Saturday, April 05, 2014

Expertise is Neither Dead nor Sequestered

In a very recent posting on his own blog, James Tanner wrote a response to a posting by Michael J. Leclerc, who himself was following up on an article in The Federalist by Tom Nichols.  (Are you with me so far?)

In a nutshell, Nichols was lamenting that the print-world distinction between expert opinions and general public opinions was being erased by the Web, which leveled the playing field for access to eyeballs.  As an academic librarian, I fully understand his concern.  Pre-Web, students had *some* reason to believe that the material that they found in libraries, in other words, material published in books, journals, magazines, and newspapers, had been vetted by professional publishers and editors and librarians, and therefore, these professional gatekeepers kept out uninformed opinions to the extent possible in a free society.  In a Web world, we academic librarians have to explain to students that it falls to them to use their critical thinking skills to evaluate the information that they find online, and that anyone (and we do mean *anyone*) can post an opinion on a blog (yes, I recognize the irony that I'm posting this on my own blog) or on a message forum.  But just because everything now can be found in the same "place" (the Web), does not mean that it is all of equal research value (or of equal educational value). 

My friend Michael built upon Nichols' work by commenting that here in the world of genealogical research, anyone can now post online any genealogical conclusion that they choose, even without a shred of evidence to support it, and that anyone who criticizes them for doing so is often labeled "elitist" (or referred to in similar terms).  You can hear the arguments: It's all opinion, after all, and one opinion is just as good as another.  It's just a hobby, I shouldn't have to cite my sources.

And now James Tanner has added his own views, agreeing in part with Michael, but claiming that the experts themselves are part of the problem, because they want credit for the research that they do (imagine that!), because the scholarly genealogical publications are "inaccessible" (Translation: They aren't made freely available on the Web, despite the fact that they are probably no farther than a short drive to a nearby large library for most people), and because the authors of the articles claim a copyright.  As one of my research institution's copyright librarians, I can assure pretty much anyone that a research article deserves copyright, and nobody should be criticized for asserting the rights that they deserve.

James takes experts to task by saying "I would suggest that those same experts realize that they have a duty and an opportunity to teach others."  Yes, James, we do, and we fulfill that duty when we publish our copyrighted material in journals and magazines or blogs or when we present at national, state, and local conferences.  But we have no duty to do all of this for free, or to do it all online.

We also have no duty to give up our copyright to our own materials, because there are times when we need to be financially rewarded for what we do, there are times when we want (and fully deserve) credit for what we do, and there are times when we want to control, to the legal extent possible, the use of our material.  James says "Any attempt to copy the research is met with hostility. This is true of many (if not most) academic journals."  No, what is met with hostility is not when people copy an article for their personal educational use (which almost always falls well within the U.S. fair use guidelines).  What is met with hostility is when people *publish* someone else's copyrighted material without permission, because that's a violation of copyright. 

People *do* still become educated by subscribing to magazines and journals, and if they can't afford them, then, as a librarian, I do suggest that they discover the nearest library that subscribes on their behalf.   I'm not the first to point this out.  Janis Gilmore did so in a comment response to James' article.  James responded with the idea that it's hard to get new genealogists to look at published print books and journals.  This is the fault of the experts?  No, this is the fault of those who think that education is not worth the trouble of visiting a library in person.  It's not all online, and that's true both of genealogical records *and* of genealogical educational materials.  The sooner that new genealogists learn this, the quicker that they'll broaden their educational horizons.