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Update: Via Twitter Amber Thomas recommends Into the wild – Technology for open educational resources (December 2012) edited by  Lorna M. Campbell, Phil Barker, Martin Hawksey and herself (open access). Thank you Amber!

Addendum:

I should perhaps clarify that in this post I am thinking of “research images” in the case of charts, cartoons, doodles, infographics, posters etc. created by researchers/teachers/artists etc. and which are shared online. These images allow the inclusion of contextual text in the form of non-intrusive captions. I appreciate photographs shared online, particularly when published on line immediately after being taken, pose different problems.

I’ve also been thinking that researchers could be encouraged to share any research images we create on repositories of Open Educational Resources, which could contribute to creating awareness of licensing issues.

Attribution seems to me to be a key currency in scholarship (since direct financial reward for the creation/publishing of open content is rare). Therefore embedded licenses and self-archiving in repositories that offer a clear open licensing framework could be positive developments in the fostering of an academic culture that a) encourages sharing, b) recognises the work involved in sharing open resources, and c) attributes online sources.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about attribution in the scholarly context of our days. Having done research for Altmetric, for example, made me very sensitive to the differences in the way different disciplines and cultures behave online in relation to sharing, commenting and attributing research online.

When I conceived The Comics Grid I was primarly concerned with establishing innovative mechanisms for addressing the need for online comics scholarship where original and annotated comics pages where shown without being deterred by copyright. Part of the project included helping develop critical awareness of how we cite different sources, including ‘non-traditional’ sources like comic books, cartoons, blog posts, online videos…

As I mentioned in my Forms of Innovation workshop session last Saturday in Durham, the World Wide Web is not the Wild Wild West, even if sometimes it definitely feels like that, a kind of no-man’s land where everyone takes whatever they want, even, perhaps surprisingly, in scholarly circles. I believe that Creative Commons licenses are an ideal way to develop a culture of ethical sharing and attribution.

Licenses by themselves cannot stop people from using content created by others in ways the licenses themselves preclude, but can be used in a court of law if there is evidence of misuse. This means that Open Licenses cannot by themselves make people act ethically: even when there is due licensing, where attribution and granted or reserved rights are clearly stipulated, people can always potentially act wrongly. Same happens with the law. So using and promoting Creative Commons Licenses is only the beginning of helping create a different culture where the World Wide Web is no longer the Wild Wild West, but we need this culture to become gradually pervasive to be really effective.

In the UK, a new Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act known as “The Instagram Act” has just been passed. Images found online that do not contain clear attribution can be considered ‘orphan works’ and therefore fall in the Public Domain (so anything goes with that content). Read about it here.

Earlier today, Amber Thomas from the University of Warwick tweeted a concern about infographics: “my problem with infographic practice is lack of provenance. hard to cite, lacking in publication date, rarely a clear copyright statement.” (Tweet, 1 May 2013; 11:29am GMT ).

A.J. Cann replied that “publishing on http://Figshare.org  would fix all that” (Tweet, 1 May 2013: 11:34am GMT). He is right (I also talked about Figshare as a means to ensure content is properly attributed, cited and licensed  in my presentation at Durham), but later I thought that perhaps that was not enough: files made to be shared online should include the attribution, citation and licensing information in the file itself.

Indeed, figshare helps providing a digital object identifier, citation and licensing information, but once the file is downloaded this can be shared further, separated from this context. Once downloaded the file can be endlessly shared, and if clear attribution and licensing is not included in the file, how many will actually trace back the file to the site it was originally made available from, where the attribution and licensing information appears? Thus the need for this information to be included in the file itself, not only on the figshare location from which people are downloading it from.

In the case of images this does not have to be a horrible watermark that compromises the artistic integrity of the image and renders it practically useless, and I’m not talking about some kind of digital rights management thing or restrictive permissions. Simply a clear legend explaining who is the author and in what terms the file is being shared, as a caption at the bottom of the image, in small but legible print. This information can/should be ideally included in the file’s properties too as metadata.

Take this fantastic image for example. I came across it through a retweet by Melonie Fullick.  I loved the image, and I retweeted Melonie’s tweet. I thought this is awsome! Who did it? Can we do t-shirts? Go on, click on the link again, it’s at http://annfriedman.com/image/49152967734.

We notice from the URL the image file is hosted at http://annfriedman.com/ which happens to be a site made with Tumblr. On that URL, the image file is orphaned from any context outside ‘Tumblr’ the name of the blog ‘annfriedman’ and the URL itself. I suspect many users will get there, see the image there and stop there: they won’t necessarily go and make an effort to find who did it or under what kind of license it has been shared online.

Because the image file has its own URL at Tumblr, I argue it is possible not to realise that the image is actually part of a blog post (and linked to it), with permalink http://annfriedman.com/post/49152967734/in-my-ongoing-quest-for-the-perfect-framework-for. On that blog post, Ann Friedman explains she “created The Disapproval Matrix**. (With a deep bow to its inspiration.)” (So please note that strictly speaking, as the author recognises, the image in question could be considered a “derivative” of another concept or series of images).

Granted, the image file URL, on its own, shows us the name of a person and the name of the Tumblr log (“annfriedman”) but what is crucial here is that the image file itself does not contain a caption indicating any authorship, attribution or licensing information, nor descriptive metadata, in human readable form, of what it is. One has to do “dilligent search” to find the actual blog post with the contextual information, and even then there is no indication whatsoever about how we as readers/visitors/users are allowed to use the image file in question (which has everything to go viral if you ask me).  If one scrolls down though, one finds the legend “Copyright 2012 Ann Friedman” at the bottom right corner of the Web site’s footer, but not in the post itself, and as I’ve said, not in the image file itself.

Copying “The Disapproval Matrix” is as easy as dragging and dropping. Folk are already sharing the link to the image file, not the link to the blog post that contains the image file and which explains Ann Friedman created it basing herself in the “Approval Matrix” series from New York Magazine.

Now, this post is not about this particular image or its author. It is not a personal critique. I have also shared lots of images online which do not contain attribution and licensing information on the files themselves. I am making use of an example to make a point, about how images are easily reproduced online and about what authors can do about it, regardless if they care or not if they are attributed for their work.

This is what the Web does: it makes decontextualising extremely easy, and it demands an effort from users to locate source, authorship, ownership and/or licensing. As authors of content, we cannot assume that people surfing the Web will all do “dilligent research” to find to whom does an image or any other file (say, an academic paper in PDF or PowerPoint presentation) belong to and how they can use it. The image file and the blog post providing context are very easily separable; the name in a Web resource’s title or URL are no clear indication of authorship, and we cannot just assume that people will make the effort to do “dilligent research.”

The context we live in online is one of attention deficit and speed. Social media platforms allow, encourage and maximise decontextualisation and recontextualisation. Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest: a file that does not indicate source and other information required for citation in itself (as a caption in the case of an image file, which is not in HTML of the resource hosting the file but as part of the image itself and in the file’s metadata) will always run the danger of becoming orphaned.

Needless to say, images can be edited using very basic software, and PDFs can be annotated, slides containing attribution and license deleted, etc. People wanting to steal content will do so no matter what. But we have to stop acting alarmed if our content ends up being shared and reused endlessly without our name if we don’t take some basic measures to ensure everyone and anyone will know easily and directly and very much obviously who created what, and in which ways others are allowed to use it.