What If All The Images Went Away

After arguing with (arguably) allies in science communication I was fed up. Fed up with the attitude that unattributed images are just a (small) sacrifice for the net good of science communication to the populace at large. Fed up that photographers, cartoonists & illustrators are considered by many to be lesser professions than scientists & educators. Fed up that rapid image sharing (oh I’m sorry: “curation”) can trample so many creators and yet lead to fame and fortune.

I found myself saying once again, “can you imagine what science communication would be like without images?

Note well that Glendon Mallow is discussing attribution, which is a minimal effort, and not permission, which really should be a part of the discussion (Here’s a link where that does come up). Sometimes permission is not an issue, because of creative commons licensing or the image being in the public domain. But a lack of a copyright notice is not any guarantee that an image is in the pubic domain some people will edit images to remove the attribution and copyright (OMG!) before they post an image, and you might be grabbing that bootlegged image. The bottom line is that using an image without permission is likely a copyright violation. And it’s the wrong thing to do.

But, baby steps. As noted in the post, this internet doohickey is still pretty new, so lets get the lack-of-attribution habit fixed, and then we can tackle getting permission.

I Would Do Anything for Blogs, but I Won't Do That

Third of a short series. Summary of and commentary on some talks at ScienceOnline 2014

The session was called Standards in blogging, referring to scientific and journalistic standards. The question before the group was should blogging have some sort of code of conduct, much like journalists do (or are supposed to have), and the research standards scientists aspire to?

It was broken down into the areas of

* Background – do you have to read the original paper? Do you contact the authors? Discuss the science with other parties?

* Neutrality and balance

* Use of anonymous sources

In broad terms it was recognized that blogging standards must be informal, because there isn’t a formal path like journalism school that could teach the standards. So we sort of have to deal with this on our own.

I think the room was generally surprised that reading the original paper had to be brought up, because if you’re critiquing a paper, of course you have to read it. It was clear from the discussion of contacting the author(s) and potential competitors that the bulk of the audience was comprised of bloggers who were not always schooled in the topics they wrote about, which led into the question of how to convey when you are speaking from a position of expertise, or interpreting others’ expertise, which may confuse readers who aren’t familiar with the author. I’m not sure there was a clear solution on that. Caveat emptor, I guess.

On the subject of anonymous sources, we discussed the fact that peer review is already anonymous, so blogging about a paper already involves anonymity. While I seem to recall a sentiment that anonymous quotes were frowned upon, one of the contrary observations was that some scientists might not want to go on the record calling out problems with a paper published in their field.

Most of this really doesn’t affect me, though. All of the discussion through the first 2/3 of the session seemed to be from the non-scientist or scientists blogging subjects outside their field of expertise. I finally jumped in to give my perspective, that I don’t interview people so a lot of the points were moot, because what I am offering is my informal opinion, based on some level of expertise. That limits the scope of my discussion, of course, but this is a hobby. The one part that does apply is that I do consult other physicist before writing some posts. I works with some smart people, so I can often double-check that I’m not being an idiot (doesn’t always work, though), but not in a way where I would quote them. More like the journalists’ deep background, being a second source.

On the subject of neutrality and balance, my view is that I blog so that I don’t have to be balanced or neutral. In the room there was a definite aversion to false balance — those stories you read where you get both sides of the story, even if the other side is crackpottery. But to me true balance and neutrality are not important in blogs the way they are in traditional journalism. In the applicable type of post I’m saying what I think, or translating some bit of science for a wider audience based on what I know. (The rest of the time I’m complaining about how someone else didn’t do it right or just posting interesting links). To me, that ability to freely add your own bias or perspective is the whole point of blogging — you can do this without it having to go through someone else’s journalistic filter. (also not having to go through someone’s editor to decide if the story is worthy)

Not a Difficult Concept: Don't Take It if it's Not Yours

Second of a short series. Summary of and commentary on some talks at ScienceOnline 2014

Two of the sessions I attended involved legal and ethical issues of content use online. One was a Q&A session with an intellectual property lawyer and the other was a session entitled “Combatting Online Parasitism”.

The legal “advice” (which, disclaimer: does not actually constitute legal advice) confirmed several things I already knew; I had read up on copyright some years ago when I started trying to get cartoons published. The big concept that both talks had in common was this general idea:

If you didn’t create the work, you don’t control the copyright to it. You are NOT free to use it without permission.

There are some caveats. Some content creators don’t own the copyright — it could be a “work for hire”, i.e. it’s your job to create the content and your employer owns it, or (like me), you work for the US government, and content created for work carries no copyright at all. It’s also possible to transfer copyright (must be done in writing), and some content is in the public domain. Some content carries easy-to-use licensing, such as creative commons.

In the parasitism discussion, I think it was agreed that pictures and artwork are generally abused more than written works, though that does happen (some sites are just bots that mirror other sites), and Twitter is where a lot of the image-copying abuse takes place, since it’s so easy to just link to a photo and post it. It’s so commonplace that there is little social stigma attached to the act. The common justification “but you get free exposure” doesn’t fly as an excuse — it’s the copyright holder and only the copyright holder who gets to make that decision.

There are several Twitter accounts where all they do is link photos and artwork, and very often with no attribution and probably without permission. The two are actually separate issues.

Attribution does not solve copyright, it solves plagiarism. It is not a cure for infringement

That means that simply posting an image credit does not get you off the hook for stealing the image. (Using the lay definition of “stealing”. I’m not entertaining the semantic argument here that intellectual property theft falls under civil law and therefore is technically not stealing. It’s still illegal, and wrong.) Giving credit is better than not giving credit, but absent permission as discussed above, it’s still a copyright violation.

There were a number of people in the room who had had their work used without permission, and I was one of them. I’ve seen my cartoons show up in various places on the web — on an academic blog, in a newsletter (where they had the audacity to say “used with permission”). A few times I’ve had cartoons appear on popular Facebook pages, and in no instances did they ask. It’s not like I would have declined, but they should still ask.

On the other hand, I should point out that’s I’ve had a number of requests over the years to use my cartoons in academic talks and even in a book, so there are a lot of people out there doing it right. I almost always say yes to such requests, and generally offer higher-resolution copies of the work, but limiting the quality of available works doesn’t do much to combat online abuse. (it might work in the cases where print quality or magnification is needed)

Another way of stating the above is

www does not mean public domain

So, what do do about all this?

For some of us in the audience, a missing attribution was the primary problem rather than the lack of permission (which they would have been happy to give), so simply contacting the people works in some of these cases. Some abusers simply aren’t aware of the law, and are happy to comply. Others, not so much — there were some anecdotes about attribution being posted for the one case, but no change in overall behavior of the site.

When a simple request fails, public shaming can work. It turns out that some vigilante-esque negative publicity can go a long way, according to some of the stories that were told. It was suggested that a twitter hashtag (#picbatman was mentioned) for “attribution rangers” would help rally folks to bring attention to some abusers.

There was also some lamenting that some of the larger names online don’t take attributions and copyright infringement seriously. “Takedown” letters go to the service providers, not the sites themselves, and formal legal action may be too involved for an individual. To me this is especially disappointing; there are entities out there that are very protective of their own intellectual property but seemingly not as vigilant when it comes to matters of infringing others’ IP.

I think the general mood was that while getting permission is the proper thing to do, using works without attribution feels much worse. (This may reflect a room demographic of people whose job is not primarily creating such content and who don’t have employers with resources to fight the copyright battle.) In that regard, one of the ending sentiments was

Crediting others for their work costs you nothing


Edit to add (3/14) Post by Matt Shipman with some tips and links: Science Communication and the Art of Not Stealing


Thinking Like a Scientist

First of a short series (I hope). Summary of and commentary on some talks at ScienceOnline 2014

“What is Science Literacy”

I had some high hopes for this session, since this is a topic I’ve discussed before and care about. Unfortunately (for me) a fair fraction of the talk was dominated by discussion of science engagement. This is no small matter, and I concede that if you can’t engage with an audience they won’t become literate in the first place, and also that the audience seemed to be interested in that discussion, but I was hoping for more discussion on what literacy actually is. If you haven’t defined the problem, it’s hard to come up with an answer. I was anticipating more discussion on science not being a list of facts to be memorized and literacy being a combination of knowledge and the ability to apply the knowledge, which only came up late in the session, and not in a lot of depth.

At the beginning, though, the problem was framed in terms of a discussion the moderator (David Ng from UBC) had had with an 8 year-old, who asked (1) are unicorns real, and when that got a “no”, asked (2) could they be real (again, no), and finally (3) what if you actually saw a unicorn anyway, leaping over a rainbow. How would that change your answer?

The questions were in the context of the mythical creatures, rather than horses that might have something growing out of their forehead, so even though there might be some creature that looks like a unicorn and biology doesn’t rule such an animal out, it’s the magical things they do that tell us that they don’t and could not exist (violation of conservation of energy was offered as a prominent reason).

But what about question 3? We never really got around to answering that, but here’s my take, which I covered just last week: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The non-existence of unicorns and the reasons for this are quite well-established. If anyone were to report seeing a unicorn, the general reaction would be that they were mistaken — their eyes were tricked, or their video was a fake — and what evidence they had would be closely scrutinized, because it contradicts a large volume of careful science that has already been done. And THAT is a bit of science literacy — an understanding of the process by which we accept things as true or not within science. It’s too bad we ran out of time before the discussion could go there.

One other bit that came up was that the true goal of literacy is to get more people thinking scientifically even if they aren’t scientists, something with which I agree and tends to get lost in discussions that are focused on how many scientists we may or may not need, and falsely assumes that science understanding is or should be an all-or-nothing affair.

My Voice is My Passport. Verify Me.

As I wrote on Friday, there’s a potential danger in thinking that your experience is typical or widespread. I ran across a topic where this applies — online pseudonyms. I obviously don’t; I work in a small slice of applied science, so I think it would be hard to put up repeated posts about timekeeping and not be found out, but more importantly, I’m not in a situation where need to hide who I am. But that isn’t true of all bloggers.

Tell me again how pseudonyms are lame

Pseudonyms are essential online

I think it’s important to draw the distinction between an anonymous online presence and a pseudonym. A pseudonym at least presents a consistent persona. Even though you don’t know the person’s name, there is an identity associated with the ideas. Criticism aimed at anonymous writing doesn’t necessarily apply to someone using a pseudonym.