Attribution is not permission


This morning a friend of mine, Fernando Enrique Ziegler, a pore pressure researcher and practitioner in Houston, let me know about an "interesting" new book from Elsevier: Practical Solutions to Integrated Oil and Gas Reservoir Analysis, by Enwenode Onajite, a geophysicist in Nigeria... And about 350 other people.

What's interesting about the book is that the majority of the content was not written by Onajite, but was copy-and-pasted from discussions on LinkedIn. A novel way to produce a book, certainly, but is it... legal?

Who owns the content?

Before you read on, you might want to take a quick look at the way the book presents the LinkedIn material. Check it out, then come back here. By the way, if LinkedIn wasn't so damn difficult to search, or if the book included a link or some kind of proper citation of the discussion, I'd show you a conversation in LinkedIn too. But everything is completely untraceable, so I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader.

LinkedIn's User Agreement is crystal clear about the ownership of content its users post there:

[...] you own the content and information that you submit or post to the Services and you are only granting LinkedIn and our affiliates the following non-exclusive license: A worldwide, transferable and sublicensable right to use, copy, modify, distribute, publish, and process, information and content that you provide through our Services [...]

This is a good user agreement [Edit: see UPDATE, below]. It means everything you write on LinkedIn is © You — unless you choose to license it to others, e.g. under the terms of Creative Commons (please do!).

Fernando — whose material was used in the book — tells me that none of the several other authors he has asked gave, or were even asked for, permission to re-use their work. So I think we can say that this book represents a comprehensive infringement of copyright of the respective authors of the discussions on LinkedIn.

Roles and reponsibilities

Given the scale of this infringement, I think there's a clear lack of due diligence here on the part of the publisher and the editors. Having said that, while publishers are quick to establish their copyright on the material they publish, I would say that this lack of diligence is fairly normal. Publishers tend to leave this sort of thing to the author, hence the standard "Every effort has been made..." disclaimer you often find in non-fiction books... though not, apparently, in this book (perhaps because zero effort has been made!).

But this defence doesn't wash: Elsevier is the copyright holder here (Onajite signed it over to them, as most authors do), so I think the buck stops with them. Indeed, you can be sure that the company will make most of the money from the sale of this book — the author will be lucky to get 5% of gross sales, so the buck is both figurative and literal.

Incidentally, in Agile's publishing house, Agile Libre, authors retain copyright, but we take on the responsibility (and cost!) of seeking permissions for re-use. We do this because I consider it to be our reputation at stake, as much as the author's.

OK, so we should blame Elsevier for this book. Could Elsevier argue that it's really no different from quoting from a published research paper, say? Few researchers ask publishers or authors if they can do this — especially in the classroom, "for educational purposes", as if it is somehow exempt from copyright rules (it isn't). It's just part of the culture — an extension of the uneducated (uninterested?) attitude towards copyright that prevails in academia and industry. Until someone infringes your copyright, at least.

Seek permission not forgiveness

I notice that in the Acknowledgments section of the book, Onajite does what many people do — he gives acknowledgement ("for their contributions", he doesn't say they were unwitting) to some the authors of the content. Asking for forgiveness, as it were (but not really). He lists the rest at the back. It's normal to see this sort of casual hat tip in presentations at conferences — someone shows an unlicensed image they got from Google Images, slaps "Courtesy of A Scientist" or a URL at the bottom, and calls it a day. It isn't good enough: attribution is not permission. The word "courtesy" implies that you had some.

Indeed, most of the figures in Onajite's book seem to have been procured from elsewhere, with "Courtesy ExxonMobil" or whatever passing as a pseudolicense. If I was a gambler, I would bet that the large majority were used without permission.

OK, you're thinking, where's this going? Is it just a rant? Here's the bottom line:

The only courteous, professional and, yes, legal way to re-use copyrighted material — which is "anything someone created", more or less — is to seek written permission. It's that simple.

A bit of a hassle? Indeed it is. Time-consuming? Yep. The good news is that you'll usually get a "Sure! Thanks for asking". I can count on one hand the number of times I've been refused.

The only exceptions to the rule are when:

  • The copyrighted material already carries a license for re-use (as Agile does — read the footer on this page).
  • The copyright owner explicitly allows re-use in their terms and conditions (for example, allowing the re-publication of single figures, as some journals do).
  • The law allows for some kind of fair use, e.g. for the purposes of criticism.

In these cases, you do not need to ask, just be sure to attribute everything diligently.

A new low in scientific publishing?

What now? I believe Elsevier should retract this potentially useful book and begin the long process of asking the 350 authors for permission to re-use the content. But I'm not holding my breath.

By a very rough count of the preview of this $130 volume in Google Books, it looks like the ratio of LinkedIn chat to original text is about 2:1. Whatever the copyright situation, the book is definitely an uninspiring turn for scientific publishing. I hope we don't see more like it, but let's face it: if a massive publishing conglomerate can make $87 from comments on LinkedIn, it's gonna happen.

What do you think about all this? Does it matter? Should Elsevier do something about it? Let us know in the comments.

UPDATE Friday 1 September

Since this is a rather delicate issue, and events are still unfolding, I thought I'd post some updates from Twitter and the comments on this post:

  • Elsevier is aware of these questions and is looking into it.
  • Re-read the user agreement quote carefully. As Ronald points out below, I was too hasty — it's really not a good user agreement, LinkedIn have a lot of scope to re-use what you post there. 
  • It turns out that some people were asked for permission, though it seems it was unclear what they were agreeing to. So the author knew that seeking permission was a good idea.
  • It also turns out that at least one SPE paper was reproduced in the book, in a rather inconspicuous way. I don't know if SPE granted rights for this, but the author at least was not identified.
  • Some people are throwing the word 'plagiarism' around, which is rather a serious word. I'm personally willing to ascribe it to 'normal industry practices' and sloppy editing and reviewing (the book was apparently reviewed by no fewer than 5 people!). And, at least in the case of the LinkedIn content, proper attribution was made. For me, this is more about honesty, quality, and value in scientific publishing than about misconduct per se.
  • It's worth reading the comments on this post. People are raising good points.

Part of the thumbnail image was created by Jannoon028 — — and licensed CC-BY.

Beyond pricing: the fine print

Earlier this week, I wrote about pricing professional services. A slippery topic, full of ifs and buts (just like geoscience!). And it was only half the story, because before commencing on a piece of work, you and your client have to agree on a lot of things besides price. To avoid confusion later, it's worth getting those things straight before you start.

Here are most of the things we try to cover in every agreement:

  • Don't include expenses in your professional fees. Extras like travel expenses should always be separate. Be clear about your policies (for example, if I'm traveling more than 8 hours, I'm booking business class tickets). Do your client a favour by estimating the expenses for them, but pad everything a bit so you don't surprise them later with more than the estimate. Promise to provide receipts for everything.
  • You should charge for your travel time. I usually charge this at my full day rate, but sometimes less if I know I can be somewhat productive on the journey. I've read of consultants not charging if they're traveling at the weekend, because it's not a normal work day... To me this is backwards: if I'm traveling for work at the weekend, someone better be paying for my time!
  • Know your sales tax situation. I recommend getting professional help from a chartered accountant on this. Do not assume the client will know: they won't, and it's not their responsibility to, it's yours. I'm afraid you will be reading tax treaties and filling out some pretty gross forms.
  • Charge more for travel outside your 'comfort zone'. For example, I add at least 20% outside the US & Canada or Western Europe, depending on the place. Travel is exhausting, you're away from home, you need vaccinations, you need visas, everything is unfamiliar. All good fun when you're on holiday, but stressful, expensive, and time-consuming when you're trying to be an awesome professional.
  • Get paid as soon as possible. I've never done it, but I know people who charge a percentage up front. For longer jobs, specify that you wish to charge partial invoices, perhaps monthly. Ask for Net 15 terms (i.e. they'll have 15 days to pay your invoices), but settle for Net 30. Longer than this seems unfair to me. Add late fees and interest to overdue accounts, and reissue the invoice at every due date.
  • Make it easy for people to pay you. Be specific about how to pay, and give people options. It's safe to give them your bank account details (I put them on my invoices, along with foreign banking details like SWIFT and IBAN codes), and electronic funds transfer is the best way to get paid. Put your tax number on your invoices, some clients need it. I use Stripe for accepting credit cards, but bear in mind that you probably don't want to accept credit cards over about $10k.
  • Get good at currencies. Remember to be very specific about currencies whenever you talk money. Use ISO4217. If you can, make things simple for people; I charge USD to US customers. I have a USD account and use a foreign exchange service (Firma) for FX. I spend a lot of money in the US too, so I also have a USD credit card, paid in USD.
  • Do the work you want to do, the way you want to do it. This is kind of the point of 'being your own boss', right? Of course, you have to be reasonable, and compromise when necessary (OK, if every contract is a compromise, maybe you are too particular!). Talk to your client! It's OK to negotiate, ask questions, and so on. Every time I've asked for contracts or terms to be changed, it has at least been entertained, and it usually works out.

It can be awkward raising all this; you probably don't want to dump it all on someone at your first meeting. We usually put all the gory details into as short and informal a document as we can (usually part of the project description or 'scope of work', or in a 'letter of understanding'), show it to the client, answer their questions about it, and eventually reference it in the contract. Most contracts allow for some document that describes the specific conditions of the contract, but it's worth checking that those conditions don't contradict the contract. If they do, ask for the contract to be changed to reflect whatever you agree with the client.

If you're just starting out on the professional services road, I hope this is all of some help to you. And I hope it's not too daunting. 

“Fine Print” by Damian Gadal is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Pricing professional services, again

I have written about this before, but in my other life as an owner of a coworking space. It's come up in Software Underground a couple of times recently, so I thought it might be time to revisit the crucial question for anyone offering services: what do I charge?

Unfortunately, it's not a simple answer. And before you read any further, you also need to understand that I am no business mastermind. So you should probably ignore everything I write. (And please feel free to set me straight!)

Here's a bit of the note I got recently from a blog reader:

I'm planning to start doing consulting and projects of seismic interpretation and prospect generations but I don't know what's a fair price to charge for services. I sure there're many of factors. I was wondering if you can share some tips on how to calculate/determine the cost of a seismic interpreter project? Is it by sq mi of data interpreted, maps of different formations, presentations, etc.?

Let's break the reply down into a few aspects:

Know the price you're aiming for and don't go below it. I've let myself get beaten down once or twice, and it's not a recipe for success: you may end up resenting the entire job. One opinion on Software Underground was to start with a high price, then concede to the client during negotiations. I tend to keep a fair price fixed from the start, and negotiate on other things (scope and deliverables). Do try not to get sucked into too much itemization though: it will squeeze your margins.

But what is the price you're aiming for? It depends on your fixed costs (how much do you need to get the work done and pay yourself what you need to live on?), time, complexity, your experience, how simple you want your pricing to be, and so on. All these things are difficult. I tend to go for simplicity, because I don't want the administrative overhead of many line items, keeping track of time, etc. Sometimes this bites me, sometimes (maybe) I come out ahead. 

Come on, be specific. If you've recently had a 'normal' job, then a good starting point is to know your "fully loaded cost" (i.e. what you really cost, with benefits, bonuses, cubicle, coffee, computer, and so on). This is typically about 2 to 2.5 times your salary(!). That's what you would like to make in about 200 days of work. You will quickly realize why consultants are apparently so expensive: people are expensive, especially people who are good at things.

If I ever feel embarrassed to ask for my fee, I remind myself that when I worked at Halliburton, my list price as a young consultant was USD 2400 per day. Clients would sign year-long contracts for me at that rate.

It's definitely a good idea to know what you're competing with. However, it can be very hard to find others' pricing information. If you have a good relationship with the client, they may even tell you what they are used to paying. Maybe you give them a better price, or maybe you're more expensive, because you're more awesome.

Remember your other bottom lines. Money is not everything. If we get paid for work on an open source project (open code or open content), we always discount the price, often by 50%. If we care deeply about the work, we ask for less than usual. Conversely, if the work comes with added stress or administration, we charge a bit more.

One thing's for sure: sometimes (often) you're leaving money on the table. Someone out there is charging (way) more for (much) lower quality. Conversely, someone is probably charging less and doing a better job. The lack of transparency around pricing and salaries in the industry doubtless contributes to this. In the end, I tend to be as open as possible with the client. Often, prices change for the next piece of work for the same client, because I have more information the second time.

Opinions wanted

There's no doubt, it's a difficult subject. The range of plausible prices is huge: $50 to $500 per hour, as someone on Software Underground put it. Nearer $50 to $100 for a routine programming job, $200 for professional input, $400 for more awesomeness than you can handle. But if there's a formula, I've yet to discover it. And maybe a fair formula is impossible, because providing critical insight isn't really something you can pay for on a 'per hour' kind of basis — or shouldn't be.

I'm very open to more opinions on this topic. I don't think I've heard the same advice yet from any two people. When I asked one friend about it he said: "Keep increasing your prices until someone says No."

Then again, he doesn't drive a Porsche either.

If you found this post useful, you might like the follow-up post too: Beyond pricing: the fine print.

Are we alright?


This year's Canada GeoConvention tried a few new things. There was the Openness Unsession, Jen Russel Houston's Best of 2013 PechaKutcha session, and the On Belay careers session. Attendance at the unsession was a bit thin; the others were well attended. Hats off to the organizers for getting out of a rut.

I went to the afternoon of the On Belay session. It featured several applied geoscientists with less than 5 years of experience in the industry. I gather the conference asked them for a candid 'insider' view, with career tips for people like them. I heard 2 talks, and the experience left me literally shaking, prompting Ben Cowie to ask me if I was alright.

I was alright, but I'm not sure about us. Our community — or this industry — has a problem.

Don't be yourself

Marc Enter gave a talk entitled Breaking into Calgary's oil and gas industry, an Aussie's perspective.

Marc narrated the arc of his career: well site geology in a trailer in the outback, re-location to Calgary, being laid-off, stumbling into consultancy (what a person does when they can't find a real job), and so on. On this journey, Marc racked up hundreds of hours of interview experience searching for work in Calgary. Here are some of his learnings, paraphrased but I think they are accurate:

  • Being yourself is impossible in a unfamiliar place. So don't be yourself.
  • Interview experience is crucial to being comfortable, so apply for jobs you have no interest in, just for the experience.
  • If the job description doesn’t sound exactly right to you, apply anyway. It's experience.
  • Confidence is everything. HR people are sniffer dogs for confidence. If you don't have it, invent it.
  • On confidence: it is easier to find a job when you have a job.

What on earth are we teaching these young professionals about working in this industry? This is awful.

How to survive the workday 

Jesse Shoengut gave a talk entitled One man’s tips and tricks for surviving your early professional career

Surviving. That's the word he chose. Might as well have been enduring. Tolerating. TGIF mindset. Like Marc, Jesse spoke about a haphazard transition from university into the working world. If you can't find a job after you finish your undergrad, you can always have a go at grad school. That's one way to get work experience, if all else fails.

Fine, finding work can be hard, and not all jobs are awesome. But with statements like, "Here are some things that keep me sane at work, and help get me through the day," I started to react a bit. C'mon, is that really what people in the audience deserve to hear? Is that really what work is like? It's depressing.

A broken promise

Listening to these talks, I felt embarrassed for our profession. They felt like a candid celebration of mediocrity, where confidence compensates for complacency. I don't blame these young professionals — students have been groomed, through summer internships and hyper-conventional careers events, to get their resumes in order, fit in, and follow instructions. We in industry have built this trap we're mired in. And we are continually seduced. Seduced by the bait of more-then-decent pay and plenty of other rewards. 

I talked to one fellow afterwards. He said, "Yeah, well, a lot of people are finding it hard to find a job right now." If these cynical, jaded young professionals are representative, I'm not surprised.

Were you at this session? Did you see other talks, or walk away with a different impression? I'd love to hear your viewpoints... am I being unfair? Leave a comment.

Back to work

This post first appeared as a chapter in 52 Things You Should Know About Geophysics (Agile Libre, 2012 — also at Amazon). To follow up on Back to school on Tuesday, I thought I'd share it here on the blog. It's aimed at young professionals, but to be honest, I could do with re-reading it myself now and again...

Five things I wish I'd known

For years I struggled under some misconceptions about scientific careers and professionalism. Maybe I’m not particularly enlightened, and haven't really woken up to them yet, and it's all obvious to everyone else, but just in case I am, I have, and it's not, here are five things I wish I'd known at the start of my career.

Always go the extra inch. You don't need to go the extra mile — there often isn't time and there's a risk that no one will notice anyway. An inch is almost always enough. When you do something, like work for someone or give a presentation, people only really remember two things: the best thing you did, and the last thing you did. So make sure those are awesome. It helps to do something unexpected, or something no one has seen before. It is not as hard as you'd think — read a little around the edges of your subject and you'll find something. Which brings me to...

Read, listen, and learn. Subscribe to some periodicals, preferably ones you will actually enjoy reading. You can see my favourites in J is for Journal. Go to talks and conferences, as often as you reasonably can. But, and this is critical, don't just go — take part. Write notes, ask questions, talk to presenters, discuss with others afterwards. And learn: do take courses, but choose them wisely. In my experience, most courses are not memorable or especially effective. So ask for recommendations from your colleagues, and make sure there is plenty of hands-on interaction in the course, preferably on computers or in the field. Good: Dan Hampson talking you through AVO analysis on real data. Bad: sitting in a classroom watching someone derive equations.

Write, talk, and teach. The complement to read, listen, and learn. It's never too early in your career to start — don't fall into the trap of thinking no one will be interested in what you do, or that you have nothing to share. Even new graduates have something in their experience that nobody else has. Technical conference organizers are desperate for stories from the trenches, to dilute the blue-sky research and pseudo-marketing that most conferences are saturated with. Volunteer to help with courses. Organize workshops and lunch-and-learns. Write articles for Recorder, First Break, or The Leading Edge. Be part of your science! You'll grow from the experience, and it will help you to...

Network, inside and outside your organization. Networking is almost a dirty word to some people, but it doesn’t mean taking people to hockey games or connecting with them on LinkedIn. By far the best way to network is to help people. Help people often, for free, and for fun, and it will make you memorable and get you connected. And it's easy: at least 50 percent of the time, the person just needs a sounding board and they quickly solve their own problem. The rest of the time, chances are good that you can help, or know someone who can. Thanks to the Matthew Effect, whereby the rich get richer, your network can grow exponentially this way. And one thing is certain in this business: one day you will need your network.

Learn to program. You don't need to turn yourself into a programmer, but my greatest regret of my first five years out of university is that I didn't learn to read, re-use, and write code. Read Learn to program to find out why, and how.

Do you have any advice for new geoscientists starting out in their careers? What do you wish you'd known on Day 1?

Your next employment contract

You own your brain. The hackathon we're hosting has reminded me of this. 

More than one person has expressed difficulty with reconciling their wish to participate in the event with their employment contract, which probably says something like this:

Everything you do belongs to us.

Your family photos belong to you

Yesterday I read something about US government intellectual property. I knew that most government content is free of copyright, and what I read confirmed it. It's a sort of mirror image of the situation we have in industry (this is from ACQuipedia): 

Works created by Federal employees in the course of their official duties are automatically in the public domain and may not be copyrighted by anyone.

Interestingly, works not created in the course of their duties are their copyright as normal. So a soldier's photographs on her cellphone are her intellectual property, even if they were taken on duty (provided she's not a photographer).

Our community should stand up for something resembling this same rule in the corporate environment. Of course works created in the course of your duties as an employed geoscientist or engineer belong to your employer. But clearly your family vacation photographs do not. And just as clearly, your edits to Wikipedia articles do not (unless that's your job, you lucky thing). And neither, with certain provisos, do your contributions to a hackathon.

What provisos? Well, there are other, equally important clauses about confidentiality in your contract. You may not legally disclose the company's proprietary intellectual property. So you can't show up at a hackathon and code up your company's latest migration algorithm. But coding up a new, previously unknown algorithm would be ethically OK, but if you're a geophysical programmer I can see the potential conflict there — it's a judgment call. I hope your company trusts you to make a fair decision. If the algorithm turns out to be awesome, and had 3 collaborators from different companies, then I say they should all be glad you got together to invent it. Innovation is not a zero-sum game.

Shop rights

It turns out that there's a common law provision for the ownership of your brain. So-called shop rights are generally upheld by courts, at least in the US. According to an excellent guide to IP from the IEEE, they go like this (there are variants):

  1. confidential information and inventions or other creations made during the course of employment as a normal part of job duties belong to the employer
  2. inventions made by the employee off the job, using the employee's own time and materials, will generally belong to the employee (absent fraud, related inplant work of which the employee might be aware, or other special circumstances); and
  3. inventions not related to work duties, but created with some nontrivial use of the employer's time, funds or materials still belong to the employee, but the employer has limited rights to exploit the invention without payment of royalties or other compensation.

Awesome! This is perfectly sensible. Unfortunately, employers can write almost anything they like in their contracts, and it sounds to me like clauses that trample on these rights are fairly common. And they will continue to be common until people start refusing to sign contracts that contain them.

Demand change

In light of all this, here are 3 things to demand (yes, demand — you do actually have some bargaining power when someone tries to hire you) in your next employment contract:

  • At the very least, clauses limiting your shop rights should be removed. In their absence, conflicts will be resolved by the application of common law.
  • You may contribute to Wikipedia, SEG Wiki, PetroWiki, SubSurfWiki, and other open content projects.
  • You may contribute to OpendTect, Madagascar, and other open source software projects.
  • You may contribute to unstructured events, including but not limited to unconferences, hackathons, and idea jams. 

Bottom line: your employer owns some of your creations, specifically the ones you make for them, at work, with their data, their tools, their employees, and their ideas. But you own the rest, and you emphatically own your creativity.

Changing how we are employed is entirely up to us. Legal professionals will pin us down to the bare minimum of openness and freedom otherwise — it's their job. So push back, ask for change, and retain your brain.

You own your brain

I met someone last week who said her employer — a large integrated oil & gas company — 'owned her'. She said she'd signed an employment agreement that unequivocally spelt this out. This person was certainly a professional on paper, with a graduate degree and plenty of experience. But the company had, perhaps unwittingly, robbed her of her professional independence and self-determination. What a thing to lose.

Agreements like this erode our profession. Do not sign agreements like this. 

The idea that a corporation can own a person is obviously ludicrous — I'm certain she didn't mean it literally. But I think lots of people feel confined by their employment. For some reason, it's acceptable to gossip and whisper over coffee, but talking in any public way about our work is uncomfortable for some people. This needs to change.

Your employer owns your products. They pay you for concerted effort on things they need, and to have their socks knocked off occasionally. But they don't own your creativity, judgment, insight, and ideas — the things that make you a professional. They own their data, and their tools, and their processes, but they don't own the people or the intellects that created them. And they can't — or shouldn't be able to — stop you from going out into the world and being an active, engaged professional, free to exerise and discuss our science with whomever you like.

If you're asked to sign something saying you can't talk at meetings, write about your work, or contribute to open projects like SEGwiki — stop.

These contracts only exist because people sign them. Just say, 'No. I am a professional. I own my brain.'

The intentional professional

I'm involved in a local effort to launch a coworking and business incubation space in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, where I live. Like most things worth doing, it's taking some time, but I think we'll get there eventually. Along this journey, I heard a lovely phrase recently — intentional community. What a great way to describe a group of coworkers and entrepreneurs, implying a group formed not just on purpose, but also with purpose

But it made me think too — it made me wonder if some of the communities I'm involved in might be unintentional — accidental, inadvertent, perhaps even a mistake? Would you describe your workplace as intentional? If you're a student, are your classes intentional? That committee you're on — is that intentional?

Another phrase that keeps popping into my head lately is

Don't be a looky-loo. — Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus

Even if you don't know what a looky-loo is, you'll recognize the behaviour immediately. A looky-loo is someone who, taking Woody Allen's advice a little too seriously, thinks 80% of success is showing up. If you've ever organized a meeting, with an idea that you might get something done in it, you know the sort: they arrive, they eat the cookies, they do the small talk, then they sit there and stare at you for an hour, then they leave. No input given. No notes taken. No point being there. 

Next time you hear yourself described in passive terms — attendee, reader, employee, student, user, consumer, react to it. You're being described as a person that things happen to. A victim.

Instead of being an unintentional victim, think of yourself an essential part of whatever it is. You are a participant, a partner, a stakeholder, a contributor, a collaborator. If you're not an essential part of it then, for everyone's sake, don't go.

This is what professionalism is.