Can Lab Rats Even Read? Second Life and Academic Publication

There are many vexations in Second Life. Bots, lag, avatars loaded with too many burdensome attachments, and griefers, to name just a few. Among such everyday annoyances, at least for some residents, are students and researchers.

It’s probably true that this particular vexation is no longer as prevalent as it was in SL’s “Golden Age,” from about 2008 to 2010, when the platform was at the height of its hype-cycle; the (temporary) loss of the nonprofit pricing for educational institutions, and the growing sense that Second Life was not going to become the new “3D Web,” as well as the growing attention paid to augmented reality technologies has meant that virtual worlds in general, and Second Life in particular, are not quite the hot research area that they once were.

That said, there’s still a fair amount of research occurring in-world, and on the SL Forums. The reception met by requests for surveys and interviews is generally quite positive — if there is some evidence that the researcher or student has engaged in some background work, is reasonably familiar with the platform, and has given serious thought to the questions asked. There remains among some, however, a great deal of resentment about such intrusions into the virtual sandbox, some of it no doubt the result of a simple anti-academic bias. An oft-quoted passage from Kimberly Rufer-Bach’s The Second Life grid explains the source of some of this resentment:

“Similarly, some of the first educators and researchers in SL were a bit clumsy in their approach. There were early incidents in which Residents felt — rightly — that they were being spied upon or treated like guinea pigs rather than human beings. Imagine how you would feel if an entire class of students set up right next to your vacation hideaway, left trash lying around, logged your conversations, and posted them on the Internet with criticism and mean-spirited comments. This is exactly what happened to some early Residents. Things have improved greatly in the years since then, but sometimes SL Residents are still subject to that kind of inconsiderate behavior. For example, a constant stream of researchers (often students) posts on the Second Life official forums requesting that Residents please take their surveys. Most of these surveys include the same questions that have been asked over and over. Often they aren’t spell-checked, or refer to SL as a game—a sure way to irritate a substantial number of Residents. Some Residents make a hobby of critiquing these surveys, pointing out how the questions and their wording make it clear that the researcher isn’t familiar with Second Life. Some post outright that they are sick of badly planned surveys and suggest that the researchers log in and do their own research.” (From Kimberly Rufer-Bach, The Second Life Grid: The Official Guide to Communication, Collaboration, and Community Engagement)

SL Rat

Will I still be able to find mesh clothing that will fit?

Well, indeed. Who does want to be treated like a lab rat?

I actually get this, but it can sometimes seem unreasonable. I was myself once banned from a sim merely because my profile mentioned that I was an academic. And there is an element of inconsistency in this resentment: after all, our data is being assiduously scooped up and analyzed or sold for a profit by every social media platform we use. How reasonable, given what we provide corporations for free, is it that we should be annoyed at a student or academic researcher who harvests a tiny proportion of that information, given voluntarily and abiding by research ethics guidelines that are vastly more comprehensive and respectful than anything to be found in a corporate-authored TOS?

Even as an academic myself, however, I will confess that there is one aspect of such research activities that does seriously irk me, and that is that the results of the research are so very rarely made available to those who are its subjects. One will sometimes see on the SL Forums an appeal to the individual researcher that she or he make available the results of the research in question; sometimes, but rarely, the researcher will actually oblige. The vast bulk of the fruits of research in Second Life remains unavailable to the lab rats themselves.

In cases where the research has been for a student project, I am generally forgiving. Students don’t have the investment in academic research that full-time academics do, and they may well (and sometimes understandably) be nervous about posting their own work in public view.

I do have some issue, however, with research by tenured academics that remains hidden behind pay walls where it is, in effect, accessible only to other academics. An instance of this that crossed my Twitter feed this morning, and that I am going to totally unfairly single out (see my comments below), is a new journal article appearing in the February issue of Computers in Human Behavior by Anna M. Lomanowskaa and Matthieu J. Guitton, entitled “My Avatar Is Pregnant! Representation of Pregnancy, Birth, and Maternity in a Virtual World.” It’s an interesting subject, as the abstract makes clear, by two academics who clearly do know their way around Second Life, have written about it before, and have worthwhile things to say about it:

Despite the potential for limitless creativity, many activities observed in the increasingly popular multi-user virtual worlds involve recreating real-life experiences. This is particularly evident in the social domain, as individuals reenact activities that reflect real human social needs, such as interpersonal intimacy. Surprisingly, one aspect of virtual experience tied to intimate relationships that has emerged in this context involves the reenactment of pregnancy, birth and maternity. The aim of this study was to examine how pregnancy, birth, and maternity are represented in a virtual world. Quantitative and qualitative data were collected over a 10 month period in the popular virtual world of Second Life to investigate the individual, social, and environmental aspects of these activities. Four different themes related to pregnancy, birth, and maternity were identified, including medical clinic services, family activities, sexual activities, and retail, with participation varying between female and male avatars. Analysis of related online media external to the virtual world provided further insight into the way that virtual pregnancy, birth, and maternity were constructed and experienced by the participating individuals. These insights are particularly valuable for understanding how intimate aspects of social interactions can be represented in immersive virtual applications for health care and related domains.

This is legitimate and worthwhile research; I look forward to reading it. I can quite see how it might be “particularly valuable” to academics. I can also see how it might be of interest to many residents of Second Life.

Sadly, few of them are likely ever to be able to read it: Computers in Human Behavior is owned by Elsevier, a company so notorious for its jealous protection of “its” copyright, and for its obscene pricing policies, that it has become the target of a major boycott by many academics. Particularly relevant in the immediate context is Elsevier’s recent takedown notices for academic articles posted by the authors themselves on Academia.edu and other open-access repositories. (It is important to understand that Elsevier does not reimburse authors for the articles it publishes: the labour of researching, writing, editing, and revising such articles is provided for free by academics and their institutions. Scholars, or their institutions, must in essence subscribe to these journals to read their own work once it is published.)

The Pay Wall

But really, what price knowledge? Apparently, $19.95

The current crisis in academic publishing, and the role of established publishers like Elsevier and “open access” publication (which makes research freely available) is a complex subject which would take too long to disentangle here even in part. There are certainly problems that need to be overcome with existing open access models of publication. (Guitton discusses some of them himself here; he makes some valid points.)

Suffice it to say, however, that anyone not affiliated with an institution that pays a subscription to Elsevier is going to have to pay $19.95 to  read this article. Clicking on the “Get Full Text Elsewhere” button will lead one back (surprise surprise!) to the pay wall.

So, most Second Life lab rats are not going to be able to read this.

I do want to make it absolutely clear that I am not trying to “slut shame” the authors of this particular piece. To begin with, I chose this example merely because it popped up in my Twitter feed; I might have chosen from hundreds of other examples. More importantly, both of these scholars (neither of whom I have met) have made some of their research on virtual worlds publicly available. Both Lomanowskaa and Guitton have, for instance, published research on Second Life in the open access Public Library of Science, here. Both have public blogs about their research, and Guitton’s in particular seems quite extensive. I applaud them both for this.

Ultimately, the fault for this situation lies less with individual scholars than it does with “the system.” There are lots of reasons, many of them good, why an academic would choose to publish in a journal that is not publicly accessible. This is particularly true of young academics who have not yet achieved a full-time position or tenure: while there are open access alternatives that are also peer-reviewed (an immediately relevant one is The Journal of Virtual Worlds Research), these, generally, do not have the prestige of established subscription journals, and won’t count as much towards things like tenure.

Still . . . speaking now in my capacity as a lab rat myself (I’ve responded to many student and researcher surveys), it annoys me that research about Second Life residents is not made available to Second Life residents. It implicitly reinforces the suggestion that we have been reified and commodified; that we are being peered at through the microscope, but aren’t important enough to be told why.

Are your ears burning, genericavatar345.resident?

They probably should be: you’re being discussed. Too bad you’ll never find out what they’re saying about you.

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About Laskya Claren

I like to write. I am interested in stuff.
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4 Responses to Can Lab Rats Even Read? Second Life and Academic Publication

  1. Dear Laskya,

    Thank you for your interest in our work, and for your kind words regarding my blog. I fully agree with you regarding the fact that having published research outcomes not freely available is extremely annoying. And I found your analysis fascinating.

    However, there are a few things I would like to add.

    First, research on SL is not unlike other forms of research in human sciences. For instance, when your personal data are aggregated to produce epidemiological studies, it is likely that the results will be published in academic journals – which are still mostly not open access – without you to be aware of that, and without the possibility for you to read the paper. Similarly, when undergraduate students are “used” as subjects in some psychological experiments, they are likely to not be aware that the results have been published in a scholarly journal. Let’s be even more drastic : when an anthropologist publishes his work on a small tribe in the Amazonian forest, I would doubt that the members of the aforementioned tribe would get access to the generated knowledge, particularly since the final work is not going to be published in their own language (by the way, the fact that papers are written in English strongly impairs a large propagation of the results. English is not my native language, nor the native language of a lot of SL users … why should we use English then ?).

    Does that mean that we (scholars interested in virtual worlds and believing in their potential) consider the avatars (and, more important, the people behind the avatars) are simple “objects for studies” ? I would definitively say not. The “object” of my studies are behavior displayed by humans, not the humans themselves. I do consider all of the people participating in our research project as valuable collaborators to unveil human behavior in virtual spaces, but in no case as “object”. When we conduct interviews with specific avatars (we did it a few times), I always submit the final parts concerning them for their review before sending the things to a journal. As well, even when the journal is not an open access journal, I make sure they get a free copy of the final paper.

    Second, the classical vs. open access publishing models. On that, I do agree with you (and as you noticed, I have already discussed that in my blog), we are facing a problem with the system. I do publish regularly (certainly more than most of my colleagues) in open access journals, so I am in no case against open access journals.

    However, although I agree that classical publishing is problematic, once more, the current open access models has its flaws. I am member of editorial boards both of classical and open access journals. I am reviewer for numerous classical and open access journals. And believe me, from my own experience, it is considerably easier to get published into a open access journal. More than once, I rejected as reviewer a paper for publication due to major methodological flaws (and sometimes, ethical issues too) in open access journals, to see it getting published anyway. I even emailed the editors to get the answer: “Well, you know, we need papers”. That NEVER happened to me with classical Elsevier journals. Then, as a scholar, how do you think I would consider research published in a journal which accept anything just because they need papers ? Clearly, I am likely to have a negative a priori (which could be wrong, as some excellent works are still published in open access journals). The issue when we have data is : do we want to publish them in a good journal ? A good journal also means that your data will be taken seriously by the rest of the community. And there are a few very good open access journals still. But classical vs. open access is not the first question we ask ourselves most of the time.

    Another issue with open access journal is that very often (PLoS ONE and the Frontiers series being obviously exceptions), they are not indexed in the major databases. So the research published there is actually very difficult to localize. Now, what is better : to get a paper freely accessible but that nobody is aware of, or to get a paper that only scholars and students can access, but which is easy to find ? It is not just a theoretical question : some times ago I published a paper on space medicine with some parts of it discussing how virtual worlds could be used to enhance human health in long spatial flights. A lot of my colleagues working in the field never heard about it. Guess why ? It was published in a small open access journal, with no database coverage.

    A final note : open access journals are not FREE, you still need to pay for that. But in that case, the ones who pay are not the readers, but the authors. Meaning, for a single paper published in an open access journal, I need to pay a few thousand dollars, which are coming from my research grants. Instead of paying to get published, I could with this money have paid a summer student, or a few more month for a graduate student. Researchers doing their research in public universities do not get THAT MUCH money, believe me … at the end, it may be legitimate for a researcher to ask himself : “Should I publish my research in an open access journal not well considered by my peers, OR should I publish in a well-established journal with good reputation and higher impact factor AND pay my students ?”

    Having said that, I was a bit of the Devil’s attorney … In my particular case, I strongly believe that research should be accessible to any who would want to access it. But I also strongly believe that we need regulation to make sure that what is accessible is “quality” research, to not make people use as basis things which are obviously erroneous due for instance to major methodological issues.

    As any scholar, I am extremely happy when people are interested to what I am doing, and I am not hiding myself. My email address is rather easy to find : anytime someone (scholar, students, or people just interested) asked for reprints of my works, I sent them by email ASAP.

    Should I do more ? Sure. For instance, Elsevier offers now to authors to get their paper “open access” when they are published in a classical journal. Of course, once more, you have to pay for that (a few more thousand dollars). But, if I see that there is a genuine interest, maybe I should next time do it when I will publish on Second Life (a few more papers are on their way 🙂 ). But someone genuinely interested would find my email very easily once more … Therefore, would spending thousands of dollars of public fund be ethically ok to have a paper open access while 1) most scholars would have it via their institutional platforms, and 2) any people would get it by sending me an email ?

    It is a complex issue, really. But we will make things better if the community keeps discussing and thinking about ways to find innovative solutions.

    Best regards, and happy new year !

    Matthieu J. Guitton

    • laskyaclaren says:

      Thank you, Matthieu, for your cogent, thoughtful, and comprehensive response!

      I actually agree with a great deal of what you have to say here, but I do want to respond to a few points that may make the reasons for posting on this subject somewhat clearer.

      I’ll begin by addressing the issue of open access publication. You suggest – and this is something you also say on your own blog – that standards for acceptance are lower in open access publication. It’s certainly true that a number of rather disreputable “open access” journals have appeared in recent years, and these often verge on being vanity publications, but the journals about which you speak anecdotally are obviously not in that category if you have agreed to review for them. This is actually not a criticism I’ve heard levelled against OA publications in my field, but I would not be surprised were it true. It is early days for OA journals, and they have not (yet), for the most part, achieved the kind of reputation accorded to what you call classical publishing: I’m sure that most do not receive the volume of submissions that conventional journals do.

      Your point about indexing in major databases is also well-taken, but relates to some degree to the same problem: most OA journals are fairly new. (I might also point out that most major databases are corporate-owned, which is, I suspect, also a factor.)

      I’m not going to deny that both of these represent valid objections to OA publication, but I would like to suggest that both represent a situation that is 1) slowly changing, and 2) needs to change, badly. And it is only going to change when more scholars start using OA journals as the publication venues for high-quality scholarship. In other words, this is something of a cyclical problem: OA journals don’t get enough high-quality submissions because the lack of high quality articles that appear in them reflects the lack of high-quality submissions, etc.

      This IS going to change because the economics of the scholarly publishing industry will force it. Many scholarly publications have folded due to cuts in funding; others are in trouble. There are simply fewer and fewer venues in which to publish, at a time when the demand for scholarly publication is, if anything, becoming more insistent.

      At the same time, OA is becoming a political issue (and rightly so): the UK, as you will know, now mandates OA for publicly-funded research, and Canada’s own Tri-Council funding agencies, as you will also know, are moving in that direction too.

      Is it in one’s own personal best interest to publish in an OA journal when a more established, “reputable,” and fully-indexed journal is an option? Probably not. But I think it is the more ethical decision, something with which you, I think, would largely agree.

      There is an additional issue, regarding Elsevier. I highlighted the fact that this piece is being published in a journal carried by that company because Elsevier’s business and ethical practices really do make them a special case. I might mention the case of the fake so-called “Australasian Journals” published between 2000 and 2005; I’m sure you know the story, but for those who don’t:

      http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/27383/title/Elsevier-published-6-fake-journals/

      I mentioned the boycott against Elsevier in my post: there is a reason why this particular publisher is the target of such widespread anger. And there is the more recent news, also mentioned in my post, that Elsevier has been systematically issuing take-down notices to authors who have made their own work available in institutional or other repositories. I know of no other publisher who has so militantly gone after their own authors. Elsevier really is pretty reprehensible.

      You are right, as I conceded in my post, that there are problems with OA publication, and we need in particular to find a good funding model for them – something better and more equitable than the Gold OA model now implemented in the UK, which potentially turns publication into an administrative and policy tool, rather than a scholarly one.

      To address your first point last, regarding Second Life. I am sincerely delighted to hear that you make your research available to those you interviewed, and are generous with access to it for others who inquire about it. This goes a long way to mitigating my implied criticism, at least so far as your own work is concerned.

      I do want to argue, however, in opposition to your point about research never being truly accessible to all subjects, that Second Life is a special case. It is a special case because SL residents “live” their virtual lives in something of a goldfish bowl: they have been prodded and probed by academics and their frequently ill-informed students, and profiled and ridiculed in the popular press and media. And they constitute a far more coherent and identifiable community than is the case of most subject-communities; the nearest analogy I can think of (and it is a faulty one) are the tight-knit ethnic communities that exist in some of our major urban centres. I think that research work on Second Life tends to be more impactful, and applied in a generalized way to the entire community far more often than is generally the case of studies of more loosely-knit and less thoroughly defined communities. And finally, much of what has been written about virtual communities, and Second Life in particular, has been produced by those who are very much outsiders, and have little time and less sympathy for the “ethos” of the community they are documenting.

      Your own work on virtual communities, from what I have read of it, has been respectful and sympathetic: I wish that that had more often been the case.

  2. Dear Laskya,

    Well, what can I add ? You said it all 🙂

    Regarding the OA model vs. classical, I do fully agree with you. Time will make OA journals better, progressively. And I definitively do not boycott them : I am part of editorial boards of a OA journal, I am reviewing a lot of papers for OA journals (of course, doing that graciously, we do not get paid for such things as you know), and I do publish in several OA journals too. But there is a need for OA journals to grow and to reach the level of professionalism and quality that conventional journals have. Some already are at this level (PLoS ONE, the Frontiers series again). Some are not. And some are really far to be. But with time, there will be a “natural selection” and a few excellent OA journals will emerge I am sure.

    Regarding the debate on Elsevier, I will not go in that. I am member of the Editorial Board of an Elsevier journal, and so far, I shall say it is an incredible experience. The level of professionalism is beyond what I could have expected. There are A LOT of Elsevier journals, which are in a lot of different “general categories”, and managed by different managing editors. If some misbehaved, not all do : the ones with who I deal are simply amazing people. Now, the main issue with Elsevier in my point of view is the extremely high price of the suscription to the journals. That is not a secret. You do pay for quality. Should we pay less ? Certainely yes since public universities are not having that much of fundings, and since genuinely interested people should not have to pay 20$ to read a paper related to research funded by public funds : solutions have to be taken, and I hope they will be at some time. The pressure of OA journals will without doubt help considerably. By the way, Elsevier is launching OA journals too.

    Regarding Second Life. As I mentioned, we take the most care that we can when studying virtual communities (being in Second Life or any other virtual space). We have a lot of methodological and ethical discussions in my lab to reach the best possible position (the debates are often close to what you will see in the field of fan studies with “aca-fans”). To make a long story short, we are never judgmental (I published on the Gorean community, which is, you know for sure, a very vivid community in Second Life, without making any judgment on the values they push when role-playing … I have published a few times on the Star Wars Role-Play community, without at any second considering the people in this community as “nerd” or “weird” : they do display an amazing creativity and have a lot to offer), and we use virtual anthropology approaches, which include periods of observation and of immersion, to understand the setting not only “from outside”, but also “from inside” so to say. And always, respect is a key notion, but that is not just true for working with Second Life, it is true when working with Human beings in general (or animals too, but that is another debate).

    Finally, if you are interested by our approaches, and since you seem to be living in the UK (from what I understood from your knowledge of UK funding system), you most definitively should come and visit to the “Royal Anthropological Institute 2014 Conference” on “Anthropology and Photography” which will take place at the British Museum in May ( http://www.therai.org.uk/conferences/anthropology-and-photography ). I am chairing the panel on “Anthropology and Photography in the Digital Age” ( http://www.nomadit.co.uk/rai/events/rai2014/panels.php5?PanelID=2546 ), and, as you can see, ethical concerns are among the things which will be discussed.

    Best regards,

    Matthieu J. Guitton

  3. laskyaclaren says:

    Thanks again Matthieu.

    I think we are approaching a consensus in most regards — although, speaking as a feminist, I might prefer that you be a bit more judgmental about Gor 😉

    There is no question whatsoever that the quality of many of the journals published by Elsevier is excellent; that excellence is, of course, precisely why they can charge such exorbitant subscription rates, and call the shots on how their subscription packages are bundled. That in turn is why they pose a problem above and beyond public access: the cost of electronic subscriptions for libraries (especially those of Elsevier) is now so high that it is strangling library budgets, That in turn is a major factor in the crisis faced by the scholarly publishing industry, as smaller academic presses, and particularly the publishers of monographs, get frozen out. (Print runs for scholarly monographs have plummeted in the past 2 decades — libraries simply can’t afford to buy as many as they once did.) So, while I am certainly not going to argue with you about the quality of their publications, Elsevier (and a few other publishers like them) are having a calamitous effect upon the entire industry.

    Your session at the RAI does indeed sound fascinating — and your subject intersects interestingly with a few threads on the SL Forums I’ve been following, in a desultory way, about the ethics of and permissions for in-world photography. Actually, however, I am Canadian, and am (sadly!) unlikely to find myself in the neighbourhood of the British Museum in May. Hopefully, however, the session will eventually result in some publications. In any case, I hope you find it as worthwhile as it looks likely to be.

    And thank you again for engaging with me in this post so generously and thoroughly!

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