Ethics of Free Software community research

Most of this entry is exactly a year old today and it’s just sat around in draft form all that time. Since I posted something similar on Geek Feminism about research into women in tech and similar topics, I thought I’d get it out there.

In January 2009 a researcher named Anne Chin of Monash University Law emailed the chat list for the linux.conf.au 2009 conference asking for research subjects to be interviewed about licencing and Open Source software. There were several responses criticising her use of HTML email and Microsoft Word attachments. I’ll leave the specifics of this alone except that people should be (and probably are) aware that this is almost always an unknowing violation of community norms.

I did, though, think about making some notes on research ethics and Free Software research. A bit about my background: I am not a specialist in ethics. I’m somewhat familiar with ethics applications to work with human subjects, but not from the perspective of evaluating them. I’ve made them, and I’ve been a subject in a study that had made them.

For people who haven’t seen this process, the ethical questions arising from using human subjects in your research in general covers the question of whether the good likely to arise from the outcomes of the study outweighs the harm done to the subjects, together with issues of consent to that harm. (There are many philosophical assumptions underlying this ethical framework, I don’t intend to treat them here.) Researchers in universities, hospitals, schools and research institutes usually have to present their experimental designs to an ethics committee who will determine this question for them and approve their experiment. Researchers who work across several of these (eg, a PhD student who wants to interview schoolchildren) will need to do several ethics applications, a notable chore when the forms and guidelines aren’t standardised and occasionally directly conflict. Researchers working for private commercial entities may or may not have a similar requirement. Researchers who use animals also have to have ethical reviews, these are done by animal ethics committees, which are usually separate.

At my university, essentially any part of your research that involves measuring or recording another person’s response to a research question and using it to help answer that question needs a human ethics application.

The good/harm balance may include very serious dilemmas: is there a health risk to subjects? how will the researcher manage the conflict between maintaining subject confidentiality and research integrity and the good of her subjects or the requirements of the law if she uncovers, say, episodes of abuse or violence? But it also involves less immediately obvious and serious ethical questions. Is this study a giant waste of subjects’ time? is considered a question of ethics by ethics committees, and is in fact the most serious problem for linguistics research, since there’s very seldom an outcome of particular interest to the subjects themselves.

The study in which I took part a few years back was towards the serious end actually: it was a study into the psychological profiles of people who have an immediate family member who had cancer as a child and involved both questionnaires and a phone interview with a psychologist. Both because the study explored memories of the illness and because the profiling included evaluating depressive episodes, suicidal ideation and so on, it came with a detailed consent form and with information about a counselling service that had been informed of the study and was prepared to work with its subjects.

In the case of the Free Software community the ethical questions are often more towards the waste of time? end of the spectrum than the more immediately serious end. It’s important to understand that this isn’t necessarily the case though. Here are some more cutting ethical problems:

  • getting findings that expose your subjects and/or their employers to intellectual property claims; or
  • revealing that your subjects are breaching employment contracts in some way (generally also related to IP) and thus exposing them to job loss and possible civil action.

Getting ethics approval to carry out workplace studies can be fairly hard precisely due to problems like these. But in the rest of this post I will treat the waste of time problem.

Firstly the basics: are your subjects going to be identifiable in your final reports or to the general public? If not, who will know who they are? Can a subject opt to have their responses removed from the study? When and how? All this should be explained at the start. (Usually if an ethics committee has been involved, there’s a consent form.) If doing a survey look into survey design, in order to construct non-leading questions and such.

Now, for specifics. Most of them arise from this principle: there are a lot of researchers working, in various ways, on the Free Software community, possibly making it a slightly over-studied group if anything. This places the onus on the individual researcher to demonstrate to the community that their project is worthwhile and that they’re going to do what they say. Thus:

  1. demonstrate some familiarity with the background. Depending on your research level this could mean anything from demonstrating a knowledge of existing anthropological work on Free Software (say, if the research project is for your anthropology PhD) down to at least understanding the essential concepts and core history (say, a project at high school level). This can be demonstrated by research design, eg asking sensible well-informed questions, but actually mostly requires a bigger time investment: making appearances in the community, either virtually or physically, ideally for a little time before asking the community to help you get your PhD/A-grade/pass.
  2. don’t get the community to design your experiment for you. Have a specific goal, more specific than get people to write me lengthy essays about Free Software, and get ideas from that and write about them. In the general case, the ask people incredibly vague stuff and hope they say something interesting technique fails the waste-of-time test.
  3. give your results back to the community. The most common problem with the various surveys, interviews and questionnaires sent to the Free Software community is that responding to them is like shouting into a black hole. It is not unheard of, of course, to see the thesis or essay or roundup that comes out of these, but it is unusual, relative to the number of requests. Most of the time the researcher promptly disappears. Researchers should come to the Free Software community with an explanation of when and where they will make the results of the study available. They should explain the aims in advance unless this would compromise the results. (On that note: Anne Chin is giving a linux.conf.au talk this year.)

Menstrual geeking: getting started

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

I was surfing around on Vagina Dentata which I stumble across periodically (most recently in our last linkspam) but have not quite got to feed-reader-adding yet. This is poor form I admit”Š”””ŠI’ll go right off and add it after writing this”Š”””Šbut does mean that I can enjoy a number of posts at once. Today I spent some time on periods. Periods. PERIODS. P.E.R.I.O.D.S. and Time to talk periods and thought other folks of the menstruating kind and/or the geeky kind might enjoy a bit of related geekery.

My official menstrual cycle education essentially boiled down to, if I recall correctly, that there was a time when one bled, a longer time when one didn’t and that at some point during the longer time ovulation occurred. And there were was certain amount of practical information regarding pads and tampons, which largely came down to a few diagrams and “beware Toxic Shock Syndrome”. Only in my mid-twenties, looking only to fill, I think, idle geek time, I found out about the follicular phase and the luteal phase, about fertilisation taking place in the Fallopian tubes and implantation occurring only around a week later, about the fairly short lifespan of the ovum and the fairly large corpus luteum cysts that ovulating women develop each cycle. (I had an early ultrasound of my current pregnancy, while the cyst was still presumably secreting progesterone, and it was a fairly big black circle on my ovary.) As best I understand, and I’m very much a layperson when it comes to the science of menstruation, Wikipedia’s article on the menstrual cycle is a good place to start reading for your menstrual geeking initiation.

I learned this when on the recommendation of another woman geek I picked up Toni Weschler’s book Taking Charge of Your Fertility. It’s a Fertility Awareness guide, about using a combination of basal body temperature, cervical mucus and cervical position to identify fertile times in your menstrual cycle in order to either get pregnant or avoid it. (This is not necessarily a religiously inspired practice, and it’s more effective as a contraceptive than you’d expect: much of the dubious reputation of cycle-based methods of contraception comes from use of strictly calendar based methods. Fertility Awareness requires a fairly good working knowledge of the signs and the use of either barrier methods or abstinence at fertile times though, with failure modes you can imagine.) I can’t get as excited about the idea of taking my temperature every morning of my fertile life as Weschler can, and I’ve never charted a cycle to the extent that would satisfy a Fertility Awareness educator, but I have tracked my temperature through a couple of cycles in order to observe the basic signs. I’d recommend this book if you’d like to do some serious observing of your menstrual cycle from, as it were, the outside.

Vagina Dentata also has a promising pointer to the re: Cycling blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle research, and you might be interested in (note: photos of cervixes at link… as you’d expect) the Beautiful Cervix photos taken throughout various people’s cycles.

If you have a geeky interest in menstruation and related things, what are the coolest facts you know, and what are your favourite sources of info?

Someone is going to make a bingo card about my notes to commenters some day, aren’t they? Today’s note is: remember that not all women menstruate, and not all people who menstruate are women.

Geek culture stereotypes and women’s responses

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Links to Lisa Grossman’s Of Geeks and Girls have been turning up everywhere. She’s recounting work by Sapna Cheryan asking women about their interest in computing, in their case rooms that are decorated such that “Star Wars posters adorned the walls, discarded computer parts and cans of Coke clustered on a table” and showing that they are much less likely to agree that they have any interest in computer science. (Grossman does not report how men responded: surely Cheryan’s work used male subjects as well?)

The article goes on to caution though that while geek culture stereotypes seem to alienate women to some degree, dismantling the whole culture is not the solution:

But what about the women who do think like computer scientists? What of the girl geeks?

Cheryan has given talks where the audience doubted the existence of girl geeks. She’s also given talks to girl geeks. There, she has received responses such as, “I’m a female engineer, and I like Star Trek! What are you trying to say?” She explains that her studies aren’t supposed to give a picture of what computer scientists are actually like. The geek room is a caricature. “We couldn’t have found a room in the CS building that really looked like that,” she says. But the perception it captures is real.

It’s a fairly frequent response to geek feminism to argue that it’s an attempt to destroy geek culture, or at best that it’s a zero sum game: the number of women who would join a more feminist geek culture would be equalled by the number of men who would leave; occasionally this argument essentially boils down to “I’m here to get the hell away from women” but more commonly it’s along the lines of “I’m here to get the hell away from mainstream social norms, I like the social norms in geekdom, you’re trying to turn them into mainstream social norms, ew.” This reminds me of that response, but from women. We’re here for the geekdom. We talk about what we want to change; we should also talk about what we want to keep.

You’re welcome to discuss Cheryan’s work and Grossman’s take on it in general in comments here (worth remembering though that we generally don’t have perfect insight into our prejudices, so you may or may not be more turned off by discarded computer parts than you think), but I specifically wanted to ask women who see themselves as part of geek culture, or a geek culture, what are the parts of it that you enjoy and that you’re hoping to open up to more women?

University colleges: nurturing a rape culture

This article originally appeared on Hoyden About Town.

Warning: this post has graphic quotes from and links to mainstream media accounts of rape culture and imagery, and sexual violence.

One of the profoundly disturbing aspects of rape culture discussions—and this won’t surprise readers here—is the way that they reveal the confident assumption that there are rapists, who are evil and other and unresponsive to any form of social control, and then there are the rest of us, who can be exposed to any number of conflicting messages about rape—sexy rape, not-rape rape, that-type-of-girl rape, he’s-such-a-good-fellow rape—and emerge with our anti-rape moral compass intact.

There is no single place in my own experiences that taught me that this is wrong more thoroughly and dramatically than university residential college.

Continue reading “University colleges: nurturing a rape culture”

Conference recordings and harassment

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

The problem

At technical and other geek conferences and events it’s becoming increasingly common to either video talks by default, or in some cases to refuse to allow any speaker to opt out of being recorded while still being allowed to give their talk. I have been told a couple of stories of harassment related to conference videos, as follows (all individuals are women, some have been anonymised, none are me):

S gave a talk at a professional conference and related the following experience in chat:

S: linkedin pm I just got: “wow- you’re alot more younger and attractive than I imagined!.Thanks for showing your picture!”
S: I don’t like photographs and don’t let my likeness out much online. But a professional talk I gave a couple weeks ago was videoed (with my knowledge and consent). This was the result.

C gave a talk at a technical conference and a recorded version was also published with her consent. She subsequently received an anonymous email with a list of time offsets for the video and sexual commentary on her appearance at those time offsets.

Geekfeminism contributors also shared stories:

  • Leigh, in reply to S’s story:

    I got one of those on Facebook a few weeks back, from someone I know in the local Linux community, saying I was “so hot” and asking if I was giving any more talks this summer. This is someone I know only professionally, and not even well at that.

    I replied with a link to Juliet’s ‘and she’s cute too!’ blog post…

  • Skud has received several messages with offensive commentary on her appearance based on videos and photographs of her talks. A couple of events have recorded her without first obtaining her consent; in one case, she spoke to the photographer afterwards and asked for the video not to be published.

See also the Wiscon troll incident.

What to do about it

Based on these stories, there are several concerns about recording conference talks that conference organisers should be thinking about when planning to record talks:

  1. Consent to recordings must be obtained from all speakers, in advance.
  2. Have an optional, opt-in, recording scheme for talks. As these stories demonstrate, people have had harassment experiences, some very creepy and cruel, related to being recorded, or have reason to fear them. People may well decide that they’d prefer not to be recorded for this, or other, reasons. If your conference has a “if you don’t want to be recorded, withdraw your talk” policy, you will exclude those people from speaking.
  3. It’s not feasible to get attendee consent, but in your conference handouts, warn attendees that their questions and possibly other conversation may be recorded during talks.

Possible alternatives to making recordings of speakers include publishing slides only, or making a slidecast of their slides and the audio of the talk. (Note that the latter can also be considerably more useful than visuals of the speaker.)

Separately, some women (in particular) intensely dislike the paparazzi atmosphere that some geek events have, in which everyone can be photographed at any time. In your event’s code of conduct, consider addressing the question of whether photographers should seek consent from individual subjects to either photography or to publication of photographs.

What’s your experience with event recording, especially video and photography? Can you think of any other ways in which recording is problematic, or other guidelines for event organisers to help with these problems?

Note to commenters: the “you should be flattered” discussion will not take place in this post. Thank you.

Quick hit: Ada Yonath

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Per Meli in comments, with the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this year another women laureate has been named: Ada Yonath, with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz, “for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome”. I didn’t know that the announcements were staggered, my apologises for implying that Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider were the only women laureates. Thanks for the update Meli.

Women in Science has a profile of Yonath, here’s an excerpt:

After receiving her bachelor’s degree in chemistry and master’s degree in biochemistry from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, she entered the laboratory of Wolfie Traub at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. She earned her Ph.D. for X-ray crystallographic studies of collagen in 1968. After brief postdocs at Carnegie Mellon and MIT, she returned to the Weizmann Institute to establish the country’s first protein crystallography laboratory in Israel.

Despite her expertise in X-ray crystallography, many scientists were skeptical that the technique could be used to determine ribosome structure, only they apparently didn’t express it quite so tactfully.

[…] she was able to count on the support of “a few individuals, including several distinguished scientists and my own group of young and highly motivated students. They encouraged me even when my project met with rigorous skepticism from most prominent scientists all over the world, even when I was called ‘a dreamer,’ ‘crazy’ or the ‘Village Fool.'”

Even her initial successes weren’t immediately recognized by her colleagues:

[…] with the techniques then available, it took Yonath months of trying different solutions and crystallization procedures to get tiny crystals of the larger, or 50S, subunit of the ribosome from a Bacillus bacterium, and more than a year to get the first very fuzzy x-ray crystallographic images. But when she showed colleagues her results at an August 1980 meeting, “everyone laughed at me,” Yonath recalls.

Quick hit: Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

A couple of days ago Skud linked to the Women in Science introduction to women potentially eligible for Nobel Prizes. Now the awards have been announced and there are two female laureates this year: Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider. They, with Jack Szostak, are sharing the Physiology or Medicine prize “for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase”.

Blackburn is Australian and so has received a lot of Australian press. Here’s an excerpt of a Sydney Morning Herald story:

Professor Blackburn, 60, who now works in San Francisco, pioneered the study of telomeres, caps that protect chromosomes in cells, and is a discoverer of telomerase, an enzyme that does the protecting.

… Professor Blackburn is a vocal advocate of independent scientific thought who fell out with the Bush administration over cloning and stem cells.

She was dropped from George Bush’s Council on Bioethics in 2004 after questioning its bias.

A colleague and friend, Melbourne University’s dean of science, Rob Saint, said Professor Blackburn, who graduated in 1971, chose her career when women were starting to become more involved in the sciences.

“I think she would be representative of a change in that gender balance,” Professor Saint said. “It’s wonderful that here we’re seeing the fruits of opening up the system.

Dr Blackburn’s career path wasn’t easy. Early in her tertiary education, she returned to her birthplace, Hobart, where according to her biography a family friend said: “What’s a nice girl like you doing studying science?”

Her interest had been sparked by a likeable chemistry teacher at Launceston’s Broadland school. There, biographer Catherine Brady said, she used the new chemistry lab to try to make touch powder fireworks.

She completed her schooling at Melbourne University High School, topping the state in three matriculation subjects, before completing a biochemistry masters, and moving on to Cambridge and Yale.

Women in Science has an extensive introduction to the work of both Blackburn and Greider.

Names, glorious names

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Some time back, I wrote:

We [on the LinuxChix lists] also had a long-standing problem articulating what it was that led to the extreme gender imbalance in Free Software development and many of its user communities… There was sexism in computing and in Free Software”¦ probably? Some women had stories, some women didn’t.

Now we have our long list of incidents, but I want to highlight another list which I’m happier about, our list of women in FLOSS. Back in the olden days, say 1999 or 2000 or so, LinuxChix tried to make a similar list. The Wayback Machine tells us it got to ten names, and I recall a significant amount of head scratching going into that. Now we have a list of women that is no doubt badly incomplete, probably uncompletable, but nevertheless something like ten times the length.

Today, instead of scratching our heads about what women could possibly deliver a keynote presentation at a technical conference, we started listing women who have done so, and I suspect that list too is fated to remain drastically incomplete no matter how actively it is updated. This is an inexpressibly happy thing for me: too many women to name! Thank you geek feminist flowering of 2008/2009!

Are there recent sources of geek feminist inspiration the Internet has tossed your way? Any treasure troves of women doing things you hadn’t heard about before? (Recall, we define geekdom broadly here, there’s no need to limit yourself to tech.) Who are you a mad fan of right now?

Identifying as a geek

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

I mentioned in my introduction post that I haven’t had to struggle internally to identify as a feminist. But the title of this site leads to another question: is it as easy for me to identify as a geek?

And the answer is no. A lot of this is pretty trivially heretical stuff. I mildly tend to being a morning person; left to my own devices, I do not tend to observe a 28 hour day, it’s sometimes as short as 23.5 hours. I am quite staggeringly indifferent to cats. I loathe being bathed in fluorescent light all day and jokes about the alien environment of the big blue room puzzle me. The thought of a world where human communication is as simple as TCP/IP’s SYN and ACK packets makes my skin crawl (I’m a computational linguistics student specialising in lexical semantics, mustn’t wish myself out of a job). I don’t eschew caffeine, but have never been tempted to consume it more than once a week or so. Given these examples and others, there are a lot of (computer) geek insider-status affirmation jokes and rituals that are as foreign to me as mating rituals at nightclubs are.

Some of this is me, and some of it is culture, and some of it is gender I think. I’ve never felt like I had to pass a test to count as a woman, or as a feminist. I feel like I trip over geekdom all the time. I don’t have pithy anecdotes of key experiences, but I strongly identified with Dorothea Salo’s discussion of “honorary guys” in Sexism and group formation:

A woman can be an honorary guy, sure, with all the perquisites and privileges pertaining to that status””as long as she never lets anything disturb the guy façade.

That is, I feel like I’m admitted to geekdom under sufferance, and womanhood and feminism don’t feel like that. But I know this experience is not universal, for many women reading geekdom is your skin and female gender like a coat that doesn’t fit all the time, and for others neither is problematic or they both are. How did you come to feminism, and geekdom, and womanhood (if you’re a woman)? Does one of them fit better than the others at the moment, and does that feed into your questioning anything?

Why we document

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

A comment over on the Geek Feminism wiki asked whether we aren’t damaging the community by documenting sexism. I don’t want to get too 101 on our fine blog, but I do want to talk about why I consider our pretty long list of sexist incidents in geekdom a success.

My first geek feminist forum, and still the one I participated longest in and therefore in many ways most influential on me, was LinuxChix. Things I learned over there included the reasons why having men dominate conversations can be anti-feminist, via the discussion around the document now available as behaviour in technical forums, which was originally a response by Valerie Aurora to a problem where the LinuxChix techtalk list was seeing fewer and fewer posts by women and was generally perceived as scary and hardcore.

We also had a long-standing problem articulating what it was that led to the extreme gender imbalance in Free Software development and many of its user communities. I can’t speak for the community, but what I remember feeling about those discussions was a major unease. There was sexism in computing and in Free Software… probably? Some women had stories, some women didn’t. There was social, peer and societal pressure on young women considering science and technical careers or even on developing those skills… probably? Again, some women had stories, some didn’t.

Had you asked me in 2003 for troublesome incidents in Free Software””are we doing anything wrong, or is this a problem we’ve inherited from other people who did things wrong, or is this just a thing about women, that they don’t like to be too nerdy in their spare time?””I don’t know that I would have been able to give you examples of anyone doing anything much wrong. A few unfortunate comments about cooking and babies at LUGs, perhaps. Things started to change my awareness slowly. Valerie’s 2002 HOWTO Encourage Women in Linux dug up some incidents at LUGs. In 2005 LinuxChix itself got some attention from (trigger warning) the troll Skud posted about. I was personally present at a sexualised presentation, the Acme::Playmate presentation at the Open Source Developers Conference in 2006. And in 2007, very soon after I had seen Kathy Sierra keynote linux.conf.au 2007, she was scared out of her work writing about technology by (trigger warning) online harrassment and for the first time, I personally saw the Internet explode over the issue of active, virulent sexism against women in technology.

I do not in fact find writing the wiki documentation of incidents in geekdom very satisfying. The comment linked at the beginning of the post compared the descriptions to a rope tying geekdom to the past. Sometimes being known as a wiki editor and pursued around IRC with endless links to yet another anonymous commenter or well-known developer advising women to shut up and take it and write some damned code anyway is like a rope tying me to the bottom of the ocean.

But what makes it worth it for me is that when people are scratching their heads over why women would avoid such a revolutionarily free environment like Free Software development, did maybe something bad actually happen, that women have answers. It’s not the only answer, there’s still all that social, peer and societal pressure, the shorter leisure hours, and so on, after all. And there’s no level of harrassment or cruelty that won’t find someone, plenty of someones, prepared to immediately argue that it’s really no big deal, what are you doing here, giving up? Letting them win? But now if when I’m asked about whether geek women have problems and why there aren’t more of us, I’m not left fumbling to explain it even to myself.

I don’t know what the Mary of 1999 (my watershed geek year wasn’t 1998, in fact) would have done if she’d come across that page in more or less the condition the wiki comment described, “the girl entering the community without any predispositions”, the woman vulnerable to being misled into thinking that geekdom is full of scoundrels (or, we might argue, not entirely misled). Maybe she would have run, I can’t say for sure that she wouldn’t have. But what woman is without baggage? In 1999 as a teenage girl with hair flowing down to my waist (I tell you what, short hair has cut my street harrassment down nearly as much as it cut my grooming routine down) I walked down the street to the steady beat of rape threats from passing vehicles. At least I would have found that geek women were talking about it and had got together and got each other’s back.