Gibberish is defined by Merriam-Webster as “foolish, confused, or meaningless words,” and the example sentences that are given suggest that gibberish is produced by people who are overexcited or unconscious. But it turns out that computers can also write gibberish, if they are programmed to do so, as we all found out when it was announced that publishers Springer and IEEE were withdrawing 120 papers they had published because they were found to be such computer-generated gibberish.
Nature has built in two important responses for human beings and other animals facing danger, which psychologists call the fight and the flight reflexes. Depending on the nature of the threat, either choice might be sensible in a specific context. This all came to mind during a conversation a couple of weeks ago with Chris Bourg, the Associate University Librarian for Public Services at Stanford. She spoke to Duke’s Seminar on the Research Library about the threat to libraries from neoliberal thinking in higher education. Chris’ talk was very interesting and challenging. I am not sure I entirely agree with her. But the part of the conversation I want to focus on is how librarians respond to a sense of crisis in our profession.
A great deal of my professional life is spent trying to make a body of law from the analog age, the 1976 Copyright Act, fit into the digital world. It is a difficult task, but today I want to discuss a different body of law from the same era—the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA), aka the Buckley amendment—and how it can fit with the new activities we are engaged in in the online age.
This year, several announcements and blog posts combined to focus my attention on a slightly different question. What problems can open access solve? The answer seems obvious; open access will solve the problem of highly restricted and limited access to scholarship. A somewhat different problem that OA can help solve is the problem of scholarship locked up in the hands of badly run businesses that have come to believe that their inefficient and ineffective ways of doing business must be preserved at all costs.
Black Elk Speaks has been published by three different publishers in the U.S. The rarity that this movement creates is the availability of different editions of the book from different publishers. That is, there is a semblance of competition in the publishing of Black Elk Speaks. This anomaly brings into relief the normal effects of the copyright monopoly. It offers an opportunity to reflect on what alternatives to the strict publishing monopoly might look like.
Having written a column a couple of weeks ago expressing skepticism, even cynicism, about the prospect of the international diplomatic conference sponsored in Marrakesh by the World Intellectual Property Organization actually producing a treaty on copyright exceptions for the blind and visually impaired, I was both pleased and surprised to hear that such a treaty was agreed to by the delegates in the wee hours of June 25.
During these last two weeks of June, delegates to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) are meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco, to negotiate around a proposed treaty on Limitations and Exceptions for Visually Impaired Persons. Such a treaty would require that each country allow copies of copyrighted materials that are compatible with assistive software to be made.. Such an exception would be very limited, and would serve a very laudable purpose. So it is fair to ask why it has taken so long, seen several reversals on the part of the U.S. administration, and remains controversial.
Why would one decide to publish a journal on public health? It sound like a rhetorical question, but it may be more serious than we think. The obvious answer is to improve the health of the public. But if that really is the goal, a publisher in public health would need to try to reach the largest audience of the public that was possible. So a recent announcement from one prominent public health publisher casts doubt on that intent, and the purpose of the journal overall.
Recently I was talking with a Duke faculty member and editor of a prominent scholarly journal about ways to improve access to the journal he edits. In the midst of the conversation, I found myself being lectured on the need to get scholarly publishing out from under the control of commercial publishing firms. What were libraries going to do, I was asked, to break the stranglehold that commercial publishing had over scholarship? Fortunately I had some answers for him, and a great deal of sympathy for his perspective. But it was very odd to have the tables turned on me like that; I am usually the advocate for open access and new models of scholarly communications, so it was strange to be treated, even briefly, as a defender of the status quo.
Do librarians really get sued, or threatened with lawsuits, all that often? It is hard to say. My initial impression is that they do not get haled into court very often, but it is very difficult to know about threats. There may be more saber-rattling than we know about, and if such threats actually prevent librarians from taking the challenged action, we might never know about it. That is called a “chilling effect,” and there is a website devoted to cataloging such threats, which librarians should be aware of and, I think, contribute to when appropriate.