Gavia Libraria

On diving beyond one’s depth

Loons are diving birds (indeed, no few areas of the English-speaking world call us “divers” rather than loons). We have a rather refined sense of depth, and we know when we’re diving beyond it. We also know that sometimes “deeper than we’ve been” is exactly where we need to go.

The Loon has no illusions about the central reason she was hired to teach: she came into the job with several areas of knowledge and skill considered either bread-and-butter or (and this is key) cutting-edge. She also builds an estimable syllabus and handles a classroom deftly enough, but these merits would have mattered little if she had not been a ready-loaded weapon against a few common forms of tomato discourse.

No such portfolio advantage lasts forever; the cutting edge is notable for its mobility.

An end to blogging

The Loon’s Boring Alter Ego was outed as the Loon today at her place of work, in such wise that denying the association would only have made matters worse.

That makes Gavia Libraria no longer a safe pursuit. It is therefore ending.

The Loon will take thought about what to do with Gavia’s archives.

On teaching ethics, to technologists or otherwise

The Loon is neither philosopher nor trained ethicist. This puts her at some disadvantage when faced with the challenges of imparting a reliable, pragmatic sense of ethics to her students, be they future librarians, future technologists, or just plain old future people. She had to think hard about where her own sense of ethics comes from, in fact. The answer appears to be that the Loon, when she was young and impressionable, was fortunate enough to meet several people who wore their ethics on their sleeves as well as clearly living them. She was drawn to such people—continues to be, truthfully—and patterns her life on theirs both consciously and un-. Of course she does not claim this is the only road to a more ethical life; it just happens to be her own.

As might be imagined, the Loon has been watching the current discourse on ethicking up technology industries and technology education with considerable interest. She agrees that Chief Ethicist positions are a bandaid solution doomed to failure. This is Coordinator Syndrome crossed with innovation shielding. It will end quickly but not well; indeed, it already has at least once. Paradoxically, after a few more Chief Ethicists get burned, the only people willing to take such a position are liable to be the less-than-ethical.

The most substantial challenge the Loon faces in her teaching is that so many of her students, if they have encountered the word “ethics” at all (and many have not!), view the matter as decontextualized unlikely algebraic word problems (the Loon is heartily sick of the trolley problem and would delight in a moratorium on its discussion) with zero relationship to anything they themselves have ever or will ever encounter. Another, much smaller, group treats ethics as an unrestrained exercise in point-scoring debate performance, equally divorced from real-world decisionmaking.

Doubtless credentialed ethicists and philosophers would be aghast at the Loon’s methods, but they do seem to work, so for the little they are no doubt worth:

  • Explain that work and life will provide both opportunities and inducement to do wrong, and to refrain from doing right.
    • Some people, including people with power over us, will demand wrongdoing of us.
    • Some situations will make wrongdoing far easier than its opposite. Courage and strength are required to walk the harder road.
    • Doing right can cost us. It is rarely a consequence-free path. If it were, we wouldn’t need to bother with ethics as an intellectual pursuit or pragmatic practice, would we, now?
    • Not a few situations involve competing wrongs and rights. Disentangling them to find the best (or least-worst) way to proceed is rarely straightforward.
    • Our heuristics-driven brains betray us here. (The Loon flatly refuses to use the wretched trolley problem as her illustration.)
  • Explain that one can only do good, never intrinsically be good. (It is frankly shocking how many of the Loon’s students this surprises.)
  • Say, clearly and without hedging and as soon as reasonable, “this is wrong” or “this should never have happened” when it is or it shouldn’t. Students respect that, not least because it appears to be unfortunately rare in their educational experience, and they need it. Of course back the statement up with reasoning and evidence, but the Loon has seen too many classes and instructors floundering in the evidence-and-reasoning weeds without ever making an unequivocal statement about wrongness. At its worst, this tendency can lead to the abovementioned point-scoring debates over whether some people even exist. Do not ever let a classroom decay that far!
  • Explain that ethics and its professional apparatus (codes, code explications and interpretations, and so on) are meant as a general toolbox to help resolve murky and/or unforeseen situations. They are not a cut-and-dried decision tree, because they can’t be.
  • Use recent (ideally local) real-world examples to illustrate the need for ethics generally, and ethical dilemmas particularly. Never, ever use homogenized, regurgitated, decontextualized “case studies.” Make students work through what they could have done in a given participant’s shoes, encouraging lateral thinking, root-cause analysis, and constraint/opportunity analysis over tiresomely performative “well, of course I would have put on my cape and superheroed!” posturing.

The overarching idea is instilling a sense of personal ethical responsibility, and preparing them to act on its nudges. If that foundation is there, the Loon finds that the rest tends to work itself out… but for those who prefer a more decision-treelike approach, the Loon rather likes this comparison of ethics schools, their virtues and flaws, and how to use each of them in decisionmaking.

She hopes she is paying forward the good examples she learned from.

“S” planning

A set of European research funders calling itself “Coalition S” has banded together to forbid pure toll-access and hybrid publication for its grantees. The thinkpiece engine is revving up, so the Loon will let it. She merely has a practical question or two about the scheme.

  • How do the funders plan to enforce this? Since they are funders, they bypass the tiresome wrangling over academic freedom that enjoins higher-education institutions from such schemes, so that is all well and good. Still, to make this plan stick, the coalition needs, shall we say, a stick; carrots by themselves will not do. Worse yet, the stick will likely have to be deployed mid-grant now and then. What is the infrastructure by which these funders will track manuscript submissions, and what will they do when one (inevitably) goes to a forbidden journal?
  • Will career-conscious faculty go along? Grants are often sufficiently carroty to compete with glamour-mag publication, never mind bread-and-butter journals. Problems arise when faculty do not initially understand—or choose to brush off—certain types of fine print in their grant agreements, and then find themselves arguing with their funder. The NIH mostly managed because its strictures about allowable publication venues were quite lenient (especially after the big pigs were strongarmed into accepting the scheme). We have not yet seen such strict limitations as these. We do not know how faculty will respond. The Loon is popping a large bowl of popcorn for the occasion.
  • Do the funders really understand what they’re doing? As the Loon reads the plan (with the understanding that so far, its verbiage is limited and somewhat vague), it has a strong whiff of Finch Report about it—and this is not a good omen. Who were the movers behind this? Whom did they consult? What is their understanding of academe’s wicked publishing problems? The Loon does not care to assert (as a few already have) that the coalition will unavoidably fall apart under pressure from researchers and big pigs—but she does think it possible if some coalition members are underprepared for the flak likely coming their way.

Apologies for brevity; the Loon is diving into the fall semester and is quite busy. She wishes Coalition S well.

Quality heuristics and coercive citation

The Loon saw a hapless researcher on Twitter today, wondering what to do about a journal that asked them to insert sixty (60!) citations to itself into their manuscript as a condition of acceptance.

The answer, should any of the Loon’s readers run into this, is “withdraw your article and run; screaming is optional, but may relieve the spirit.” This practice is known as “coercive citation” and is a naked attempt to game Journal Impact Factor by manufacturing illegitimate citations. Twitter intervenors suggested two responses: reporting the journal to current JIF owner Clarivate, which can yank a journal’s IF, and reporting the journal and/or publisher to the Committee on Publication Ethics (though this will only help if the journal/publisher is a COPE member).

The Loon is not the first to observe that scholarly publishing makes a market in prestige as well as money. We hear a great deal about how scammy open-access outfits interfere with the proper workings of the prestige market. (We hear ever so much less about how scammy toll-access outfits do, of course.)

We don’t hear about the gaming of quality heuristics, though our Twitter researcher’s experience illustrates the cycle beautifully:

  • Journal implements coercive citation.
  • Journal’s JIF rises.
  • More researchers—especially those not paying attention to much beyond heuristics like JIF—submit work to journal.
  • Journal coerces them as well… and ’round the circle goes.

The question of attention-paying is important, but much-discussed elsewhere. The Loon will limit herself to observing (again) that coercive citation, like so much other scammery inside and outside scholarly communication, thrives on picking off the naïve and careless, of which academe has many.

The Loon is terribly tempted to write an out-and-out no-holds-barred spittle-flecked philippic on how impact factor is ruining scholarly publishing, cozening poor innocent scholars into destroying their own reputations, and poisoning the scholarly record. Ruining, cozening, and poisoning, she tells you! Unfortunately, she is as usual very pressed for time. If any of her gentle readers would enjoy writing this philippic, do feel free.