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    Your University Now Owns Your Blog
    By Michael White | April 15th 2009 10:41 AM | 19 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Michael

    Welcome to Adaptive Complexity, where I write about genomics, systems biology, evolution, and the connection between science and literature,

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    Bora has posted an interesting draft policy on social media from an unidentified "Big Research Institution" (BRI).

    It's already stimulating some good discussion (follow the link for more links) - no surprise, since the policy guidelines contain juicy quotes like these:

    All BRI social media output is the intellectual property of BRI.


    Whether you are setting up new BRI social media pages within the BRI website or on an existing social media site such as Flickr or Facebook, they need to follow the BRI interactive project process.

    In the first instance please discuss with your manager. If they are in agreement then the next step is to complete and submit a concept brief for social media (link here) which outlines...


    Staff who already have a blog, wiki, forum etc. which is related to their work or BRI should discuss it with their manager and the BRI production editor. This will allow for a shared understanding of activity in this area and will help BRI promote and aggregate a body of BRI blogs in the future.


    A few thoughts: I have no idea whether this BRI is a university, but if it is, this kind of policy is just one more part of a disturbing trend towards the imposition of corporate culture on the university. No, I'm being the ranting anti-corporate academic here; I'm emphasizing the obvious: a university, a community of students, teacher, and scholars, has a very different mission from a corporation. This means that many of the controls typically exerted a company over its employees (perfectly appropriate for that company) are a very bad idea for a university.

    Many companies exert tight control over their brand by carefully limiting what types of things employees can say in their capacity as employees; this kind of thing is exactly the opposite of what you want from a community of scholars. The reputation of a university rests in large part on the independent, individually-motivated actions of its scholars and researchers, contrary to what the professional PR folks hired by most universities think. To get tenure at a major university, you generally have to prove that you have a significant international reputation in your field. You get that reputation on your own, not by being controlled by some manager.

    Sure, there are some limits, extreme cases where the university has the right to protect its reputation from damaging statements, but in an academic community, the proper limits aren't anywhere close to the kinds of limits one would expect a company to impose.

    I've seen corporate-culture creep firsthand: when I went to my postdoc orientation, we had a corporate-jargon-drenched session on university PR, during which I was encouraged to think about who my customers were. The PR person with the marketing degree who led the session obviously thought this was a great idea. (The PR person also seemed to think that the latest marketing campaign was key to enhancing the university's reputation.) Most people who engage in academic research find this advice completely useless.

    There is one more issue to consider in the trend to corporatize the university: academics generally accept a lot of financial opportunity costs in order to work in the unique environment of the university. They are willing to endure long periods of training and lower pay, in exchange for a space to work as an autonomous scholar, surrounded by an open intellectual community of students and colleagues. If university environments become less like academic communities and more like corporations, they are going to have to pay their scholars (on whom the reputation of the university really rests) a hell of a lot more - especially ones who could earn significantly higher salaries in the corporate world.

    Here's how it works in my case: after college, I spent 6 years in grad school getting a PhD. With my PhD in hand, I now get paid just enough to sustain my family from paycheck to paycheck, I get no retirement benefits, and the 'employer contribution' to my health insurance premiums is really paid to me as taxable income, not as a pre-tax employee benefit. In fact, my entire salary is paid by the NIH and not the university, through a fellowship I obtained by submitting a competitive research proposal. Technically, I'm not even an employee, but an independent scholar working in university facilities. Had I gone to work somewhere else after graduating, I would be doing much better financially.

    But I think I'm actually getting a good deal for the few years I'm a postdoc: in exchange for the opportunity costs, I'm given great freedom to pursue my scientific goals, and critical support to pursue those goals: I'm surrounded by great colleagues, I get advice and guidance (and research funding) from my postdoc advisor (I don't have a 'manager'), the department I work for runs great seminars and has excellent support staff who actually make the place run on a day-to-day basis, and the university provides and maintains buildings in which research gets done, and much more.

    The key part of the academic deal is the freedom to pursue my scientific goals, which include communicating science to the public by blogging, speaking, or writing articles for other venues. This BRI social media policy is proposing a level of control that is a major encroachment on the academic deal. Universities can't have it both ways: they can't be a reputable academic community while trying to run it like a corporation.

    Comments

    Hank
    I think it's a sign that social media is here to stay.    When I half-jokingly wrote Important Weekend News - We Will Not Have Any Sort Of New Media Policy I was making fun of the NY Times (I know, I know, too easy) but I also knew it would spread.    It's always the case that 10% of people will overdo it and spoil it for the rest of us.
    adaptivecomplexity
     It's always the case that 10% of people will overdo it and spoil it for the rest of us.
    No doubt there is going to be some policy bungling while institutes adjust. To be fair to the people who run various institutes, this issue is hard to can be hard to deal with, since, as everyone likes to say, social media is blurring the line between the personal and professional.
    It's not the backwards looking policies that worry me so much. It's the policies that take the advantages of Web 2.0 and twist them. To quote the always quotable Thomas Pynchon:

    the Internet [is] a development that promises social control on a scale those quaint old twentieth-century tyrants with their goofy mustaches could only dream about. 


    Mike
    Stellare
    Well said, Michael! And I believe you voice the general view of academia. Across all national boarders. :-)

    In it's extreme the kind of regulatory policies emerging now will mean that nobody of us can ever express a personal opinion about anything. That can't  be right. :-)

    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    adaptivecomplexity
    nobody of us can ever express a personal opinion about anything
    There's the tension: academic success is all about expressing persuasive personal opinions (generally in your research field) - those opinions aren't supposed to first checked to make sure they conform to the university's official stance.
    Mike
    Stellare
    Yes, we are supposed to think brilliant new thoughts nobody thought about before. It can't possible fit in any official stance of the ignorant, can it? :-)

    Like you say, it's in the heart of academia to be independent. Be free to combine knowledge and creativity and thus produce new knowledge.

    However, I did read somewhere that even companies, as opposed to universities, give their employees freedom to say what they want only appealing to their common sense and loyalty. Those are the organizations that will win because you gain more than you loose by letting people lose. :-)

    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    Georg von Hippel
    If that kind of policy were widely adapted, it would mean the end of online academic communities, stifling research, scholarly communication and public outreach. Everyone loses.
    If it is adopted by only a few institutes, many young academics will do their hardest to avoid those institutes. Those institutes lose.
    It's really a lose-lose policy.

    Which is not to deny that some kind of control is often necessary and appropriate, e.g. limits or prohibitions on the use of the institute's name, crest or logo, or prohibitions of hate speech on institute-affiliated sites. But automatic transfer of intellectual property rights? Manager approval through a "project process"? Non-starters, really.
    Hank
    It will bring about a credibility gap.   I don't even bother with sites or writers who hide behind anonymity because they're supposedly revealing data so devastating it will end their career; it's usually just people who want no accountability for carpet bombing people or companies they don't like.   

    But it would end up being the de facto course in an oppressive world.   People keep saying it is 'like the corporate world' - not in any corporation I have ever existed in.   Now, in the mid- to later-1990s we allowed people to have home pages on our corporate site and there was no moderation but sure enough around the 100 employee mark someone came along and did a bunch of crazy stuff and we had to shut them all down to get one.   But that was a screw-up by one person that was going to impact a publicly traded company not  oppressive corporate control freaks.    And it's the only company I've been in where we ever had to enforce a policy like that.

    Their policy above is akin to mandating a 5 MPH speed limit so no one can die in a car accident.
    adaptivecomplexity
    People keep saying it is 'like the corporate world' - not in any corporation I have ever existed in. 
    I'm not trying to suggest that corporations are automatically more oppressive or anything like that, and both you and Gerhard make good points about the fact that stifling social media use in a corporate setting may not be such a good idea.
    But in a large corporation especially, like say, Merck, you can imagine some controls that would be appropriate in that setting, which would be wrong for a university. Legal liabilities, intellectual property issues, the impact of employee statements on stock prices of a publicly traded company (as you mention), are all legitimate issues and concerns that don't apply the same way in a university setting.

    And that's one of my main concerns - I'm not suggesting that corporate management techniques are bad, or that there is nothing academic administrators can learn from the principles taught in MBA programs. The problem is that sometimes you get HR or other MBA-type people crafting university policies in a way that suggests they're oblivious to the fact that they work at a university -like telling a postdoc to think about his "customers" or consult his "manager" before starting a blog.

    Mike
    Gerhard Adam
    "Legal liabilities, intellectual property issues, the impact of employee statements on stock prices of a publicly traded company (as you mention), are all legitimate issues and concerns that don't apply the same way in a university setting."

    That's my point though.  There are legal remedies for abuses, but there is no default "right" to pre-emptive removal of an individual's rights.

    There can be no legal liabilities from an employee that isn't operating in the capacity of some authority to speak on the corporation's behalf.  Intellectual property has legal remedies (just like patents, copyrights, etc.).  The impact of an employee statement on stock prices is equally implausible unless they are speaking with some intrinsic authority on the corporation's behalf.

    Misinformation has legal remedies.  Even the case that Hank mentioned, in truth, the corporate officers were simply too lazy to police the usage and focus on the violator, so it was just easier to ban everyone from using it.  This is too often the mindset of the corporations.

    If we accept these reasons then what about a university that wants to downplay crime on campus?  How about the argument that what you publish could affect enrollments? 

    The point is that if someone wants an excuse, they'll find one.  After all, it's always easier to control ALL the output than having to tolerate other's freedoms.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Hank
    I've always looked at it differently; I never wanted to control output, I would rather control none of it and let people be adults but when things go to a weird place you have a choice between a blanket ban or acting in a way which someone somewhere will find discriminatory and a violation of their rights.   

    This is a little different because the community can enforce quality in a way you can't in a corporation.   We still have hiccups; people get torqued up because some crank posts a lousy blog.   In a company the other employees will rarely enforce a standard of performance or conduct.   It happens, but it's rare and, like I said, over that 100 person mark is when I think there is a difference.
    Gerhard Adam
    I understand, but employers have gotten away without describing the conditions for employment and the "rules of the game" for too long.  Often it becomes quite arbitrary and often it has little or nothing to do with the business itself.  Each case just becomes easier to justify because of the precedents.

    There are many people that would be reluctant to be publicly athiestic (or pick your favorite issue) for fear that it could affect their employment.  There is a controversy about employers taking actions because they viewed an employee's MySpace account and didn't like what they saw.

    Each of this intrusions is based on the rationalization that somehow an employer has unlimited rights to do anything they feel to employees based only on the assumption that it might impinge on their business.  But there is no such legal right. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    adaptivecomplexity
    employers have gotten away without describing the conditions for employment and the "rules of the game" for too long.
    I agree that this is a problematic issue (based completely on second-hand information - my one experience working in the corporate world as a QC chemist was before blogging and Facebook and Web 2.0 were issues). You can rationalize almost any control over employees lives with the excuse that it will impinge on your business' image. A MySpace page should be off-limits.
    Mike
    adaptivecomplexity
    here can be no legal liabilities from an employee that isn't operating in the capacity of some authority to speak on the corporation's behalf.  Intellectual property has legal remedies (just like patents, copyrights, etc.).  The impact of an employee statement on stock prices is equally implausible unless they are speaking with some intrinsic authority on the corporation's behalf.
    I don't think it's quite so simple - the employee doesn't necessarily need to have authority to speak on the corporation's behalf, and even though there can be legal remedies for certain violations, sometimes it's hard to undo damage when proprietary information is made public.
    Take a hypothetical scientist doing drug discovery for Merck, who blogs about drug discovery research. Obviously this guy has access to key inside information about Merck's drug discovery pipeline, and, if he's blogging about his research on occasion, he may reveal information that he considers innocuous, but that may turn out to have negative consequences for the company. (And I'm not talking about whistleblowing here; I mean here a case of inadvertently revealing key proprietary information.)

    Sure, Merck has legal remedies - they can fire and/or sue the researcher, but it's probably much better to have a social media policy in place up front, even if the guy's blog is not on any Merck website.

    Making sure employees keep proprietary information confidential is not a new issue, but the blurring of professional/private lives in social media means that companies, especially large ones, may need to have explicit web 2.0 policies in place.
    Mike
    Gerhard Adam
    Actually that describes exactly what I mean, since by having access to restricted information conveys an "authority" to this individual that would not be applicable to other employees.

    Perhaps I should've been more clear when I used the term "authority", since my intent was to convey a sense that the employee had to be in a position to where their statement would have credibility because of their position.  Clearly in the example you've provided that would be the case.  However, I would be hard pressed to allow the corporation to restrict a receptionist's ability to blog using the same criteria.

    Generally an individual that has access to restricted or privileged information is outside the normal scope policy and would, presumably, have a set of standards or criteria that they need to adhere to.  That would be perfectly reasonable.  That would be like being a designer for cars and pre-releasing the new model year.  Clearly that would be specific to the job and would be a specific condition of employment.
    Mundus vult decipi
    adaptivecomplexity
    I agree; I think it's an issue of definition here - I've had researchers, corporate or academic, in mind when I've made my comments.
    Mike
    adaptivecomplexity
    Manager approval through a "project process"?
    The language in this thing is funny - corporate jargon clearly out of place in an academic setting. It implies that researches have managers who "approve" their actions and manage their projects, but that's not the case. Sure, there are job expectations that have to be fulfilled by researchers, but we're expected to manage our own projects.
    Mike
    Gerhard Adam
    In effect this gets to the heart of a philosphical issue that has been ignored for too long.  In the U.S., the constitutional protection of "free speech" has never been meaningfully applied to the business world.  As mentioned in the article, there is a presumption that corporations have a "right" to protect their products or their name by restricting employee actions and behaviors.  But why should this be the case?

    Individuals aso have the "right" to protect their name and reputations, but the means by which this is enforced is the legal system.  If someone (including the proverbial corporate "person/entity") has been harmed, there is more than sufficient legal recourse to take action. 

    It seems that it is too easy to rationalize taking away individual liberties in favor of protecting a larger organization's name/reputation/etc.  When this occurs, it renders the constitutional protections mentioned previously irrelevant.  

    I can appreciate the concerns about corporate culture seeping into academia, but the truth is that corporate culture isn't good and doesn't work in corporations either. 

    It makes no sense to talk about political freedoms and then make them subservient to corporate tyranny.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I do not usually leave anonymous comments but as I am the source of the document in question (Bora's "friend") it's necessary on this occasion. First of all, thank you Michael, very much, for growing this discussion. Now, a clarification and a few responses…

    "I have no idea whether this BRI is a university"
    It's not, but it might give too much away if I say exactly what it is, so, without getting too specific, let's just say it's an academic research institution. In other words, it's not a company. It's the kind of place you'd expect university-style academic freedom. A "community of scholars" as you nicely put it. So, even though BRI is not a university, the assumption underpinning your review is still entirely appropriate.

    "It implies that researches have managers who 'approve' their actions and manage their projects, but that's not the case."
    Sadly, at BRI that is the case.

    "You get that reputation on your own, not by being controlled by some manager."
    At BRI we get the best of both worlds: we get to be controlled by some manager AND are still supposed to get our reputations on our own! Conflict happens when our managers do things that we feel prevent us from getting our reputations.

    "They are willing to endure long periods of training and lower pay, in exchange for a space to work as an autonomous scholar, surrounded by an open intellectual community of students and colleagues. If university environments become less like academic communities and more like corporations, they are going to have to pay their scholars (on whom the reputation of the university really rests) a hell of a lot more..."
    Alas, BRI has not shown any signs of recognizing this.

    Your post here has really helped me to think about and articulate some of the things I want to say about BRI but have had difficulty framing them because I'm so entrenched, not least: "The key part of the academic deal is the freedom to pursue my scientific goals"

    Thank you.

    adaptivecomplexity
    Thanks for offering your clarifying comments and getting this discussion going in the first place.  
    It's unfortunate that there are places which try to have it both ways, something which is probably more and more common now with the increasing number of non-university institutes that operate like academic research entities. 

    Notions of academic freedom and research autonomy aren't just selfish claims by people who don't want to be bossed around, and their purpose isn't to coddle a bunch of prima donna researchers: freedom and autonomy are key for the success of any academic community. (It's also key for attracting top talent in the first place.)

    You can see how this is true by looking at university systems around the world: the most successful systems, the ones that produce major scientific powerhouses, are ones that value scientific autonomy. Nations with university systems lacking these values don't produce much significant research.

    This is even true in a corporate setting. I obviously know much less about this, but Bell Labs was so phenomenal because it was a great environment in which very talented people were given a lot of freedom to pursue their scientific interests.

    Universities and institutions that lose sight of the primary goals of a community of scholars, and of the principles that make such communities successful, will suffer in their reputations and in their ability to recruit and retain the best researchers.
    Mike