Tag Archives: ethics

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.”

Scary.  

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.

 -Greyson

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. 

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Filed under ethics, gender, research, The Profession

“Fake” journals and recent CMAJ article on librarians

“Fake” Journals

In late April, when the Scientist broke the “Merck/Elsevier fake journal” story, my initial reaction was cynical surprise that this story was getting so much attention.

Honestly, we see “fake” (i.e. sponsored) journals and “fake” (i.e. ghostwritten) articles all the time. Every week.

And that’s not even mentioning the articles that are “merely” subject to gigantic conflicts of interest (disclosed or undisclosed). This is so prevalent that I can’t even really bring myself to call this literature “fake” (without disclaimer quotation marks) because it’s out there, every day, not limited to one publisher/imprint or one (or six) journal(s), or one drug company.

In any given sub-field, it’s rarely that difficult to know which journals are “sponsored” by parties with vested interests, and which take an approach which is more classically considered to be “scholarly.”

So when Exerpta Medica claims, on their website:

“Does EM publish fake journals?
No. EM currently publishes scientific journals

Does EM publish sponsored journals?
Yes, one currently – Insulin”

 

They have a point. Is Insulin more egregious than many other sponsored journals out there? Perhaps, but perhaps it’s better, since at least now they are being transparent about the sponsorship.

I mean, anyone who knows much of anything about medical publishing will recognize Excerpta Medica for a propaganda machine. But they don’t really try to hide it (although parent company Elsevier cannot necessarily claim the same), stating right on their homepage:

“Excerpta Medica is a strategic medical communications agency. We partner with our clients in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries to educate the global health care community and enable them to make well informed decisions regarding treatment options.”

 

 

 

 

The role of librarians

 

Back to the “Elseveier fake journal” story, though…

When I looked at the scanned PDFs (here and here) of issues of the Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, posted online by the Scientist, the question I asked myself, as a  health librarian, was:

Would I know, just by looking at this journal, that it was not “real”?

I felt relieved to be able to say “yes,” despite the lack of disclosures of a number of conflicts of interest, largely because of the “Honorary Editorial Board” listed in the front matter of the journal. Like every other librarian not at the State Library of New South Wales, I would never have subscribed to this virtually unheard-of journal that didn’t even have a real editorial board.

However, assuming I wouldn’t have this journal in my collection, it’s entirely possible that my researchers would request an article via ILL. Deprived of it’s context – as so much information is these days, from music tracks without album packaging to articles without journal front matter – would I have flagged one of these articles as “fake” and warned the patron who ordered it? Honestly, I would probably have passed it along without a thought to the matter.

This thought has been nagging at me all summer.

No, it’s not always a librarian’s job to give a critical appraisal of the info s/he’s passing along to researchers. When it is appropriate, however, we should be careful to do a good job. And in light of raised public awareness of “fake”/unethical medical publishing, perhaps this very type of critical appraisal is something we should be marketing.

CMAJ article

Fortunately the CMAJ just put out a nice little article based on interviews with several awesome Canadian health librarians, which highlights several things for all of us to keep in mind when assessing journals. It’s short; go read it. (ETA citation now that it’s no longer an “early release”: Collier, R. Medical journal or marketing device? CMAJ September 1, 2009 181:E83-E84; doi:10.1503/cmaj.091326.)

If you can’t even spare the time to read a short article on the topic, here’s my list of things they identify as red flags for possible “fakeness” in journals:

Things you don’t need the journal in hand to assess:

  • Not being indexed, anywhere
  • Not having a journal website
  • Not having an editorial board
  • Not having submission instructions for authors
  • Not having an ISSN
  • Not having an impact factor (<- I don’t really agree with this one, particularly if you’re talking about non-US content, as many of our “real” Canadian journals are not ISI-indexed)

Things you can assess with a look at an article/journal:

  • Are the researchers prominent people (<- I also quibble with this one, as ghostwriting often uses prominent individuals as “authors”)
  • Do the same authors appear too frequently (how frequently is too much depends a bit on discipline, but it can get ridiculous)
  • Are the article citations largely to the same journal, or to obscure websites

I think these items are a great beginning for a pamphlet or something to warn/educate researchers about “fake” journals…and maybe to market the skills of health librarians in cutting through the chaff of sponsored scientific publications to the actual scholarly kernels in the literature.

Anything else you would add to the above lists?

-Greyson

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Filed under ethics, Health, publishing, The Profession

Free Speech and Patron Privacy are Corequisites for Intellectual Freedom

The book

So you’ve probably heard about this library assistant (Sally Stern-Hamilton, aka Ann Miketa) in small-town Michigan (Luddington) who wrote a fiction book (“Library Diaries”) based upon her accounts of library patrons, and published it under her maiden surname at a vanity press. The book doesn’t sound all that original or like it’s anything that should garner international attention. However, the scandal that has ensured over the book has brought the book, author, and little town in the Midwestern US, into the spotlight.

n.b. I was hesitant to write about this kerfuffle at first, as I think the attention only serves the author’s book sales and it’s not a book I personally care to promote, but on balance I decided that discussion of the issues of free speech and privacy that underlie the news are worth it.

The disciplinary action

After the book came out, the author was suspended from her job, with a letter that stated, (presumably among other things):

“The cover of your book includes a picture of the Ludington Library. Each chapter is devoted to a specific library patron or patrons. Your book portrays these people in a very unflattering manner. You describe individual patrons as mentally ill, mentally incompetent, unintelligent, and unattractive. You label several as ‘perverts.’ While you stop short of naming the individuals you targeted in your book, your detailed descriptions of their unique characteristics and mannerisms make them easily identifiable in our small community.”

The author response

The author has gone public, with such statements as,

The absolute irony is that the public library is a pillar of free speech and leads me to wonder why the administration is so upset.”

It should be noted that at the same time, this author is railing against

instances of known sex offenders using library computers to view pornography.

indicating that she perhaps disagrees with the notion that the library should be “a pillar of free speech” at all. Or maybe she thinks intellectual freedom can be a one-way street, push-only, and not inclusive of access to informationHold that thought.

The public response

Varies greatly.

Local newspaper comments calling the author a “loose cannon” and saying that the book’s characters are easily identifiable community members, are mixed in with someone who thinks there is a Muslim running for President of the US.

Conservative viewpoints are defending the author’s whistleblowing about libraries giving sex offenders access to the Internet, in the name of protecting our children.

The Annoyed Librarian theorized that the author was fired not for betraying patron privacy but for criticizing her superiors.

The issues

Leaving aside questions of literary merit, this situation highlights some oft-confused aspects of free expression and intellectual freedom: namely that free speech is but one element of intellectual freedom, and that library organizations – for instance the ALA – tend to try to strike a balance between privacy, access and free expression in order to promote the package we call Intellectual Freedom.

Patron privacy and confidentiality is an essential element of ensuring access to information. Privacy is as essential as anti-censorship in assuring intellectual freedom. (Hmm…why hasn’t a “Privacy Week” caught on the same way as “Banned Books Week” or “Freedom to Read Week”? I would say something about USA PATRIOT but this really goes back much farther than that…something for me to ponder)

If a library user fears ridicule, exposure or public humiliation due to his question, mannerisms, health history, or criminal record, that patron is not actually being provided with the access to information we hold. The beginning of that ALA Library Bill of Rights reads:

Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves.

It later states that:

Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.

clearly indicating that resistance of censorship, and promotion of free expression, are one facet of the great goal of providing access to information (and nirvana).

By threatening patron privacy – be it by complying with a warrentless library search,  or by writing a thinly veiled exposé of the “perverts” in your library, a library worker is eroding intellectual freedom, no matter how loudly she may insist that the privacy threat was made in the name of “free speech” (or national security, “for the children,” etc.).

The “Library Diaries” author has posted an online rant:

“Whats going on in this world? I have not been able to find one lawyer to make a First Amendment (Freedom of Speech, Press) case or even a whistleblower case.”

I suspect this is because the lawyers she has consulted have a stronger grasp on the concept of free speech than she does. In addition to free speech being one part of the intellectual freedom balancing act in the information world, there are legal limits on free speech as well. Defamation (for example libel, which may or may not have occurred in this book) is a legal restriction on freedom of speech in the US.

Many professional codes of ethics restrict professionals’ free speech, but this is not a constitutional violation because employment in that field is voluntary. Would a doctor being fired from a hospital after publishing thinly veiled accounts of her patients’ weird and embarrassing health issues cry “free speech”? I suppose she could try, but I doubt she would she get as much support as this library worker is getting.

Lori Basiewicz has written an interesting and useful USAmerican take on what free speech and censorship are and are not. Basiewicz blogs that while it is possible that the author may find a lawyer to take on a wrongful termination suit (depending on what the exact reasons for her termination were), the library has done nothing to prevent publication or dissemination of the book (which could be considered censorship, although probably would not technically infringe on the author’s First Amendment right to free speech), and her claims that the book is fiction make the whistleblower argument pretty weak. I tend to agree.

The Profession

Some of this muddle relates to our confusion as to the role of libraries. Are library workers trusted professionals or information waitresses? Is our job to check books in and out, or is it to build and protect free information infrastructure for the public? The profession cannot fully resolve these questions internally, so it should come as little surprise that the public doesn’t know how to regard us either.

You don’t have to be a MLIS-type librarian to run a library, and you don’t have to believe in the ALA Code of Ethics to be a librarian. Library assistants and other “para-professional” or non-MLIS library staff are integrated and accepted in a very spotty manner, into the ALA-type library world. These are core professional issue that we seem thus far to have been unable to resolve, despite being a fairly ancient profession.

That said, the ALA Code of Ethics is generally seen as setting best practices and standards for libraries in the US, and it seems pretty clearly violated by the book at the centre of this current storm. The first three items are clear enough:

· We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.

· We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.

· We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.

that it seems almost unnecessary for me to also add in item #6:

· We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.

So…

For me the question is one of our profession and coordinated messages. Maybe the author involved in this brouhaha knew she would likely get fired for the book, and didn’t care. Maybe she saw her mission to expose the “characters you never dreamt were housed at your public library” as important enough to risk the job. If so, that’s her choice to make (much as some might wish she would not make it), and all choices in life have consequences. However, if she is really as uninformed about free speech and the library’s role as she appears in the sound bytes, I have a concern about our profession.

After working in a library for 15 years one would expect a better grasp of the concept of intellectual freedom. Some might argue that she was “only” a library assistant, but that’s who most of the public has the most interaction with, in many libraries – it is essential that such library workers are educated in core professional ethics. We need to act on two things if we want to reduce such confusion:

  1. Hit more clearly on our core value messages; make sure all library workers understand and can teach the public what intellectual freedom is, and
  2. Better integrate non-MLIS library workers into our professional organizations

– Greyson

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Filed under censorship, Intellectual freedom, LIS education, Other blogs, privacy, public libraries, The Profession