additionally, “rapid response” letters from around the world continued to roll in to the BMJ related to their article, some with great titles such as, “Canadians step back from the well of transparency while the World is thirsting for it” and “CIHR decides it must compromise my interests as a patient.”

Then, right around June 15 or so (I saw it on the 17th), CIHR President Dr. Alain Beaudet issued a “Message from the President – Policy on ethical conduct of research involving humans.” Go read it: If you’re anything like me, you may need to read it a few times over, because it’s not the clearest statement ever made.

Here’s what I think it’s saying:

  1. That the March removal of the trials policy (“Registration and Results Disclosure of Controlled and Uncontrolled Trials”) was about “harmonization” and deference to the TCPS-2
  2. The TCPS-2 has some requirements for trial registration and public disclosure
  3. While the trials disclosure requirements in the TCPS-2 and the former CIHR trials registration policy were in the same spirit, the CIHR policy had more specific directions about what needed to be done
  4. CIHR will (at some unspecified point) be  integrating certain of these more stringent operational requirements as part of the terms and conditions of its “relevant programs.” These include: a) publication of the systematic review used to justify the trial, b) registration and compliance with WHO requirements for minimum data disclosure, and c) submission of final reports in CONSORT format.
  5. CIHR will propose 4 revisions to the TCPS-2 for “prompt consideration” (not clear on how soon this can/will happen): a) applying to all trials, not just clinical trials, b) requirement to update trial registration when the trial protocol changes, c) requiring that serious adverse events be reported in post-trial publications, and d) and a requirement to deposit aggregate data in an unbiased, publicly accessible database.
  6. In the interim, CIHR will specify that researchers have to “comply with all the requirements mentioned above” (not sure whether this means 4a-c or is also inclusive of 5a-d).

So, what does this mean? Are we all good now?

Well, we’re better than we were before the press coverage, I think. We’re not as better as we would have been, had the trials policy never been pulled.

Remaining questions:

  1. Really??? I’m still kind of skeptical that 3 months after the trials policy and the TCPS-2 came out, both of which had been in development for a looong time, someone suddenly just went, “Oh, gosh, you know what? It’s not okay to have both of these policy statements!” Why am I skeptical? Well, because it just doesn’t make sense. CIHR had a trials policy that wasn’t 100% the same as the TCPS-1. Tri-council funders have all sorts of different policies that are more stringent than the TCPS, and it’s not a problem (e.g., the beloved CIHR Access to Research Outputs policy). It’s just not adding up, and at this point the message seems to be that it doesn’t matter if it’s not adding up, CIHR is sticking to their story.
  2. When will the CIHR be implementing these new requirements for relevant grant programs, and how will this implementation be different from the trial policy rules?
  3. What’s the process for revisions to the TCPS, and how long does it take?
  4. When are we going to see the requirement to make individual-level/micro/”raw” data publicly available? The item listed above in 5d, which currently has no teeth, only requires aggregate data deposit. What does this mean? How aggregate? Does this have to include all adverse events? We need to be able to reanalyse this data to look for harms to specific groups. This is one of the most important parts of the scrapped trials policy, and there is no mention of it in the new statement from CIHR.

I think the international attention and public pressure on CIHR over the withdrawal of the new trials policy likely contributed to these developments, which seem like a step back in the right direction. However, without teeth in the current requirements, and a return of the publicly-accessibly micro-level data archivng requirement, it seems like 3 steps forward, 2 steps back at this point.


Previous posts on this topic, in case you haven’t been following along:

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Filed under democracy, ethics, funding, government, Health, OA, research

Conference Season 2011: Librarianship Researchers, we need to toughen up

May/June are the epicentre of what I call “conference season.” For me that means looking longingly at my garden as I leave on weekends that should be dedicated to barbecues and street hockey with the kid. However, it also means lots of intensive time for rapid-fire thinking. As a research-embedded health librarian, I often go to non-LIS-type conferences that are aimed at health researchers. While I really like my librarian colleagues, this spring I’ve been thinking about the juxtoposition of how we present research in LIS fora versus health fora.

To my fellow Health Librarianship Researchers: We need to toughen up.

(Frankly, this should probably be addressed to all librarianship researchers, not just those in health, but health is my current niche and where my illustrative examples come from today)

1) Stand up for your methods!

When I am listening to a health librarian give a research presentation, it is all too common for me to end up cringing at what is either weak research methodology or weak defense of methods (or both).We need to deal with this.

I’ll give a specific example from a recent conference, because the speaker in this example is a very well-respected tenured LIS faculty member in an ALA-accredited institution, who has a long and established track record of important research and advocacy for libraries, and thus I think fair game for public critique of research presentations. Dr. Marshall gave a keynote talk at CHLA/ABSC on a study that will be very important to health libraries and librarians – especially in clinical settings such as hospitals. Yes, this is the much-needed and highly anticipated update to the Rochester Study! Very exciting stuff.

Now, obviously this talk was a conference presentation, and in that kind of setting there’s never enough time to fully describe methods. That’s part of why we have time for questions afterward – so audience members can ask about areas of particular interest that were not explained in the talk.

In the question period after the talk, when people asked about methods, however, I found that even this prominent LIS faculty member was a bit wishy-washy. For example, rather than defending the reliability of her research, or explaining why reliability was perhaps not the appropriate question to ask about the qualitative portion of her investigation, the speaker demurred, basically saying that well, nothing’s perfect and we all do our best.

WHAT? I mean, yes nothing’s perfect and I’m sure we all do try to do our best, but that is how you respond to someone questioning your methods? When I mentally place this faculty member at my workplace, presenting to the faculty in my home department, she gets torn apart. Sitting there in the audience, I had a vision of the dreaded librarian “niceness” working to discredit our field in the face of other disciplines.

To give this speaker the benefit of the doubt, she might present and defend completely differently in front of another audience – say, an audience of economists. Also, she could have been having an off-day, or any number of things. BUT, this isn’t the only example I’ve seen of this type of thing, and she’s not doing librarians any favours by being soft in front of members of our own discipline. As a leader in our field, she should be modelling rigourous research and the ability to explain and defend it for us.

2) Policy-based evidence: We need to recognize and avoid it

I saw a few examples of this during the current conference season, but I feel bad pointing specific fingers because I don’t want to be “mean” or discouraging to novice researchers. (Yes, I am aware that this is the dreaded librarian “niceness” manifesting in me, and I don’t have the distance to know if it’s good or bad.)  However, I don’t think my naming a particular presentation from a particular conference is that useful, as you can probably conjure up your own examples of library policy-based evidence without much effort.

Here’s what I see: Librarians do a lot of surveys. Especially Masters-level academic librarians, who are supposed to do some research and base policy decisions on some sort of evidence. User surveys are pretty common, and this is reinforced by our love of LIBQUAL+. We also have this idea that survey research is “simple” and thus a masters-level professional can do it just fine with no methodological problems. This I would dispute. Surveys *can* be simple, just as many other research methods can be simple. But surveys are also really easy to do badly. And we do a fair amount of bad, or at least biased, surveys.

At pretty much every library conference I attend, I see presentations of surveys with conclusions that do not follow from the actual results, and/or surveys that were clearly (albeit often not purposely) designed to justify a particular policy move. This is certainly not unique to libraries, or health libraries. Lots of fields generate policy-based evidence. The federal government does it at times. (*ahem* Long form census -> National Household Survey)

But when I see librarians doing things like:

  1. presenting surveys with extremely low response rates, and
  2. no demographic information to assume this small sample is representative of the whole population, then
  3. basing conclusions on the responses of the majority of a tiny minority of the whole, with no discussion of response bias,

I am frankly appalled. I know ML/IS research methods classes tend to be generic and weak, but that we in the profession continue to reward shoddy research methods with conference presentations and other support is horrible. And doing a huge disservice to our profession. Not only are we probably making poor decisions based on lousy research, but we are completely undermining our own efforts to position librarians as professionals with research expertise.

Yet, even I am reluctant to rake someone, especially a first-time presenter, over the coals in the open question period after a low-quality presentation. It’s “mean.” I feel peer pressure not to ask the same questions of my librarian peers that I would ask to my researcher peers back at home/work. I reassure myself that maybe I will talk to an individual privately afterward, if I can catch her. But honestly, this often doesn’t happen.

What do we do? How do we toughen up? How do we get others in our profession to toughen up?

I think one thing that would help would be for our visible and prominant leaders in the field to engage in more public methodological debate regarding LIS research, personally. If we’re going to do research and position ourselves as reseach experts (or even just research-competent), we need to sharpen our chops.


Follow-up post: here


Filed under academic libraries, research, The Profession

BMJ article about the CIHR trials policy disappearance

More follow up from these previous posts about the surprise disappearance of the Policy on the registration and results disclosure of controlled and uncontrolled trials funded by CIHR.

Thursday, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published a News article by Ann Silversides, titled: Withdrawal of clinical trials policy by Canadian research institute is a “lost opportunity for increased transparency.”

For consistency’s sake I must note my dismay that this BMJ article about open data is not freely accessible online. Open access is as open access does; journals who live in glass open access houses should be cautious about criticism, folks.

Since some readers of this blog undoubtedly lack subscription access to the BMJ, here are a  few choice quotes from Silversides’ article, interspersed with my commentary:

“The CIHR [Canadian Institute for Health Research] policy
certainly was leading the drive towards increasing transparency,”
said An-Wen Chan, a scientist with the Women’s College
Research Institute in Toronto and co-author of the Ottawa
Statement on Principles and Implementation of Clinical Trial
Registration and Results Reporting

If the institute’s policy is permanently rescinded, the result
would be “a lost opportunity for a federal funding agency to
make a statement that increased transparency is important for .
. . ensuring that publicly funded research has maximal impact,”
said Dr Chan.

I don’t know Dr An-Wen Chan, but I agree entirely. The policy seemed to follow naturally along the progressive path forged by the CIHR’s 2004 RCT registration policy and 2007 research access (OA) policy.

Trudo Lemmens, of the University of Toronto law school, said
the decision to remove the policy “sends a bad message.” The
TCPS-2 requirements are more general and vague than the CIHR
policy, and it is not clear who will implement and enforce
TCPS-2, he said.

Again, I don’t know Dr. Lemmens, but I agree that the rescinding of the policy sends a “bad message.”

Silversides also reports that:

The CIHR has recently been “in discussions” with Rx&D, the
trade association for Canada’s brand name drug companies, on
renewing the CIHR/Rx&D collaborative research programme
(which funds awards, grants, and clinical trials) and finding
ways “to improve the clinical trial environment,” Rx&D
president Russell Williams stated in an email.

I suppose what is an improvement to the clinical trial environment depends on your point of view. Making clinical trials more transparent, and thus more likely to be audited, by more sets of eyes, for human safety issues, seems to be an improvement to me. But if my primary concern was the ease of bringing new technology/product from trial to market, my perspective would likely be different.

Professor Lemmens, who has published widely on transparency
and clinical trials, said that at an international level, the
pharmaceutical industry has been critical of trial registration
and requirements about having to give details of results. He
speculated that “maybe it is not pure accident” that the CIHR
policy, widely regarded as pushing for more transparency in
clinical trial reporting, has been withdrawn “when there is a
clear push (in CIHR) to promote collaborative research with

And this possibility that the timing of the trials policy’s disappearance might not be “pure accident” is exactly what we don’t want to think about when it comes to our national health research funder, with a mandate:

“To excel, according to internationally accepted standards of scientific excellence, in the creation of new knowledge and its translation into improved health for Canadians, more effective health services and products and a strengthened Canadian health care system.”


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Filed under ethics, funding, government, Health, privatization

Niceness, Helpfulness & Ethics: Feedback edition

The Canadian Health Libraries Association/Association des bibliothèques de la santé du Canada has a mentorship interest group. While I can be skeptical about institutional “leadership training” and am in that awkward adolescent phase of my career in which I’m not exactly new anymore but not quite senior enough to be a mentor, the idea of being connected with an experienced Canadian health librarian seemed low-risk and potentially positive, so I signed up. Turns out that it’s actually been quite nice to be sent profession-related conversation topics on a monthly basis, and it’s been quite enjoyable to get to know my assigned mentor better (someone I might not have really connected strongly with otherwise, but with whom I have a surprising amount in common).

This month’s “check in” from the mentorship interest group is about “Compliments and criticism,” and refers readers to the recent Harvard Business Review blog post: “Don’t Be Nice; Be Helpful.” The jist of the article is that withholding constructive criticism may be “nice,” but it’s certainly not helpful to your colleagues.

I’ve written about “the dreaded librarian niceness” here before, and the email conversation with my CHLA/ABSC mentor brought up some points regarding criticism and niceness that I thought were worth copying to this blog.

There are two experiences, both of which I feel very fortunate to have had, strongly inform my approach to feedback giving/getting. The first is my classical music training, and the second is anti-racism organizing.

Classical Music Studies

The couple years before I trained in conservatory, when I was a high school student taking music lessons, I had an amazing music teacher who paired me with another student for double lessons. Not only did this give us extra lesson time, and create a bond between the two of us (who were necessarily also competitors at auditions all the time), but he taught us how to teach by having us constantly give constructive feedback to each other. I remember him early on telling us to think of 3 things the other person did well in the piece she just played, and then 3 suggestions you have to make it better. He modelled this type of feedback, and I still use this style with regularity.

What does this mean in practice? I try always to give positive feedback in at least as large a quantity as the negative, and to always lead with the positive, whether it’s giving feedback on a colleague’s grant proposal draft or student term paper comments. I don’t mean being disingenuous about how great something is; in my experience there are always some positive elements in any performance if you just look for them – and retaining the good parts is as important as improving the weak parts. When I went to conservatory and was exposed to the big bad world of the classical music industry, in which cutting, negative comments were depressingly the norm (one adjudicator’s comments on my first recital were, in totality, “The Beethoven was better [then the preceding piece], but still not good.” !!) I gained a deeper appreciation for the “civilized” and constructive way I had been taught to provide critique.

Anti-oppression Activism

Later on, I became very involved with anti-racism organizing, something I carry on to this day in various ways. This was yet another forum in which criticism could be very nasty. There are a lot of people dealing with a lot of hurt and anger and also guilt when you’re talking about societal structures of privilege and oppression.

As a person with white-skin privilege, it was really important for me to learn to self-criticize in a humane way (productively, not merely berating myself for past wrongs) and to learn to accept anger and negativity from people of colour about things I could not “fix.” Trying to be a white ally to people of colour in various contexts sometimes means hearing awful things, or being excluded for very good reasons that might nonetheless hurt my ego.

Learning to listen to people’s criticism, and even anger, toward me and the groups to which I belong, without immediately reacting, was a big thing for me. Even if I think the accusations hurled at me are unfair, I owe it to a member of a group I oppress (even if just by default, by being a member of a more privileged group) to really listen to what they say. And then consider later how I might respond.

This means suppressing the urge to immediately defend myself or my family or my school/work/co-op/etc., and the desire to “fight back.” Because the accusations weren’t really what I wanted to be fighting. Even if they were based in a misunderstanding or incorrect rumour, there was something important in them that could teach me about oppression and how to untangle it.

This is harder to explain, and to quantify, than the “3 positive + 3 negative comments” rule, but also really important and influential with regard to how I handle criticism. Even if a critique feels like an unfair attack, I try to listen to it and figure out what it’s really about, and what in the criticism is useful for my learning.

In my Current Work

I should note that both of these lessons about criticism are lessons I try to pass along in my classroom when I am teaching. At my current librarian-job workplace, the research team with which I am primarily affiliated works hard to create a constructive environment in which to workshop each other’s work. It’s not perfect – I think most of us are still a bit too hesitant to throw really rough ideas out there, which is likely a side-effect of the hierarchical structure of supervision (i.e. not wanting to look dumb in front of your boss), and a challenge of the interdisciplinary nature of the team (i.e. those from other disciplines might not understand my half-formed idea). But we do also have a fair bit of informal collegial workshopping and feedback as well – we edit each other’s papers all the time, for example.

The interdisciplinary nature of the team really highlights the different approaches to criticism. Economists, for example, can apparently be very nasty in criticism (not our economists, but ours are renegade economists who swap war stories of econ conference presentations)! In my experience, librarians (especially public librarians) tend toward being overly “nice,” but niceness is not the same as respecting a person’s rights and behaving in a just and equitable manner.

In a conversation with another blogger, Katie, here a few years ago, I wrote, “Nice is culturally based and thus culturally biased. Nice to me means exclusive to others who don’t share our cultural norms. Nice to my colleague means not challenging her when she says something racist in a meeting. Sometimes being ethical means having to be not-nice to people.” This still pretty much sums up  my problem with “the dreaded librarian niceness” and hits on some of our disciplinary challenges with constructive criticism.


recent Harvard Business Review blog post: “Don’t Be Nice; Be Helpful

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Filed under ethics, inclusion/exclusion, LIS education