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Symbiartic

The art of science and the science of art.

Mash-Up This! Science Communication's Image Problem

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The promised Information Economy based on creative culture is a sweatshop.

Award winning illustrators, fine artists, photographers, cartoonists and animators are routinely ripped off, mashed-up, and reshared without attribution, let alone money. "But it's always been this way!" "Good luck changing the whole internet!" It wasn't supposed to be this way, and creators don't have to put up with it.

Okay, to start talking about copyright, let's all agree to this: there's law and then there's culture. The internet is a culture-changing dynamo for communication and some laws haven't kept up. I'm an illustrator and a fan of Creative Commons myself. But that doesn't mean I should treat other artists' work the way I hope people will treat mine. I have to respect their boundaries.

As members of the online culture, we don't have to accept that image theft will always be the dominant way of sharing visual information online: culture matures. Expectations change. But right now, large portions of science communication online are part of the problem. Science bloggers, willing to cite scientific papers with utmost care, rip and run with images grabbed from Google Image Search and Wikipedia.

Compound Eye Vs. I F*cking Love Science

Yesterday, my fellow SciAm blogger, entomologist and photographer Alex Wild became fed up with the popular (over 5 millions fans) I F*cking Love Science page when its creator ripped off one of his images and shared it without attribution. His post, Facebook's "I F*cking Love Science" does not f*cking love artists kicked over a hornet's nest online. In it, Alex took a look at the most recent 100 images, and how many had attribution and found it appalling. I agree. Here are my thoughts about the controversy.

  • Very recently, I F*cking Love Science's creator came under a lot of nasty, horrible, all-too-common sexism and misogyny when fans found out the popular page was run by a woman. It's not right, and emotions are high in defense of Elise Andrew in the face of the outrageous attacks. But that's not what Wild is doing: his post was a rant, but it was a measured one about a common practice on IFLS, not about Andrew herself.
  • One of the key reasons for sharing and discussing this publicly is precisely to raise consciousness about proper image use with the fans of the IFLS page. I've done this before, and it often works. I've tried it in the Pharyngula comment thread, on DeviantArt, and on paleo-art blogs. You're not just having a conversation with the site author: you're having a conversation with anyone looking on.
  • Accusing Wild of being rude by not quietly contacted Andrew is placing the blame in the wrong place: IFLS was apparently not trying too hard to contact any of the artists before using their work.
  • Generally, I like the idea of IFLS: it's the one science feed most of my non-sciencey friends on Facebook might repost from. It's good outreach. But in this day and age of attribution, and with IFLS being treated like a business there's no excuse. This is not idle sharing among friends.

Personal Brand and Insulting People

Something both wonderful and hindering about our online culture is how personalities get tied up in brands. Most art commissions I have received are not only because I'm up to the skill level of the illustration: they're also about my blog and personality. People want art because of the artist, moreso than ever. How many people felt they had some personal connection with Picasso, with O'Keefe? With how easy it is to reach out via Twitter, Facebook or old-fashioned email, it doesn't compare.

The downside of this, all this pouring of our artistic and personal selves online, is whenever someone who has made something is criticised, we take it personally.

Time to Take a Look at Science Blogs

I did something like this back in 2010, and Alex Wild did excellent work yesterday looking at the past 100 images on IFLS for attribution. I've used scienceblogging.org and looked at the most recent posts on each of the networks. Let's see how blog posts on major networks shake out:

Sample from 1am to 7am 24 April, 2013. Click to enlarge. Yes, you may reproduce this, but please link back to this blog post.

The legend is in the first set: red means no attribution, yellow means credit without a link, and blue is the good one, credit + link. We should be seeing lots of blue. I sampled 10 recent posts from 10 networks: they may not all add up to 10, because some blog posts didn't use images at all.

All the samples were taken between 1am and 7am this morning. I have kept a list of each url which I've forwarded to Bora Zivkovic, our editor. If anyone is dying to see it, lemme know.

Caveat: I know this isn't scientific: it's a sliver, a glimpse in time. I looked at 100 science blog posts from 10 networks. Perhaps a wider sample over 2 years would reveal something more comprehensive. At the same time, this tiny sample, slightly more than an anecdote tells some stories.

I know that at SciAm, we discuss proper image use a lot. So it's nice to see that it's working. I may guess some networks like Phenomena have a mandate not to link to image sources. Perhaps to keep people on the site? But again, 10 blog posts from that network is hardly representative of their output.

Over the past several years, I have stopped reading some science blogs and even avoided some of the people at conferences for their lack of care about image credit. Maybe I should be opening a dialogue at every turn, but it's hard balancing the importance of the issue without being self-proclaimed internet police.

All is Not Lost

Online culture has been moving to better and better attribution models while at the same time it has been easier to rip off more and more media. A particular case of frission is with Pinterest, the site that allows pinning from any website with lovely links directly back to the source but who's Terms of Service say you should only post things which you have permission to use - something that would kill their whole site if it was actually followed. (Kalliopi Monoyios and I wrote about Pinterest's strange Terms of Service here, here, and the resolution here.)

Yet: retweeting; resharing on Tumblr, G+ and Facebook; pinning linked-back images on Pinterest - all of these are ways that attribution can be traced. They're usually not sufficient on their own, granted. And attribution this way can be abused: Tumblr doesn't demand a source link, it's optional; you can pin from search engines, thwarting the link-back on Pinterest; but they represent attempts to give credit where credit is due.

Tools like Google Reverse Image Search, Tineye.com and the new Imgembed (which I look forward to exploring) help artists protect their visuals, and help anyone search for the right author. (You can usually find the correct image creator in seconds.) Art and illustration college and university programs really need to start teaching students how to manage their online presence.

Conclusion

The problem is bigger than I F*cking Love Science, but that's a big site and it ticked off a photographer with a strong online following. And so the messy discussions of the past couple of days. A lot of what I've said in this post I've said elsewhere. We're going to keep having this conversation until the tools get easier to use and the culture shifts back to appreciating images, and not treating them like bubble gum cards.

The internet is the most powerful visual medium in history, while making and sharing images is easier than at any other time in history. We need to respect these two powerful visual forces.

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Further reading:

[A lot of people have informed and challenged my thinking about these issues over the years, and so with the trepidation of someone worried he's forgetting someone, I'd like to thank Eric Orchard, Bora Zivkovic, Kalliopi Monoyios, Alex Wild, Katie McKissick, Cory Doctorow and Matthew Inman.]

"Searching for Copyright" images were derived from a digital painting I made and then manipulated with the Halftone app. © Glendon Mellow, feel free to reuse.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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