Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Curators: not just for museums anymore?

"The promise of the Internet-as-Alexandria is more than the rolling plenitude of information. It’s the ability of individuals to choreograph that information in idiosyncratic ways, the hope that individuals might feel invited by the gravitational pull of a broad and open commons to “rip, mix, and burn” — to curate." Gideon Lewis-Kraus, 2007 [emphasis mine; paywall to original quote]

The internet is a very big place, and it can be exceptionally tough to keep track of everything that's of interest. A typical reader randomly browsing a topic ends up with a fair number of dead-end clicks—articles that just aren't that relevant or important. Fortunately, some individuals out there collate the best stuff, remix it, and push it to the outside world through blogs, news sites, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and other venues. In a formal sense, these individuals are often termed "web curators" or "content curators".

In a nutshell, the web curator is not necessarily a content creator, but a content editor. I mean "editor" in the broad sense, of course—someone who selects interesting pieces and places them with other interesting pieces in new and meaningful ways. This is similar to what editors of magazines or anthologies do.

Museum Curators
Of course, the term "curator" was around well before the internet -- most notably in the museum profession (Wikipedia provides a pretty good summary, as does the US Bureau of Labor Statistics). In fact, my official job title is curator, so I can speak from some personal, professional experience. What exactly do curators do, then?
  • Direct the overall collection strategies for an institution. What to collect, what to deaccession, what to devote resources towards, etc.
  • Ensure the long-term survival of the collections.
  • Engage in original research (often using museum collections).
  • Present the collections to a broad audience, often through physical exhibits but also through various other media.
Depending on the type of institution and the field of study, a curator's duties may vary. For instance, a curator at an art museum may have slightly different tasks from that at a natural history museum, and collections managers may do some of the routine maintenance and preservation stuff at large museums. In any case, curation is a complex job.

Note that there is some overlap between the goals of a typical web curator and a museum curator. Both select and present collections of objects (fossils, or artwork, or blog posts) to a broad audience, but here the resemblance ends.

The British Museum - where curators reside. Image by awv, cc-by-2.0.

Why So Annoyed?
The contemporary usage of "web curator" is fundamentally misleading, at least judging from the above job description of a museum curator. Web curators collect, winnow, repackage, and disseminate information; they may have little role in content creation, and often have no concern for content longevity or archival. By the very nature of the internet, a web curator's work may be ephemeral (but not always). I would argue that this typical absence of the long view is a fundamental difference between most web curators and most museum curators.

Usage of the term "web curator" also muddies the waters around genuine digital curators. These are archivists, preservationists, and conservationists who work to ensure our digital heritage will be extant for the long haul. Digital curators in the pure sense aren't just repackaging links; these individuals ensure that the linked content will be around in 200 years. Calling yourself a curator doesn't mean you are one (similar to how not all museums are really museums, and loose applications of the term paleontologist, no matter how well-intentioned).

In part, I admit that some of my objections to the new usage of curator are a knee-jerk turf defense. I paid my dues, got my Ph.D., have an office in a museum basement. . .what have these internet upstarts done? I recognize this, and realize that such feelings are somewhat irrational. The English language changes constantly, and old words are often repurposed. After all, the web used to be just a product of a spider's backside. I just have to deal, right? On some level yes, but it still doesn't mean I have to like it! Nor does it mean I'm wrong.

The Most Important Objection
Admitting that definitions expand and contract, the fundamental issue here is that the phrase "web curator" is still basically meaningless. It serves to obfuscate, implying some kind of profundity where there may be none. In short, "web curator" is a buzzword.

A buzzword is corporate-speak that gussies up an otherwise mundane concept and makes it more intriguing (and profitable). Consider some examples. Value-added. Holistic. Accountability. All perfectly nice terms whose vague usage gives me a headache.

The big problem here—and a key quality that makes "curator" such a great buzzword—is that most people have no clue what a curator does. At best, folks have some vague notion of a curator as a person with a fancy degree and hipster glasses who hangs paintings on a wall and maybe writes some label copy. "Web curation" fits this stereotype and thus is a masterfully empty use of an important-sounding term (see these links for some choice, typical usages).

A solution?
I'm a big fan of calling a spade a spade. "Web curators" provide a valuable service, but the title unfortunately misleads. Just read the phrase "Real-time curators need to add participation widgets", and tell me it's not slightly silly! Were this statement not from a rather well-known blogger, the phrase could just as easily have originated in the Web Economy Bullsh*t Generator. In fact, the cited example is the perfect storm* of all that is wrong with buzzword-led thinking. 

Mike Taylor has pressed me on my objections to the term "web curator," asking for an alternative. I see nothing wrong with "editor". As outlined above, it's a much more accurate description of what "web curators" do. An editor is a skilled person who practices the art of identifying relevance and distributing the results. At its core, curated content on the web is part of a web anthology, just like an anthology of prose or poetry. The only difference is the digital format. Could we ever find a better, more descriptive term than "editor" for this role? In the digital realm, "curator" should be reserved for those who go beyond a primarily editorial role, to preservation, archival, and conservation.

So, ditch the web curator. Web editor, please.
*perfect storm = buzzword. Yes, I was being ironic by using it. Very meta, huh??
Thanks to Bora Zivkovic, Mike Taylor, Mike Keesey, Tori Herridge, and others for stimulating discussion and feedback that led to this post.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Self-archival: a good start, but not the full solution

We all want our work to be discovered, read and cited. There is little doubt that closed access systems hamper this - a paywall to an article is a hefty obstacle, and we all encounter them at least occasionally no matter how extensive our library access is. From an author's perspective, freely-available PDFs of their work are a major boost.

In recent discussions on Twitter and in the blogosphere, I've chatted with Mike Taylor, Ross Mounce, and others about self-archival as one of many mechanisms to bring about open access. Mike's recent blog post at SV-POW! summarizes much of the discussion to date, and I thank him for helping me to crystalize my thoughts on the topic.

For those who are not familiar with the term, self-archival refers to placing a freely-downloadable copy of a publication (or other work) on one's personal (or departmental, or whatever) web page. In this post, I want to discuss the pros and cons of such an approach.

  • The PDF is freely available to anyone who wants to see it. No paywalls. No hassle.
  • Once picked up by search engines, your posting may be the first one web users find - even above the "official" journal page!
  • If users browse your website with the PDF, it means that they might discover closely-related work. This can be a big plus for getting the word out about your research program. 
  • A personal archive is probably not a permanent archive. Barring special arrangements, your personal or institutional web page is not likely to last substantively beyond your lifetime. Free hosting services such as WordPress may not be around in 20 years (remember Geocities?), so it may be worthwhile to pay for hosting. And make sure your descendents pay for hosting, or that your departmental web administrator doesn't delete your page 15 years after you retire. I have little faith that the PDFs I post on my own web page will be around 200 years from now, at least at that website. That sure would stink for that researcher in 2212, who wants to read all about ceratopsian sinuses.
  • Author-hosted archives are not independent. There is nothing to prevent someone from removing embarrassing details or adding fraudulent information to their publications, and little that a casual reader can do to detect such fraud. The great majority of academic authors are honest - it's that tiny minority we have to watch out for. An independent archive, hosted by an institution, library, or publisher, provides a firewall protecting the literature from the authors.
  • As article-level metrics gain prominence, author-hosted PDFs may skew some statistics. For instance, let's say I publish a paper in PLoS ONE, and also post a copy of the PDF to my site. Because PLoS ONE records and posts view and download statistics for its own site, any downloads or views from my site are not recorded there. Thus, the statistics are spread across several venues. This is not a major issue in my opinion, but some people may care.
  • Under the terms of publication, a publisher may not allow you to post a PDF of your paper. Or, they may only allow you to post a pre-review copy. Or a post-review, unformatted copy. Things get complicated quickly, especially for those concerned about following the letter of the law.
The Up-Shot
If you are active researcher, you should be posting whatever PDFs of your own work that you (legally) can.  If you don't, you're missing out on innumerable opportunities to publicize your work and interact with colleagues. However, personal archiving is not enough to ensure permanence. For the long-term, a bigger solution is needed. Institutional archives, journal archives, society archives, whatever. The ultimate answer may take some time to sort itself out.

    Friday, March 2, 2012

    The Open Museum Notebook - Torosaurus Style

    A new paper on the Torosaurus / Triceratops issue was just published in PLoS ONE, bringing some additional analysis to the table. I won't comment on it any more here (I'm saving my thoughts for a formal reply on the PLoS ONE website itself), other than to refer you to my own paper and the Scannella & Horner response.

    In any case, I have a pile of notes from my own work on Torosaurus (or whatever we should call it), and figured it was time I distribute them a little more widely. So, I just uploaded my notes on the Yale Torosaurus specimens to There isn't really anything earthshaking in there (most of the meat of it has been previously published), but in any case now other folks can use them. The sketches of real bone vs. reconstruction should be particularly useful.

    My sincere hope is that at least a few other paleontologists will follow suit with their own notebooks - there are a lot of unused data that will never see the light of day otherwise. I also have a goal of gradually digitizing and posting my other museum notebooks, but that will probably take some time!

    Citation and Link
    Notes and Observations on Specimens of Torosaurus at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. Andrew Farke. Figshare. Retrieved 15:40, March 02, 2012

    Update: Since this posted, I have uploaded a number of other notebooks. Find them on my figshare author page.