Access to Knowledge, academics, and IP

I spent this weekend attending the Access to Knowledge (A2K) conference (see wiki). A2K is a would-be social movement that ties together a number of existing intellectual property-related activism issues, ranging from free/libre open source software and copyleft, to copyright reform and fair use, to (abolishing) software patents, to patented crops and gene patents, to access to patented medicines in the developing world, to digital rights and privacy, to media regulation. I got to spend some time with Wikimedia board member and wiki developer Erik Möller, had a wonderful evening with a few friends, and met some interesting new people. And since I was in town for the weekend, I also got a chance to hear a wonderful talk by bad-ass historian of science Lorraine Daston on Enlightenment “observers” (naturalists, microscopists, and all-purpose obsessives) such as Charles Bonnet, who spent days on end (sleeping only occasionally and reluctantly) observing the every move of a single aphid, from birth to death, and on through several generations of parthenogenetic reproduction . Though their observations were considered a waste by their peers, Bonnet and other dedicated observers were consumed by their passion for observations (often sinking inherited fortunes into their projects); they never considered it work.

What, you ask, does A2K have to do with crazy Enlightenment patricians? After Daston’s talk, I was chatting with one of the authority figures in my department and let slip my own occasionally obsessive pastime. When I mentioned the Wikipedia history of biology article I had been working on (which became a Featured Article over the weekend–hooray!), I got a grumbling reply about peer reviewed publications and my C.V. This was the strongest disapproval this good-natured prof can project. He only perked up when I told him I had been invited to submit an opinion piece about Wikipedia and the history of science to the upcoming inaugural edition of Spontaneous Generations, a new open access history and philosophy of science journal. Now that there is an open access journal in the field, I said, I have somewhere to publish future work without feeling guilty. At this point I was reminded of what I already knew: it’s really tough to get humanists fired up about IP issues, even though these things ought to be high on their lists of social/political/cultural priorities (especially given the dreadful state of academic publishing).

The lawyers of the Yale Law School, on the other hand, are on the forefront of IP activism (hence hosting the A2K event). The conference was a mixed bag of interesting talks, old news, and random acts of scholarship. For the most part, the presenters from organizations I already liked (Wikimedia, Creative Commons, Internet Archive, Electronic Frontier Foundation) or should have already liked (Free Press) had the most interesting things to say, though presentations from Microsoft, Google, and Intel were also worth mentioning .

Erik encouraged me to put together a talk proposal for Wikimania 2007; if I can manage the logitistics, it’s an outside possibility.

MIT dean of admissions faked credentials

Marilee Jones, the MIT dean of admissions who has set the tone for making college admissions less of a ridiculous and unhealthy process at elite schools, resigned today after it was revealed that she had faked her credentials. In fact, she has no college degrees (rather than the three she had claimed since beginning at the MIT admissions office in 1979).

In other news, I’m thinking of dropping out of grad school to start my own degree mill. I’ll start by awarding myself a Doctorate of Mad Science in Flesh Reanimation, and a Masters of Disinformation Science.

Josh Greenberg, Zotero, and Scholarship 2.0 (!! Beta! Zap! Pow!)

Today, my department’s Holmes Workshop speaker was Josh Greenberg (aka, Epistemographer): an historian/STSer/hacker, formerly of the Center for History and New Media, now the “Director of Digital Strategy and Scholarship” (how rad a title is that?) at the New York Public Library.

I’ve been following the CHnM for a while now, and I had read about their flagship project Zotero, but I never realized what a revolutionary vision they have for this thing. Zotero is a Firefox plugin that does citations. It was initially conceived as an open source replacement EndNote (the only selling point for which, from what I hear, is that it’s not quite as bad as Word for footnotes).

In his introduction, Josh had an insightful comparison of “Finding vs. Searching”, basically the difference between an organized hierarchy of information (e.g., early Yahoo!, library stacks, and bibliographies), in which serendipitously finding things is the great benefit, and using the ubiquitous search boxes of the modern internet (e.g., Google, online library catalogs), with which you are searching for finite results in an undifferentiated database where anything outside the search parameters is simply invisible. (By random coincidence, he had randomly included this picture by me as an icon of the finding mode; hooray for unattributed syndication!).

Part of the goal of Zotero is to harness the best of both the searching and finding modes by adding a Web 2.0 social element to the citation program. This summer, the developers will be launching a Zotero server that will archive a user’s citation database so that it can be accessed from anywhere and retained in case of hardware failure. The upshot is that, unless the user opts out, the citation database will be used (sans private information, if desired) to create a sort of for scholarly material. Zotero will be useful enough to be used on its own, with the aggregate social aspect as icing that brings the potential for scholarly collaboration and recommendation to a new level. You can find other bibliographies similar to yours to see what like-minded scholars are reading that you aren’t, and you might be able to find other scholars you didn’t know about with similar research interests. In future versions, you’ll be able to share your marginalia, your original sources (interviews, photographs from archives, etc.), etc.

What makes Zotero cool today is the ability to automatically pull citation data from a large and ever-growing list of online sources. So you do a search on your local library catalog, and with one click you import the metadata for that source to your library. Then, when you want to cite that source, you have a wide range of output options (MLA, Chicago Style, EndNote, etc.). What sold me is that it even does export in Wikipedia citation template syntax. I never use the cite templates, because it’s usually easier to just type in the references how I want them. But with Zotero, I’m going to start using them. For the Wikipedians reading this, I recommend trying it out (make sure you get Beta 4, from the Zotero website; the one straight from Firefox is out of date and doesn’t have the Wikipedia support). It’s under heavy development and improving rapidly, but it’s already a very helpful thing.

Superb Wikipedia podcast; Ideas for Wikipedia to steal

There’s an extremely, superbly, awesomely good Wikipedia debate podcast at Language Lab Unleashed! It’s not good because it’s so correct (there are a number of misunderstandings, clichés, and analog wine in digital bottles) or insightful (Wikipedians have hashed out most of discussion many times over), but it gives a great cross-section of the ways academic humanists view Wikipedia.

The star of the show is Don Wyatt, chair of History at Middlebury College. He’s a classic curmudgeon, and gives voice to much of what I despise about the culture of the modern academy (a regular topic of my polemics), though he seems like a nice enough guy and it’s a rich and eloquent voice he gives it. Most of the comments coming out of Middlebury have been notably consonant with the wiki way (hence Jimbo’s endorsement of their official policy). But the policy was obviously a compromise, with Wyatt at the far end, viewing Wikipedia as a fundamental flawed endeavor and an unequivocal waste of time for any real scholar.

On the other end, Bryan Alexander and Robert Berkman (you know a geek when you hear one) have a good grasp of Wikipedia’s virtues, real and potential. In the middle is Elizabeth Colantoni, who is running a Wikipedia assignment at Oberlin (shoutout to User:WAvegetarian, apparently the student who inspired the assignment).

One of the best parts starts at around 55:15 (spun off from issues first posed beginning at 46:18), exploring the confluence of philosophy, epistemology, and copyright, with attitudes of today’s academics contrasted with the kids these days (and projecting into the future of the academy, when us kids will be in charge).

In other news, I found a major Wikipedia assignment I hadn’t noticed before: Marx Blog, the class blog of Derek Stanovsky at Appalachian State University, which is being used to write a monumental article/outline on Capital, Volume I.

Via Mills Kelly, I found a very cool site whose concept Wikipedia should steal: Users upload data sets (in spreadsheets), and the site creates a huge and flexible array of graphs. Multiple data sets can be used to make a single graph, so that it would be easy to create custom graphs for specific articles, with baselines of some sort of general data graphed together with more specific data (e.g., and non-sequiter mash-up of Wikipedia stats with the temperature in Fresno). Kelly describes it as a Flickr for data (in another excellent Digital Campus podcast, though with no mention of Wikipedia this time, except for a plug of Joseph Reagle’s recent plagiarism post). There is a lot of room for improvements in Swivel’s functionality, but the bigger reason Wikipedia needs to steal the concept is that (in my humble opinion) the potential reach of “a Flickr for data” is rather limited unless it’s part of a larger project.