Memes and Credits

This week there’s been a rumpus around a Facebook page that’s almost called I Emphatically Love Science (NSFW) and how it credits artists. Because there’s money involved some of the discussion has taken a pointed tone. It’s not a problem limited to I Flippin’ Love Science. I did the same the same on my MEME ALL THE THINGS! post. The caption for Philosoraptor always read: Philosoraptor, rarely credited to Sam Smith. However the Success Kid and Socially Awkward Penguin and Grumpy Cat memes didn’t. The links through to Know Your Meme were intentionally included so that people could get more information about the images, but was that good enough? Alex Wild at Scientific American says not.

There are various attempts at justifications for this. One is that memes are transformative works, so something distinctively new is created. How much does a meme rely on its visual imagery for meaning?

I don't always omit an image to make a point, but when I do it's the most interesting image in the world.
Not the Most Interesting Man in the World.

There’s a whole forest of arguments over media studies, art, semiotics and copyright law that could be explored, but we can take a short cut. What do we lose by not crediting?

A cross section of marram grass
A cross section of marram grass. © Phil Gates.

This is reasonably well-known photo, and it doesn’t take a lot of searching to find out that it’s a close up of grass. I had a go at tracking down the author of the image so we could reuse it and I found someone who seems to know her. “It was done by Di Davis who asks that you respect her copyright of the image.” I thought to contact Di, so that I could find out how she felt about her image being spread around the net. That’s when I found out that there’s an earlier version without the border and bigger by Phil Gates at Beyond the Human Eye.

The Di Davis image has the information: Doesn’t it look like the grass is full of smiley faces?

The Phil Gates version? The photograph at the top of this post shows a cross section of the leaf of marram grass Ammophila arenaria, the grass that’s primarily responsible for trapping wind-blown sand and building the dune systems around our coast that are such important wildlife habitats (bottom photo). Marram grass survives in the arid environment of a sand dune by rolling up its leaves during long periods of drought, so that all the leaves’ breathing pores or stomata are inside the rolled leaf, minimising water loss… . and much much more.

There are legal reasons and moral reasons for crediting artists, but they don’t seem to work. It’s easier to save and post than to add a credit as well. If that’s not enough then selfishness, crediting the creator makes you an more authoritative and trustworthy source for your readers might be a best way to sell crediting. Otherwise the result could be shallow images that don’t tell you much and leave you almost feeling Freaking Ambivalent About Science (also NSFW).

Photo: Cross section of marram grass. © Phil Gates, reproduced with kind permission.


Not all these posts appear right after they’re written. This one was mainly written on Wednesday when it looked like there was going to be lot of outrage directed specifically at IFLS. It’s an easy and prominent target and some of the responses from people defending the site haven’t helped. it’s almost like they’re painting a big target on the site. But it’s easy to overlook that it’s a widespread problem, which is why I included the part at the top pointing how I hadn’t properly credited every meme in my meme post. It’s not about Pointing at the Bad People, it’s about a rising tide lifting everyone, including me.

Today (publication day) is not Wednesday. It couldn’t go up straight away. I chose the image because I’d seen it shared, and it has botanical relevance. Discovering that it wasn’t so easy to finding its origin simply made it even more appropriate for the post. After find who actually made it, I contacted Phil Gates to see if we could use the image. There’s a credibility problem if you write about respecting artists and then just lift their work anyway. You have to factor in a delay waiting for a response because you can’t expect everyone to write back as fast as Phil did. This all takes time. So I came back to edit the post to include images on Thursday. In the meantime the Facebook page Science is Awesome posted this:

The marram grass image without credit.

I thought I was writing about an example from months back, but these things resurface over and over. Over the years the details of the image are likely to get less and less well known. It’s not surprising they haven’t credited the creator of the image. It took me a while to find out who it was with some time spent chasing a dead end. So I thought to add an additional section saying this image wasn’t chosen as a personal attack on the people who run Science is Awesome. It’d be a bit foolish to deliberately avoid making what might be seen as a personal attack on IFLS by attacking another site. It’s just unfortunate timing.

What’s really unfortunate is that it wasn’t till finishing up writing this addition about Science is Awesome that I thought to find out what the name of IFLS’s child friendly page was. I thought they were two independent sites. The grass image is surrounded by other images that do have more info links, so I can see how they might feel under siege.

I’m now wondering if a Know Your Science Meme site might be helpful for tracking the origin of some images. But I’m not sure how the search engine would work. It might help working with people who want to get the public enthusiastic about science.