Thursday, 7 June 2012

Are online aliases ever justified in academic debate?

When a sock puppet comes calling, academic excellence is put at risk. My piece published in the Guardian Higher Education Network on the 7th June 2012.

It was interesting to see all the sock puppets who came out to play in the comments section of the piece. Seems like the Golb case is a cause célèbre for many out there. I would have responded with some factual corrections but I was suffering from chicken pox at the time this was published and thus hadn't the energy to get my thoughts online at that time.

So for the record:

1. I am not part of a Dead Sea Scroll (DSS) conspiracy or otherwise against Golb. He is merely the best publicised sock puppet in academia and I wanted to write about sock puppets. I did lead the DSS pilot digitisation with other technical experts such as Greg Bearman, Julia Craig-McFeeley and Tom Lianza. I have not had involvement for the last two years or so with anything DSS related since Google got involved. The peer reviewed paper on the pilot activity is available here (pdf). Greg remains involved with the DSS and is the world's pre-eminent technical brain behind the multi-spectral imaging aspects of the DSS. My role was to lead the pilot team to deliver all the objectives of the pilot and to write the pilot report and fundraising budget/strategy.

2. I must apologise for two things:

  • I imply Golb has been imprisoned when he is still out on appeal. His charge stands at this moment subject to that appeal, but he hasn't served any prison time.
  • I must also apologise for spelling Lawrence Schiffman's name incorrectly.

3. The Guardian decided to change the title from my original "When a sock puppet comes calling, academic excellence is put at risk" to the somewhat more accessible but maybe misleading "Are online aliases ever justified..."
Please note my definition of the problem as "This is not the anonymity we all sometimes seek when online; sock puppetry is about setting up a false identity so the puppeteer can speak falsely while pretending to be another person.... a person using multiple pseudonyms to give a false and biased impression of scholarly debate." I am not opposed to anonymity or online aliases - I am opposed to sock puppets as defined here.

Despite some of the attack comments and the inevitable controversy of writing anything that includes the DSS I am glad to have written this piece for the Guardian. I feel strongly about a sock puppet in the field of digital humanities and I hope this helps to resolve that issue. I have also received many comments, tweets and messages of support for my perspective from those who can see beyond the DSS exemplar. And there are a couple of blog posts worth mentioning on the issue as well:

I'd also like to thank those commentators who posted the counter argument and engaged in the debate so actively and with such strong intellectual clarity. I appreciated hearing your voices even if they disagreed with my perspective.

Update 4th February 2013 as reported in the New York Law Journal:
The attorney, Raphael Golb, who was convicted in 2010, was found to have impersonated other scholars who disagreed with his father, at one point sending an email purportedly from one of those scholars confessing plagiarism. On appeal, Golb argued his aliases were intended as parody, and were part of an academic debate protected by the First Amendment. The First Department rejected that argument. "Defendant was not prosecuted for the content of any of the emails, but only for giving the false impression that his victims were the actual authors of the emails," the panel wrote in its Jan. 29 unsigned opinion in People v. Golb, 2721/09. "The First Amendment protects the right to criticize another person, but it does not permit anyone to give an intentionally false impression that the source of the message is that other person."

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