Foxes and henhouses

Now that Data Doubles is winding down and the linked-data-ethics piece I worked on with Ruth Kitchin-Tillman is heading for publication, I find myself a tiny bit freer to pursue my own projects. (That said, it’s an accreditation cycle for my shop, RADD needs a rebranding and a lot of repair work before I can reopen it, I’m reviewing another round of grant applications, and I’m on the usual raft of task forces, so “freer” is… relative.) What I’m starting to tackle is a review of data used and ethics-related practices implemented (or not) in the portion of “Value Agenda for Libraries” research that specifically addresses individual student achievement vis-à-vis library use.

(VAL is a beast, if you look at the whole thing. The chunk of VAL I’m looking at is far from all of VAL. Figuring out inclusion criteria for the studies I’m studying got to be an adventure, I can tell you. I’m not sure I got it right, but I am sure I can clearly explain what I did, so that will have to do. I will of course post citation info for included/excluded studies in public so others can try slicing them different ways if they want.)

It probably won’t surprise anyone that I’m doing this because I think this particular chunk of VAL as it is actually implemented is lots of different kinds of unethical—library-privacy unethical, human-subjects research unethical, contextual-integrity unethical, duty-of-care unethical, exploiting-power-relations unethical. (I also want to talk to somebody more knowledgeable about FERPA, especially FERPA-as-implemented-in-practice than I am. If that’s you, I’d appreciate an email.) I am absolutely, positively one of the Big Meanies that Kirsten Kinsley complains about, and I am exactly zero percent sorry about that. Of course I will elaborate on my reasoning in the study, once I’ve done it and start writing it up; it’s a bit lengthy and involuted for a blog post.

The thing is, though, it’s hard to have productive arguments about this without a reasonably clear idea of what’s actually happening with data about individual students when libraries do this flavor of VAL research. So that’s what I’m trying to build, with nods to Briney and Asher/Robertshaw for preceding me.

So yeah, that’s where I’m coming from. I bring it up here because I saw the other day that ACRL is doing a webinar or something about doing student-centric VAL research ethically… in part run by the very people who invented VAL originally, building what I strongly believe to be extremely poor ethics into its foundations. I strongly suspect this learning opportunity will be full of motivated reasoning from people invested in not giving ground on the purported necessity of VAL-style research, not to mention as long on empty performative nods to the necessity of ethics as it will be short on actually actionable advice.

I’d love to be wrong, but I doubt I will be. Do not try to learn ethics from foxes defending their access to the student-data warehouse henhouse, is my feeling on this one.

I can’t even guess at this point when I’ll have a finished piece to send around to journals, though I’d be pleasantly shocked if it happened before 2023. At present I’m still building the eligible-study corpus, whose Zotero folder at this point includes roughly a hundred articles, theses, and conference presentations. (“Project” rather than “publication” has to be my unit of study here, because a number of projects have generated multiple published/presented outputs.) Wish me luck!