Google Demotes Literary Stars

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My post about Google's metadata problems, along with a similar piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, got a lot of people talking about the problem in the press and the blogs. (I even ran into an allusion to it in a La Repubblica piece on the Google Book Settlement when I arrived in Rome yesterday morning.) A number of people passed along their own experiences with flaky metadata. Others criticized me on grounds that could be broadly summed up as "Don't look a gift horse in the server," "It's better than nothing," "Who needs metadata anyway?," "Just give them time," and "Why concentrate on trivialities like metadata while ignoring the real perils of corporate monopoly" (as in "serving as a consultant for monitoring the proper temperatures of the pitchforks in hell").

This is all to the good, if it helps move up the metadata issues in Google's queue. I do think this will get a lot better as Google puts its considerable mind to it. But there was one other aspect of the metadata problem which I hadn't noticed or even thought about, but which in its own small way was unkindest cut of all. It was noticed by the children's book author Ace Bauer, who was prompted by my account of the metadata problems to check his Google Books listing:

Turns out my review rating ranked only one star out of 5. That's dim. But see, the review upon which they based this ranking was Kirkus's. Kirkus loved the book. They gave it a star. One star. That's all they give folks. It's considered a major honor.

Indeed it is, and actually the falling-star glitch affects a number of writers, for example Roy Blount, Jr., the president of the Author's Guild, who is has been an enthusiastic backer of the settlement. Google Books assigns a one-out-of-five star rating to at least two of Blount's books on the basis of their starred Kirkus reviews, Crackers and First Hubby, and visits similar review rating downgrades on books by Guild vice-president Judy Blume and Guild board members Nick LemannJames GlieckOscar Hijuelos, among others.

 I don't know exactly what the Google people will say when they cotton to this one, but it's a good guess the first sentence will begin with "oy."

It's got to be a frustrating if very minor gaffe, particularly given the trouble Google went to to reach an accord with the authors. Of course it isn't hard to see how it could have happened, and it probably won't be that hard to fix, but it underscores the usefulness of having book-savvy people looking over your shoulder when you're setting up your metadata, whether you generate them yourself or get them from a provider. There's a transitivity to cluelessness. If you pass on obviously broken data, whether about starred review rankings or the quarter of a million Portuguese language books all dated 1899, you're apt to look foolish yourself, the same  way you do as soon as you put on the dumb t-shirt your grandmother sent you from Atlantic City. 

Added 9/7: On reflection, this feels like piling on. I do think Google wants to get this stuff right, and in this particular cases, "right" isn't as complicated as it can be elsewhere.


  1. Jens Fiederer said,

    September 6, 2009 @ 12:50 pm

    I'd be overjoyed to wear any T-shirt my grandmother might send me (may she rest in peace).

  2. Dan said,

    September 6, 2009 @ 2:35 pm

    I'd prefer a T-shirt that said "There's a transitivity to cluelessness." Great phrase there. :)

  3. mollymooly said,

    September 6, 2009 @ 5:32 pm

    I did a test on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which has 28 Editorial reviews (plus 12 User ratings). All the Editorial reviews are marked "unrated", which I would previously have guessed meant 0 stars, but now I guess 1 star is the lowest rating.

    Among the 28 indexed as "unrated" are:
    Kirkus reviews (fair enough, it doesnt have a star)
    ABC Australia gives it 3 stars / 5
    commonsensemedia gives it 4 stars / 5
    Russ Albury gives it 2/10 which normalises to 1/5
    So whatever method they're using to translate reviews isn't just buggy, it's NetBase buggy.

  4. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    September 6, 2009 @ 5:34 pm

    I'm surprised to read that the head of the author's guild likes the settlement, since a prominent media economist, Robert Picard, says the settlement undermines copyright. His post is:

    Among other comments:
    "Under the proposed settlement, the court will take away portions of my copyrights that were created under legislation and protected by international treaties and it will give them to Google. The only way for me to protect my rights is to take deliberate affirmative action to opt out of the settlement and to seek to enforce my rights against Google individually—not a great option since its capacity to hire lawyers and stretch out litigation is far higher than mine."

    "The Google settlement will essentially rewrite copyright law by allowing the company to use the material without permission, without negotiating how the material will be used, and without negotiating compensation and payment provisions. It is particularly offensive because the court will be saying the government doesn’t have to protect authors’ rights, but authors’ have to protect their own rights. This is a significantly different approach from that which prosecutors and courts have taken in the cases of music, game, and software file sharers who have violated copyright on the Internet."

    While it is important for metadata to be accurate, I'm unenthusiastic about a database that shortchanges writes by devaluing their copyright rights.

  5. Leonardo Boiko said,

    September 6, 2009 @ 8:31 pm

    Use hreview. Problem solved.

  6. Nick Lamb said,

    September 6, 2009 @ 9:17 pm

    Barbara, did you notice that this "prominent economist" hasn't proofread his rant? Or that he doesn't provide any supporting evidence despite writing on the web where such evidence need only be a click away ?

    I encourage you to read the facts about the settlement (or the settlement text itself if you have a high boredom threshold) and make up your own mind.

  7. Ginger Yellow said,

    September 7, 2009 @ 5:33 am

    Metacritic has attracted similar criticism, mainly over the fact it doesn't take into account that different review sources mean different things with their scales, and also over the way it converts editorial reviews into scores. I'm most familiar with the controversy in the videogame world, where 1Up are constantly complaining about how Metacritic converts their alphabetic score into a percentage, consistently underscoring games that 1Up think are pretty good. Likewise they equate an 8 or 9 out of 10 from Eurogamer or Edge with a similar score from, say, IGN, when the former scores indicate a much better game on average.

  8. Mark J. Nelson said,

    September 7, 2009 @ 5:09 pm

    Barbara: It sounds like the fundamental disagreement in that piece is with the opt-out, but that's how class-action lawsuits always work. Either you remain in the class, and allow them to speak for you, or you opt out, and don't.

  9. mollymooly said,

    September 8, 2009 @ 5:29 am

    I suspect regional review-score differences may in part reflect school grading convention differences. Grades are essentially ordinal, but with some fixed reference points. In the US, I believe the fixed points are: fail=60%, top-grade=90%. In Irish universities, the equivalents are 40% and 70%. This is certainly reflected in my IMDB ratings.

  10. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    September 9, 2009 @ 11:48 pm

    Mark — Thank you for clarifying that legal point.

    Nick — I've actually read a fair amount about the project and the lawsuit over the years. I think the project is well-intentioned, but I believe there will be unintended consequences from the settlement. For instance, I'm dubious that copyright holders will see significant long-term income as a result of the settlement. (And yes, as a copy editor, I did notice the typos, but generally I don't give grades to blogs I read for content.)

    Metadata — Why academic libraries agreed to Google's proposal without exploring many of the cataloging/metadata issues more thoroughly bothers me. I thought at one time there was going to be a pilot project to hash that stuff out.

  11. Jonathan Wallace said,

    September 10, 2009 @ 12:51 am

    In the U.S., at least in secondary education, there is WIDE variation in what letter grades equal what percentage grades. I recall that my high school required F=50% with A=92% and B=84%. Another high school that my cousin attended in florida made 60%=F but A=89%.

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