The problem of slippage in digital, Web-based and Multimedia research and publishing

Web-based and Multimedia research involves a flattening out differences among disparate media (text, image, video, etc.), as well granting quicker and greater access to these media.  The convenience of quick and easy access in digital publishing and research brings legal and ethical issues to the fore.  One of those issues is the slippage of attribution and citation in the academic tradition, according to the Janice McIntire-Strausburg article. Ease and speed of digital access can also cause another slippage, in terms of “text rights” (Berger, 155) and authorship. A final slippage that arises from quick and convenience access is the linguistic or cultural context brought up in Iswari P. Pandey’s “Researching (With) the Post-National ‘Other’”.  Pandey finds that meanings can get lost between subjects and researchers in a Web-based environment, such as email.

As Janice McIntire-Strasburg states, “digital media encourage convergence—of audio, video, and other digital media…across networks” the phenomenon of copy and pasting for student research or other types of commentary makes easy access a slippery issue, in terms of attribution to an author (McIntire-Strasburg, 295-6).  The tradition and copyright laws allow fair use for educational purposes; students using digital and Web-basted media can easily appropriate these media for their own purpose, without attribution. Part of the loosening of the definition of authorship is the fluidity that Web-based publishing and research encourages.  In other words, because it’s so easy for students to “right click” or download an image, text, etc. from the Web, which is done in the absence of strict control or monitoring, it makes current copyright laws impossible to enforce. The current law protects “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, form which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device” (McIntire-Strasburg, cited as Hefter &Litowitz, 1999).  In other words, attribution of authorship gets loosened when student (or any person) is able to use copyrighted materials any way they see fit, and then get credit for their work, as in the example on page 292.

With the loosening of traditional ideas about authorship that digital research and publishing can cause also comes the loosening of “text rights,” as they relate to the author and publisher.  Considering the easy and quick access students have to copyrighted material, a pertinent question arises. As Sidney Berger offers, “Who owns a picture, a musical composition, or a sentence on the Web?” (155).  Students can freely, quickly, and easily use digital media and thus reduce the “status of text ownership” (ibid).  Granted, the reason for publishing digitally based texts is the economic practicality of “speed and ubiquity” (Berger, 150).  However, enforcing the laws that protect the text rights of authors is impractical, in terms of close monitoring on the Web, and economically prohibitive, as Berger also points out.  “But it takes a great deal of money to do this [legally pursue illegal appropriations of copyright materials on the Web], and few parties can afford such vigilance and the costs of prosecution (155).  When the law can’t be enforced and the author or publishers can’t pursue legal action, the author’s or publisher’s rights to the text also slip away.

A third slippage that quick and easy access in digital researching creates is not tied to the legal aspects of authorial attribution or textual rights, but a slippage in linguistic and cultural context between researcher and research subject.  In “Researching (with) the Post National ‘Other’”, Iswari P. Pandey does discuss authorship (particularly co-authorship with research subjects); the problem of slippage comes in another form.  Pandey sees both the post national individual and digital technology being similar and thus “share a common fate: They are both often seen as decontextualized…” (112).  Though the Web and its digital technology almost erase the idea of nationhood or ethnicity (because there is such ease and speed of access), this decontextualizing effect can have produce problems for the digital researcher.  Pandey was researching digital literacy and gaming with two subjects from Nepal.  She conducted this research over emails and sent them a questionnaire in this way. Contrary to her idea that the subjects close familiarity with the English language would make it easier for her to interview them, she later reflected and found problems with her questionnaire. She realized that her questions “assumed a more western, American bias…” that created “slippages and misunderstandings”(119).  Despite the participants’ knowledge of the English language and their understanding of digital media, the slippages in linguistic meaning and cultural context became factors that slowed down the research process for Pandey.  In other words, despite Web-based and digital technology and supposedly post-national identities being decontextualized, cultural context ended up causing a slippage in understanding between research subjects and researcher.

If monitoring and preventing the slippage in attribution, authorship and text rights are costly and impractical and misunderstandings in language cause slippages between cultures slows down the research process, is it possible that quick and easy access in digital publishing and research is neither.  At this point a question of just how quick and easy digital access arises.  At this point there is no clear answer, but it is important to keep interrogating this newer process and media of digital research and publishing.

2 thoughts on “The problem of slippage in digital, Web-based and Multimedia research and publishing

  1. You’re making an interesting assumption about creator’s rights when you say “enforcing the laws that protect the text rights of authors”. It’s important to remember that laws also *create* rights in the first place, and that the purpose of copyright, at least as described in the U.S. Constitution, is to “promote the progress of science and the useful arts”. That is: copyright exists for the public good. Any evaluation of the impact of digital networks ought to be evaluated primarily in the context of this public good, which the protection of rights may or may not serve, to a greater or lesser extent.

    Re-use and plagarism (which you allude to by invoking “tradition”, and which has nothing to do with copyright in a formal sense) is of course a separate issue.

  2. In the context of digital humanities research and the pervasion of multi-modal forms of scholarship, copyright and plagiarism become one in the same. Calling laws the site for creating rights is not the broad sense of rights, such as civil. Instead, copyright protects the owner/creator/originator of the work from not being credited or compensated for use of his intellectual property. What makes online and digital texts slippery is precisely how unclearly the law applies, in terms of the originator’s getting justly compensated.

    Also, I don’t make the assumption about creator’s rights when I said “enforcing the laws that protect the text rights of authors”. I am actually citing someone else’s view of the law, as well as citing the law itself.

    In terms of your mention of “public good,” you have not defined what that means in either the context of your Constitution quotation, or how it applies to digital networks. Simply stating that digital networks “out to be evaluated primarily in the context of this public good…” leaves too much to the legally interpretive imagination.

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