Category Archives: censorship

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.

-Greyson

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

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

Details: TCPS-2 vs the CIHR trials policy of 2010

Thanks to a few days’ time and some help from people with more experience reading science policy, I now feel that I can expand on my previous post about the TCPS-2 “superseding” the Dec 2010 CIHR trials policy.

First of all, I note that I am putting “supersede” in quotes not merely because it is a really cool word to which I wish to draw attention (although it is) but because the TCPS-2 was officially launched before (not, as I had previously thought, simultaneously with) the new Trials Policy, and as such, would not likely have been intended as a replacement for another policy that had not yet been unveiled.

Non-exhaustive list of differences between the TCPS-2 and the CIHR trials policy of 2010:

  • Unlike the TCPS-2, the CIHR policy required that the systematic review that justifies doing the trial be publicly cited.
  • TCPS-2 is specifically about clinical trials, whereas CIHR could be interpreted to apply to a wider scope of “controlled and uncontrolled trials.”
  • The CIHR policy required following the WHO international standards, whereas the TCPS-2 only requires that trials be registeres in registries that meet the criteria of WHO/ICMJE. Seems like a small distinction, but the difference is the minimum dataset required.
  • This one is kind of nitpicking/pointing out an oversight, but the CIHR required the name of the trial registry as well as the registation #, whereas the TCPS-2 only asks for the # (kind of useless without the name, and presumably they want the name too, but didn’t specify).
  • The CIHR policy took steps to prevent duplicate/multiple registration, whereas the TCPS-2 does not address this potential issue.
  • The TCPS-2 says that “Researchers should also promptly share new information about an intervention with other researchers or clinicians administering it to participants or patients, and with the scientific community – to the extent that it may be relevant to the general public’s welfare,” which does not require public disclosure. The CIHR policy required the data to be made publicly available to all.
  • Research design amendments (changes) require ethical approval under the TCPS-2. The CIHR policy required that amendments  to the research design be reported within 30 days after the ethics approval.
  • The TCPS-2 asks for “new risks” or “unanticipated issues that have possible health or safety consequences for participants” during the trial. CIHR policy did not ask for adverse event info until after the trial.
  • TCPS-2 asks for info that might merit or lead to early stopping of  a trial. CIHR policy wanted notification and public disclosure within 30 days of stopping a trial early.
  • The TCPS-2 tells researchers “to make reasonable efforts to publicly disseminate the findings of clinical trials in a timely manner by publications and by the inclusion of raw data and results in appropriate databases,” whereas the CIHR policy specified reporting guidelines (e.g., CONSORT for RCTs) and required reporting and public disclosure within 12 months of the end of the trial, building on the existing CIHR research access policy.
  • The TCPS-2 encourages researchers and institutions to publish results in a timely manner. The CIHR policy required public disclosure within 12 months and reserved the right to disclose the final report themselves within 18 months.
  • The TCPS-2 asks for “the inclusion of raw data and results in appropriate databases” whereas the CIHR specified what appropriate databases are and that both micro (aka “raw” aka “participant level”) as well as macro (aka “aggregate” aka “summary”) level data are necessary.
  • The TCPS-2 talks about ethics with regard to confidentiality clauses and PI access to trial data, whereas these issues were not addressed by the CIHR trials policy.
  • The CIHR policy talks about after-trial follow-up, including submission of any “severe adverse events or harm” to the publicly-available trial registry and a requirement to “retain all trial information including original micro-level data and metadata data for twenty five years unless they are deposited in a freely accessible data repository (to align with the Health Canada requirements).”

Generally speaking, major differences are:

1) Insider vs public disclosure of information

TCPS-2 is concerned with sharing info with the research ethics board and “to other researchers or clinicians administering it to participants or patients, and with the scientific community.”

CIHR was concerned with reporting and disclosing info “to CIHR and the trial registry” – and the trial registry had to be openly accessible to the public.

2) Whether to specify how much should be reported, and how soon to report it

The TCPS-2 advises on ethical matters across disciplines. It makes few specific mandates as to timeliness or data specifics.

The CIHR policy was intended specifically for trials funded by CIHR, and similar to other funding policies could and did specify details of what kind of data should be reported (all, macro and micro), to whom (CIHR and a publicly accessible registry), and when (within 12 months of trial completion, or with some types of data 30 days of early stoppage of a trial).

TCPS-2  on its own vs. as part of a comprehensive approach

I’m not saying the TCPS-2 is bad. It’s pretty good, overall, and after years and years of collaboartive work and revision seems to do an admirable job of doing what it’s supposed to do – which is to set out general, interdisciplinary, national ethical guidelines, not details of practice requirements. Without specific procedural policies designed to instruct researchers in various disciplines, the TCPS-2’s appropriately limited scope leaves us with somewhat vague directions.

The two policies, the TCPS-2 and the CIHR trials policy of 2010, are clearly intended to complement with each other. As I noted before, the TCPS-2 specifically states that:

“[Trial] registries, in addition to agency policies, editorial policies, ethical policy reforms, and revised national and institutional ethics policies and results disclosure requirements, contribute to a multi-faceted approach to eliminate non-disclosure.” (emphasis mine)

I continue to be very disappointed that the CIHR has apparently seen fit to retroactively withdraw their facet of this approach, and I do think that as a public agency they do owe the public a decent explanation of what happened here. What has been made publicly available thus far does not add up. As I have stated previously, there may well be valid reasons for killing the new policy on clinical trial data, but the lack of transparency around the policy retraction continues to be troubling.

-Greyson


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

The mystery of the missing CIHR trials policy

Who stole the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s trial transparency policy?

Canadian health researchers report that the policy, only four months old, went missing sometime in mid-March. The policy’s full name is Policy on the registration and results disclosure of controlled and uncontrolled trials funded by CIHR.

It was last seen in the vicinity of the CIHR/IRSC website, at http://www.cihr-irsc.gc.ca/e/42831.html. The policy is described as an expansion of a previous CIHR policy, aimed at increasing clinical trial transparency and reducing biased disclosure of trial results.

We have evidence that the policy was alive not long ago.

1) Canadian health researchers around the country have received the following announcement of this new policy via e-alerts and newsletters over the past few months:

CIHR announces new policy
Policy on the registration and results disclosure of controlled and uncontrolled trials funded by CIHR (http://www.cihr-irsc.gc.ca/e/42831.html)
In 2006 the CIHR endorsed, in principle, the World Health Organization (WHO) international standards for clinical trial registration. Consequently, CIHR has updated its policy effective 20th December 2010. The new Policy will apply to all competitions with application deadlines after 1st January 2011.
The new Policy requires researchers awarded CIHR funding to:
* Register a trial in one of the WHO primary registries or      ClinicalTrials.gov prior to participant recruitment;
* Regularly update the information during the trial;
* Report and publicly disclose trial results; and
* Retain all trial information for 25 years.

The updated Policy expands on the 2004 policy on RCT registration. This Policy complies with the WHO International standards, ICMJE requirements and the Declaration of Helsinki.The Policy will help ensure that clinicians, researchers, patients and the public have access to information about CIHR-funded trials. The aim is to increase transparency and accessibility of trials by their prospective registration and disclosure of results, thereby reducing publication bias and fulfilling ethical responsibilities.
The new Policy can be accessed via the CIHR Funding Policies web page (http://www.cihr-irsc.gc.ca/e/204.html)

2) The CIHR glossary refers to this policy (under “Results”).

3) There’s a nice archived abstract and PDF of the slides from a presentation explaining the origins, development and details of the new policy, “Towards Greater International Transparency of Clinical Trials – Short Term Efforts for Long term Benefits: CIHR Trial Policy 2010” given in February by Karmela Krleza-Jeric,MD, M.Sc., D.Sc.

But the policy hasn’t been seen in at least a week, possibly longer.

The URL to which the above sources refer as the policy document on the CIHR website is currently a 404 Error page.

At first, it might seem to be merely a website glitch. However, the policy is also missing entirely from the above mentioned CIHR Funding Policies web page, despite the fact that the other recently added policy on Gender and Sex Based Analysis is listed, and the page currently says it was last updated a week ago on March 28, 2011.

Whodunnit?

Policy wonks continue to search for the missing policy, last seen at least one week ago.

At this point, authorities can only speculate on motives for this disappearance. However, the spectre of institutional conflict of interest has been raised.  At this point, we are making an appeal to the public to please contact us with any information you may have about the policy’s disappearance.

Anyone with information on the current whereabouts of the CIHR Policy on the registration and results disclosure of controlled and uncontrolled trials is asked to please leave a comment below. We hope to see this young policy safely back at home again as soon as possible.

Thank you.

-Greyson

ETA – Cached copy of the policy text is now available here.

ETA2 – Follow up post here. And another here. Also here.

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Filed under censorship, digitization, funding, Health

Modernizing vs Censoring: Where’s the line?

Hello folks — yes I am back and feeling much better, thanks! Looking forward to a new, improved year – this time hopefully without the bike and car accidents that plagued 2010.

——-

What do we do with a “classic” work when the connotation of some of the language shifts over time?

Take Shakespeare, for example. Take high school English, for example. Many students in the Anglo-American world are required to read something by Shakespeare in their high school English curriculum. Few of them actually read the whole original text, at least not without a “translation” into more modern English nearby. Many watch film adaptations along with reading a given play. While I’m sure there is some controversy among Shakespeare purists, one of the widely-celebrated teachable aspects of Shakespeare’s plays is the adaptability of the stories to multiple contexts, despite the inaccessibility of the now-esoteric original language.

What about a more recent example, though, in which the language is still intelligible, but the cultural context has changed, making some formerly “acceptable” language now gravely offensive? Yes, I’m talking about Huck Finn, and the current debate over the suitability of NewSouth Books’ new edition of the Twain classics The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, which has been either modernized or censored, depending on whom you ask.

I have to admit, I’m not as thoroughly offended by this new edition as I feel like I’m expected to be.

I know that schools can go to ridiculous extents to sanitize works in an attempt to keep them palatable to some faction of their community. (How well do I know this? I played Sandy in a Grade 9 production of Grease in which we had to cut out all smoking, sex/pregnancy, and dropping out of school – leaving basically no plot, just girl meets boy and oh yeah a nice car.) On the other hand, I also know that words can feel violent and contribute to an environment of harassment and oppression, and as a member of a group with a lot of white-skin privilege I’m not ready to jump on a bandwagon that says we should make our students – especially students of colour – read the n-word over & over in an assigned book – especially if assigned by a white teacher.

Ideally, Huck Finn would always be taught in the classroom by a compassionate and brilliant Twain scholar with incredible historical insight and the ability to guide students through the nuances of a novel that documents some terrible, violent elements of US history. But in reality, we all know that’s not always the case.

Schools, just like other institutions in society, often perpetrate the experience of violence and oppression upon participants (in this case students). Teachers are just as likely to be racist and sexist and homophobic as anyone else. I’m not sold on the necessity for schools to require the original exact n-word-inclusive Twain wording, when they so often offer abridged, translated or otherwise modernized versions of other works. If a particular school/system wants to take a stand on only assigning original wording of literary texts, more power to them. If that’s something they feel strongly about, there are many such editions of Huck Finn available, and hopefully the adoption of such principles would inspire lots of discussion of the historical context of every non-contemporary text.

In sum, I think the question of “sanitizing” or “updating” the language of a work depends greatly on what the purpose of one’s use of said classic is. Is it to introduce students to the classic text or the works of that author? Grant them some sort of cultural literacy? Understand what makes the texts we have deemed “great” work? Serve as an entre into greater discussions of history, culture, and the big questions? Produce literary scholars and critics? Ideally, school assignments would do all of these, but at core I think a lot would be happy to settle for doing a good job of the first couple or so. If teachers are unable to use (or appropriately use) the original text, and if a more palatable edition makes that possible, so be it — as long as it is obvious that the revised editions are not the original, and the original is widely available.

As an immigrant library student, I was fascinated at exploring Canadian culture through children’s literature. One text (or rather, texts) that really captured my interest was Beatrice Culleton Mosionier’s In Search of April Raintree. I really wrestled with her decision to create a revised version for use in schools. I searched and searched for evidence of coercion, of censorship, in this revision, but everything I could find indicated that Mosionier was perfectly okay with it. Her current website (linked above)  proudly lists the three different editions of April Raintree, with their different intended audiences. Researching April Raintree really made me question my ability, as a white, Western, school-type-literate person, to understand what textual authenticity meant in cultural context that weren’t my own. And that’s okay.

Now, Mark Twain/Samuel Clements was white, and isn’t alive anymore to give or decline approval of new editions of his works. But the story of this revision isn’t so much about his cultural context as that of kids of colour who are being assigned to read Huck Finn today. I haven’t yet come across many African-American voices sounding in on this controversy, but I’d be really interested to hear various cultural interpretations of this revision, because the one or two I’ve been seeing don’t seem to be coming from this perspective.

And the line between “bad” censorship of a text and “good” modernizing for accessibility…well, I think it moves depending on where you’re standing.

-Greyson

ETA- NewSouth has responded in the comments of PW, and links to the book’s introduction,which discusses the controversy about the language change.

ETA #2 (Jan 6) – The NY Times has hosted a series of “debaters” writing to discuss this revised edition. Among the voices there, I recommend Paul Butler’s Why Read that Book?, who expressed the kind of sentiment I was intending to get at, but in a more concise and eloquent manner. I also recommend reading Thomas Glave’s Obscuring the Past, even though he doesn’t agree with what I wrote above.

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Filed under censorship, inclusion/exclusion, publishing, racism

How times change: Finally a gay character in Archie

A number of years ago, when I was on the teen librarian track, I decided to explore the world of graphic novels. I’d never really read comics that weren’t featured in the newspaper before, but I knew they were growing in popularity, especially among youth.

This exploration led to a paper I wrote for Ann Curry‘s intellectual freedom class (one of my best and most useful library school classes), and eventually published a revision of in Collection Building. The paper was about censorship of GLBTQ content in graphic novels/comics for youth, and it taught me a lot about comparative Canadian-US history (especially regarding obscenity laws) as well as the comics publishing world.

You can’t research the history of comics in North America without learning about Archie. One of the things I learned along the way was that Archie is the apple pie of comic books. Archie is to kids’ comics as The Family Circus is to the newspaper funny pages — that is to say: benign, kind of boring, but “safe” according to certain centre-right societal norms. Archie was (and as far as I know still is) one of the only comics publishers to still carry the Comics Code Authority‘s seal of approval (designed in the 1950’s as a sign of wholesomeness in the face of concerns that comics were turning boys into sociopaths and criminals, and mostly abandoned by today’s publishers).

However, the writers of Archie have been shaking things up in the formerly homogeneous fictional town of Riverdale lately. First there was all the  hubbub about an Archie engagement. Then an interracial dating relationship (a huge deal in the world of Archie comics, which has put the kibosh on such storylines before) in the current issue. And now, apparently, the world of Archie will be getting it’s first gay character. The Archie fan forums are abuzz with the news.

Beyond inching Archie slightly closer to the modern era, and gratifying some unknown number of folks who write gay Archie fanfic (of which there is an impressive amount – I had no idea), the inclusion of a gay character in Archie comics really makes a statement that a gay character can be part of a wholesome comic world (you know, if, as in Archie’s world, he is an upstanding, straight-looking, blonde, white guy, at least).

Okay, so it’s incremental change. Reeeeally incremental. But, honestly, 4 or 5 years ago when I was writing my paper on queer content in kids’ comics and censorship, I never would have expected Archie to feature a gay character this soon. People challenge comics in library collection a lot, because they are visual. A male-male kiss depicted in Archie (not that I expect new Riverdale High student Kevin to have a boyfriend anytime soon, but the door is now open) would be a BIG DEAL. For uber-wholesome Archie to carry feature a heterosexual interracial kiss on the cover and now introduce a gay character…in the world of comics read by little kids, the change this represents should not be underestimated.

-Greyson

ps – I remain a casual reader of comics & graphic novels (although I never did manage to develop a taste for recreational reading of superhero comics or most manga, nor for the blandness of Archie comics), and am currently pretty excited at the boom in really great graphic novels or graphic-novel hybrids for pre-adolescents. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go check out Sticky Burr, Baby Mouse, and The Fog Mound asap!

ETA – A student emailed me to let me know about this well-written Slate article on the topic of the gay Archie character.

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

Internet Linking is Analogous to Citation

Everyone with whom I have discussed the issue of Internet linking agrees that Internet hyperlinks are a form of citation. But the subset of the population with whom I discuss these issues is not representative of the entire world, clearly. There are 2 schools of thought that I’ve encountered thus far that substantially differ from the above:

  1. The folks who think you need to obtain permission to link to another website, and
  2. The folks who think the author/owner/host/ISP of a webpage are responsible for any content accessible via hyperlinks on that site.

Neither one of these perspectives makes a whit of sense to me, seeing as I conceive of hyperlinks as akin to footnotes or citations, not republication of the material to which the link directs. Republication would be copying content on one webpage and posting it (in a manner beyond that permitted by fair dealing/fair use) on another page.

Because I can’t really understand how a hyperlink could actually be considered republication rather than citation, I am dumbfounded by people who adhere to – and sometimes threaten legal action in accordance with – either of the above two viewpoints. I actually find myself a bit stymied when pressed to defend my stance that hyperlinking is citation, because the alternative is so ludicrous in my mind. I need to work on this, which is why I’m posting this here.

1. Permission to Link

I have encountered a few individuals who have adamantly insisted that their websites were their property and thus they had the rights to dis/allow linking to their web content. I have actually been threatened with legal action from a blogger (with a PhD – which led me to expect that she’d at least be able to research the actual law) who insisted that I not link to her weblog from a password-protected site, which I found incredible! (In this specific case, although I knew she didn’t have a legal leg to stand on, I removed the link because I liked her writing and didn’t really want to make her mad, and also because I didn’t want to sink energy into a fight, but stopped following her blog lest I accidentally post a link she didn’t approve again.)

Apparently U.S. Judge Richard Posner also did or does think that permission to link to a webpage should be the law. In this blog post from last year, he states that:

Expanding copyright law to bar online access to copyrighted materials without the copyright holder’s consent, or to bar linking to or paraphrasing copyrighted materials without the copyright holder’s consent, might be necessary

in order to save the newspaper industry (from the competition of free news aggregation sites). While I have great sympathy for the difficult times the newspaper industry is experiencing in this era of digitization, the above suggested curtailing of fair use/fair dealing is appalling.

My understanding is that nothing has been legally established in Canada about permission-to-link, but in the U.S. there is a bit of case law establishing that (in the absence of other factors such as defamation or violation of – in Canada – moral rights) as BitLaw states,

“there would appear to be no legal means for preventing someone from including a link in one page to another”

2. Liability of Link-maker

SO, the Supreme Court of Canada has apparently agreed to hear Wayne Crookes’ appeal of a 2008 BC ruling (an appeal that was dismissed from BC Supreme Court) that linking to websites that contain allegedly defamatory material is not in and of itself defamation. Vancouver-based Crookes has sued a bagload of folk for libel based not on things they wrote on their websites but on thinks written on sites they linked to, or sites those sites linked to.

Whoa. Similar to how ISPs should not be responsible for the content of their customers, web authors should not be held responsible for the content on pages they link to! Citing something, in traditional publication, is hardly the same thing as agreeing with it, let alone authoring it. Hyperlinking is like citing – a pointer, a reference.Hyperlinking is not – as I think I clearly distinguished above – republication of content.

Hopefully the Supreme Court of Canada has agreed to hear this in order to set precedent (in accordance with the BC courts decisions) and thus stop the free-expression chill that such SLAPPs create. The alternative is just too ludicrous, right?

Right?

-Greyson

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Filed under censorship, copyright, digitization, Intellectual freedom, Internet, IP, Other blogs, publishing

Olympic sponsorships & Vancouver Public Library: Conflict of Interest?

Vancouver Public Library (VPL) in British Columbia, where the 2010 Winter Olympic Games are about to begin in a matter of weeks, has been in the news this past week. At issue are the instructions given to staff on how to handle branding, logos and sponsorship for events related to the Olympics.

In the biblioblogosphere, Jessamyn noted it “without comment”,  Rory thinks it’s “just too much,” noting that VPL was the site of history’s largest librarian’s strike in 2007, and LIS news quotes the union president speaking against the memo on the grounds of intellectual freedom. Tara, over at We Read banned Books, posts the memo in question, and highlights the irony of the instructions to put “a little piece of tape” over non-sponsor logos on electronic equipment.

A lot of people seem uncomfortable with this memo, but few seem willing or able to name exactly what the problem is, what rules or principles have been violated. What is it about this memo that strikes so many of us as “just too much?”

I’ve been talking with folks and thinking about it and I think it feels to many like a potential conflict of interest with our “basic responsibility for the development and maintenance of intellectual freedom.”

Conflict of Interest

In medical publishing, Conflict of Interest (COI) is a Big Thing, but I don’t think it’s as much discussed in the lower-financial-stakes world of public libraries. Bear with me for a moment while I call up some references from health information sources, and then discuss application to this public library/Olympic sponsor situation.

The World Association of Medical Editors’ (WAME) recently updated (July 2009) policy on “Conflict of Interest in Peer-Reviewed Medical Journals” states in part that:

Everyone has COIs of some sort.  Having a competing interest does not, in itself, imply wrongdoing.  However, it constitutes a problem when competing interests could unduly influence (or be reasonably seen to do so) one’s responsibilities

Okay, so if everyone has one or more COI, and they’re not necessarily a problem, what’s the big deal? Well, the devil is in the “unduly influence” part here, right? Having a COI can make it more difficult to prioritize your primary mission.

Notably, even if there is no actual COI, the mere appearance of COI can undermine credibility of an institution. On this point, WAME states:

In addition, the appearance of COI, even where none actually exists, can also erode trust in a journal by damaging its reputation and credibility.

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) – the people who created the “Uniform requirements” and related “Vancouver” referencing style – also have considerations regarding COI. This document leads off with what I think is a very helpful description/definition of COI:

Public trust in the peer-review process and the credibility of published articles depend in part on how well conflict of interest is handled during writing, peer review, and editorial decision making. Conflict of interest exists when an author (or the author’s institution), reviewer, or editor has financial or personal relationships that inappropriately influence (bias) his or her actions (such relationships are also known as dual commitments, competing interests, or competing loyalties). These relationships vary from negligible to great potential for influencing judgment. Not all relationships represent true conflict of interest. On the other hand, the potential for conflict of interest can exist regardless of whether an individual believes that the relationship affects his or her scientific judgment. (emphasis mine)

As a third and final example, the Institute of Medicine has a consensus report on COI, the abstract of which begins:

Financial conflicts of interest pose many challenges to health care professionals. They raise concerns about the objectivity and trustworthiness of research conduct and publications, the prudent management of scientific investigations and other activities in the public interest, and the commitment of health care professionals to the best interests of patients. In recent years the media has highlighted failures of individuals and institutions to disclose and appropriately manage financial ties with industry (including pharmaceutical, medical device, medical supply, and insurance companies). These failures contribute to questions about whether industry has undue influence in research and other activities. (emphasis mine)

Just to flog a dead horse here, COI raises concerns about objectivity, good management practices, and whether the user group is the true priority. Additionally, past COI management failures cause the public to be more suspicious about current COIs.

COI and the Public Library

I thing all the quotes excerpted above could be applied to a library setting with little modification.

For example:

Financial conflicts of interest pose many challenges to library managers. They raise concerns about the objectivity and trustworthiness of library programs and collections, the prudent management of information services and other activities in the public interest, and the commitment of librarians to the best interests of patrons.

I don’t think that’s a stretch at all, do you?

Speaking specifically about the VPL/Olympics situation, I think it’s been difficult for external library-world folk to comment upon because we don’t really know whether there is an actual COI at play here.

I’m willing to give Jean Kavanaugh, VPL’s marketing & communications manager (n.b. a PR manager, NOT a librarian, as some commenters have alleged) the benefit of the doubt and assume that she issued memo(s) about Olympic sponsorships and branding in an effort to keep VPL employees from accidentally acting in a way that would raise the ire of VANOC (the Vancouver Olympic organizing committee, which has shown itself to be quite vicious when defending branding or sponsor affiliations). I’m willing to assume that Kavanaugh just got overzealous with the instructions in (ironically) an attempt to keep VPL out of the media and out of the courtroom. Kavanaugh herself  “said neither the city nor VANOC asked her to send the memo,” and both the city of Vancouver and VANOC appear baffled at her apparent need to send such a memo at all. I could be wrong here, but I’m willing to assume this was just a well-intentioned but botched communication on the part of Kavanaugh. Admit it here: we’ve all made messaging errors; we just don’t all have the pleasure of the Olympic spotlight on them!

That said, even if the intentions behind the memo(s) to VPL staff were perfect in integrity; even if no actual financial COI exists between VPL and VANOC/Olympic sponsors, there remains the problem of the appearance of COI that these rules have created – both within library staff and now with the public at large.

VPL could be completely conflict-free here, but in absence of an official statement from the library, the following remains the case:

  1. It’s unclear what the relationship (financial or otherwise) is between VPL and VANOC
  2. The leaked memo information instructing library staff on appropriate sponsorship behaviour creates the appearance of COI
  3. The potential COI in question is the hypothetical conflict between the interests of Olympic corporate sponsors and the intellectual freedom of the population.

What a Public Library can learn from Medical Publishing

If VPL were run like a reputable medical journal, we would see a disclosure statement as to the funding of the library, and whether the library or any of the trustees or top library management had in the past or will in the future stand to benefit financially from the success of VANOC and/or the Olympic sponsor companies. We would also have information as to which decisions were more and less likely to be influenced by such relationships. The analogue to the way medical journals send research articles out for blinded peer review in order to attempt at objective review of the paper’s merits might be a description of what does the library do to ensure balanced collection management and reference service.

VPL already has the building blocks from which it could create a cohesive response that would go a long way toward restoring the public’s faith in the library’s role as a protector and promoter or intellectual freedom (rather than a promoter of selective corporate interests). To begin with, there is the Collection Development Policy.

Additionally, as Tara points out, VPL has a sponsorship policy, which clearly states that “Sponsorships must not undermine the integrity of the non-commercial public space that the Library provides.” (Of course the same policy also does “not allow direct marketing of products to children”…which is interesting given the leaked memo’s instructions as to which fast food outlets to approach for sponsorship of kids’ activities.) Clearly, a memo about sponsorship and Olympic programs should have referenced the existing organizational sponsorship policy!

All to say that while it appears that VPL is hunkering down, not “dignifying” the media hubbub with a response, and hoping all of this brouhaha dies down under the desperate situation in Haiti and the frenzy over the actual Olympics, I wish the library would stand up and make an official public statement clarifying what, if any, COI exits here, and how it will be managed.

To paraphrase the ICMJE, Public trust in the library and the credibility of librarians depend in part on how well conflict of interest is handled. Ignoring allegations of COI are not, in my opinion, handling them especially well.

-Greyson

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