Professional identity is everything in academia, so Melissa Terras was shocked to discover the Internet had suddenly made her a specialist in Tarot Symbolism. Google Scholar and other online resources are easy to use to illustrate your online portfolio but what effects can it have when the Internet gets things wrong?
At the end of last week I was pulling together some internal appraisal documentation – the kind of thing where you say, “Oh look how many people cited my work over the past year”. Wandering over to my Google scholar profile to check some citation counts I noted something weird. Alongside my usual digital humanities-ey, digitisation-ey, digital classicist-ey journal papers and book chapters were some strange papers that I definitely had not written. Things like Human Experience and Tarot Symbolism, (link still working to my Google scholar profile at time of writing) or Tarot and Projective Hypothesis.
Now, I’m a committed atheist, which means I also don’t care for the occult either. And while I try to respect other’s research choices (its a bit like feminism – I may not like what you are doing with your life, but I respect your right to choose what you do with it) this is not something that, professionally, I would choose to be associated with. And it’s extremely strange to see your name academically associated with something you don’t want to be associated with – especially when academic identity is everything in this game.
Perhaps there is another Melissa M. Terras? I first thought. I’m very lucky that there aren’t too many Terrases about – I’ve never really had to deal with name disambiguation (I know academics who have other colleagues with the same name as them in the same department) so I’m a bit spoiled on that front in real life. Melissa is a really rare name in Scotland (although not other parts of the world) and so I had never met another one until I was 15. I sometimes get confused for Melody Terras, who is in Psychology, and automated algorithms especially like to assign me her works (such as Google scholar, or the algorithm in our open access repository). But no, the works clearly showed that the Melissa M. Terras was in the Department of Information Studies at UCL. There’s only one of us there, and that’s me.
A bit of googling told me that the author of the book in which all of these chapters were published was Inna Semetsky. A few seconds more of googling took me to her personal website, which had a big fat CALL ME NOW Skype button on it (I’m not linking to it here, as I don’t want to encourage anyone to call her. If you want to seek her out, you will have to do so yourself). So I CALLED HER NOW, not really expecting anyone to pick up. She picked up on video chat after a few rings, although it was clearly in the middle of the night wherever she was (which I wasn’t to know). She knew immediately who I was: it was clear that the book had been up with the wrong authorship attributed for some time, which I find strange: if you had written a book, and the “Internet” decided it was written by someone else, would you not fight to get it righted? A heated exchange followed. I don’t want to say too much about Inna Semetsky – she is entitled to her own privacy and her own research space. Let’s just say we didn’t exactly hit it off, and that heated exchange continued over email. (Everyone knows that the one way to anger someone from Scotland is to call them English, right?)
By now it had become clear that there was no real malice in this: but I suspected metadata fail. I had previously published a chapter in a book which was published by Sense Publishers – who published Semetsky’s book Re-Symbolization of the Self, Human Development and Tarot Hermeneutic. It seemed to me that somewhere in the ingestion process into the Springer system, that my name had gotten into the author field – field slippage in a database? That’s fairly common? S next to T in the alphabet, so perhaps field slippage in Sense Publisher’s author database meant I had been erroneously associated with this work. So now to get it right.
I contacted both Springer and the Press. Sense Publishers were very helpful, but ducked for cover when I hit them with the cease and desist. Springer said they would take it down. But they didn’t. I complained again, and lined up the UCL lawyers to begin legal proceedings. Springer said they would take down the content. It took 6 days of constant emailing to complain and escalating legal threats before they eventually assigned the correct authorship information to the publication, which really must have been a 5 minute job. I hate to think how they would handle a request from someone not nearly as… pushy as me.
I repeatedly asked for an explanation from the press and Springer – explaining a professional interest (and thinking of my dear, neglected blog, and the folks who were all pitching in on Twitter by this time, following #tarotgate and the to-ings and fro-ings from Springer and book author and me). I have received no explanation. You take my name, you pin it to something else, and you expect me not to want to find out why? When I work in an information studies department? No explanation has been given, and really – without malice! – I would like to know the assignation structure of author to material, given it seems so very fragile.
And so I am no longer associated with Tarot in publications databases. Except at time of writing, I still am. Various places crawl and syndicate authorship content online – Google Scholar is still showing me as author of various pieces of Tarot scholarship, and now it’s going to be up to me to chase down mentions of my name associated with something I never chose to be associated with, simply because of an automated error, replicated across time and space and electronic repository, in a professional space becoming obsessed with citation counts and authorship and If You Liked This You May Like That, all churned out by thousands of servers and databases and… who cares if a database field slips in all this and an academic name is assigned to the wrong thing? It’s the future! It’s how scholarship works these days!
I have up til now pretty much ignored the discussions and systems about how to look after your scholarly identity – things like ORCID – why do I need to register?! I have an unusual name! Everyone knows that it’s me who publishes on the digitisation-ey, digital humanities-ey stuff! Except the machines, the machines they don’t care. We’re looking at a future where we don’t just have to look after the stuff we have published, we now have to weed out the things that we haven’t. We have to be vigilant that the joiney-uppey automated systems dont replicate authorship errors uncontrollably. How rare or commonplace is this? I have no way to tell. But when the electronic record can be so easily compromised, how can we trust digital-only publications, without a canonical physical artifact to check?
It takes a long time to build up a scholarly identity. One slipped database field may have permanently associated me with an area I, quite frankly, don’t respect. This blog post will go some way to explaining how that happened, so serves a dual purpose – an explanation of how, and reference for why it’s not me. When was the last time you checked what the Internet said you wrote? Will you ever be able to rectify it, should a mistake be made? Will I? I didn’t see that one coming. Maybe I should take up Tarot.
Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the Impact of Social Sciences blog, nor of the London School of Economics.