I was going to title this post “Why My Critics are Clueless, As Usual,” but I am aiming for higher standards in 2011. Recall our lengthy dispute about the Academic Rating system at Williams. Sam, Derek and Rory demonstrated, to varying degrees, a sad inability to understand both Williams’ own policies and the broader ethos of academia. Only go below if you want the details.

First, we disputed my use of Peter Nurnberg’s senior thesis. I claimed that my usage was appropriate. My critics claimed that it was against Williams policies. (Some of them were also confused on related topics.) As most readers with a clue would have known — concepts like fair use are not that complex — I was correct. See the update at the bottom of the post.

This post has been slightly edited after conversations with Sylvia Brown, Williams Archivist. As a result, the comment thread below will not make much sense. Sorry! In its current form, the post is consistent with Williams policies with regard to the use of senior theses.

Now, it would be one thing if my conversations will Sylvia had forced me to make changes in the original post, but not a single fact from Nurnberg’s thesis has been removed. Every detail — about the exact scores needed for the different academic ratings, about the precise (and formerly secret) procedures used by the admissions office — is still in the current version, officially approved by the relevant authority at Williams. (I did clean up some aspects of the post to remove some confusions, as evidenced in the comment thread, about some side issues.)

So, anyone who asserted that my use of Nurnberg’s thesis was against Williams policy is wrong. Just ask Sylvia Brown!

Second, was my usage consistent with the broader ethos/standards of academia? This is, of course, different from my adherence to Williams’ policies. Perhaps Williams is an outlier. The claim, by various critics, that my actions were outside the bounds of normal academic standards was even more annoying (to me) than disputes about Williams policies. After all, there was a (very small) chance that I was wrong about Williams, but I know approximately as much about current academic norms as most readers.

But you don’t need to believe just me! Let’s consult some other academics.

Professor Andrew Gelman:

I don’t know anything about Williams policy but I have little sympathy for someone trying to restrict the discussion of a thesis on a blog! A thesis is public material and it would seem best for all concerned for any research to be accessible and discussed. I mean, sure, it wouldn’t be right to scan and post entire chapters without permission, but it doesn’t sound like you’re planning on doing that. The bit about “you may not copy or distribute any content without the permission . . .”–that just sounds ridiculous.

Also, I’m not sure how relevant it is whether the blog is commercial or academic. There’s some sort of continuous range, right? On one extreme is this blog right here. It’s non-commercial (we’ve in fact turned down requests to advertise) and it’s academic–actually hosted on a Columbia University computer. But what if we were not academic (if, for example, I worked at a company and hosted it on a server at home) or commercial (as with the many blogs that run a few ads). Or what if it were commercial and non-academic? For example, what if Slate magazine or the New York Times wanted to report some content from this undergraduate thesis? They wouldn’t need permission, right? At least, I don’t see why they shouldn’t be allowed to go to the library, read the thesis, and report what they find. (I’m not speaking of legalities here, just what seems reasonable to me.)

Professor Radford Neal:

Perhaps undergraduate theses ought not to be quoted, since the author may not want their immature thoughts to be widely known. But in this case, such quotes are explicitly allowed in academic publications. Is it really less embarrassing for your silly undergrad thoughts to be quoted in Science or Nature rather than in a blog post?

Either a thesis is out there, forming a part of the intellectual atmosphere, or it isn’t. There is no half-way status.

Read the whole discussion for details. The point here is not that all academics agree with me. They don’t! The point is that some academics agree with me and some disagree with me.

The most subtle argument against my use was raised, perhaps unsurprisingly, by Will Slack ’11. He argues that I lack the “moral standing to re-publish” information from Peter’s thesis. Before I grapple with this position, perhaps Will (and others) can flesh it out a bit. For example, does everyone lack this moral standing, or just me? Consider a Williams student writing a Record article about admissions policy at Williams. Does she have the “moral standing” to read Peter’s thesis and use some of the facts in her article? Does it matter if her article is a news story or an op-ed? What if, instead of writing this article for the Record, she wrote it on WSO, or even on EphBlog?

Unless Will (or others) can come up with some plausible grounds for distinguishing among these cases, I would recommend a different rule: Unless library policies specifically prohibit it, anyone writing anywhere may (accurately!) report the contents of anything in the Williams library.

Do readers disagree?

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