Fan Privacy and TWC’s Editorial Philosophy

We’re the editors of Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC), and we want to explain in more detail TWC’s policies regarding citation of fan works and our general understanding of the role TWC plays in regard to fandom at large. Both as academics and as fans we love fandom and want to protect it. We know that many fans worry about academics citing their transformative artworks, like fanfic, fan art, or fanvids, without asking, so we want you to know that TWC strongly encourages academics to ask fans for permission before citing their work.

We want to make that clear up front, but we are going to explain the details of both sides in depth below. We would like to elaborate on our rationale and address some of the issues that have come up in discussion.

Our stance is predicated on several central ideas.

  • Fandom is getting mainstreamed, and there is no way to avoid that mainstreaming.
  • As fans, we prefer to control and possibly direct this mainstreaming, as well as the messages that circulate about us.
  • Academic work on fandom can be part of the explication and contextualization of fandom. In fact, that’s why the journal was created.
  • We think that fans can do a better job of writing academic works about fandom than nonfans can.

We realize that none of the explanations below can or will convince someone who disagrees with us on a fundamental ideological level about the way we, as fans, should talk about fandom (because they would prefer we not talk about it at all). But we hope that we may be able to remedy misunderstandings and provide correct information about TWC’s citation policies and the reasons we established them. TWC’s goal in having this policy is to create some middle ground between the codes of best practices in both the academic and fannish realms.

We also want to stress that TWC is unique in requesting that scholars contact fans for permission. To our knowledge, no other academic journal asks this of scholars, because it is not standard practice in the academic setting. In the academic realm, publicly posted material is considered published, and thus it may be freely cited. It would honestly never occur to most scholars to seek permission, or that failure to do so may be considered at best impolite, and at worst a betrayal.

TWC’s connection with AO3 and OTW

Some people think that because TWC and the Archive of Our Own (AO3) are both projects of the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), that fiction hosted on the AO3 is more likely to be cited in the journal. This is not true; in fact, the AO3 was built with many levels of privacy specifically to give fans more control over their own visibility. Moreover, while the AO3 and TWC are both parts of the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), they are in no way connected.

In the papers we’ve seen that address fanfic in particular, it’s far more likely that the scholar is a member of a fan community and wants to write about some aspect of it. It’s rarely some random outsider. So the academic will pull examples from her fandom and will cite from whatever blog or archive she finds it at, or that is specified by the fan who created the work. (And not all these acafans know that some circles of fandom think it’s polite to ask before citing fan works.) Maybe the fic is archived at AO3; but maybe not. It just doesn’t matter.

TWC and the academic realm

TWC’s main stance as a journal is that fan-created transformative artworks and fan communities are worthy of study because they are an important cultural expression. One common way scholars study fans and fan communities is via interviews, which are monitored by universities (for affiliated scholars) because they deal with people. When involving people (aka “human subjects”), there is a whole raft of scholarly practice rules that must be followed to be considered valid and ethical, or the research is not publishable. Academic researchers are thus held to stricter rules than journalists are. Journalists can just go out and interview people. Scholars can’t. These rules include not using underage informants, and following certain well-understood ethical guidelines meant to protect the source. TWC must fit with current practice for the articles we publish to be considered part of the larger scholarly discourse. Check out this source for more info: Association of Internet Research’s Guide on Ethical Online Research.

Another common way that scholars study fans and fan communities is via artifacts — that is, text (or images or vids or whatever). Right now, this mostly means online texts. The general academic response in literature and media and film studies (which is where most academics citing fic would come from) is that texts are treated as independent of their authors. We don’t ask Anne Rice for permission to analyze her books; we don’t ask Tarantino if we can write a review of his latest film. We’re simply not required to ask the authors, who in many cases are unavailable or perhaps no longer living. Michele White, who is one of the members of the Association on Internet Research Ethics Guide, makes this argument in “Representations or People,” where she suggests that preexisting material that is published online should be considered text and not underlie ethics guidelines that are modeled on human subject research. Such an approach would be taken by a scholar studying fandom from the outside — someone who isn’t privy to or simply doesn’t concern herself with community norms.

In contrast, we (as in Karen and Kristina, but also the entire TWC staff, as well as the OTW supporting us) consider ourselves fans first. We don’t think we’re academic interlopers who think it’s neat to add to the Lord of the Rings debate by looking at those crazy women slashing the hobbits. We are fans, we create fan works, and we participate in the community — a community that makes art which is worthy of study. We’d rather fandom and its works be studied not by some random outsider, but by people who know fandom’s nuances — who know that fandom is always more complex and more complicated than we may believe or see. We are very, very concerned to ensure the privacy and security of fans and have given much thought to ethical considerations. Karen, for example, has guest blogged on research ethics, and Kristina has written on a situation that is a common concern: an instance where writing may be publicly accessible (as in an open LiveJournal post) but isn’t so in the mind of its writer.

TWC’s policy regarding permissions and protection of fan sources

This brings us to TWC’s actual policy, which you can read on our Web site: Author Guidelines

TWC is trying to protect fans by “strongly recommending” that submitters request permission. Although the editors of TWC are all fans, contributors may not necessarily be — or their fannishness may look very different. That’s why we suggest that scholars contact the fan to check on the use of the artwork. We also think that we’re protecting fans by discouraging authors from publishing direct hotlinks to sites such as Dreamwidth (DW) and LiveJournal (LJ), instead slightly masking them so that a one-click stop isn’t available to the reader. In the academic realm, it is, for obvious reasons, not required to obtain permission from authors of publicly presented texts. The idea that someone should ask the fan if it’s okay to link back to a story would never occur to your average scholar, fan or not — which is why we mention it to them. We are attempting to protect the fans by making this suggestion. This is coming out of a fannish concern rather than an academic mandate. If we followed only the academic mandate, then we would not concern ourselves with seeking fan permission for discussing publicly posted works.

But if TWC has stricter guidelines, why not require everyone to ask and make it opt-in? There are three reasons for that.

First, disciplines and fandoms differ. What may seem completely normal in one corner of fandom and one discipline may be utterly bizarre in another. Scholars may be required to follow different disciplinary, institutional, and fannish guidelines than the literary scholar analyzing fanfic on LJ. A sociologist has different rules than a musicologist, and we may not know their rules. We thus expect the scholars to act responsibly within their own disciplines, which is vetted when the scholar’s paper goes through peer review. Peer review is designed to catch methodological problems.

Second is the practical issue. For example, scholars may wish to write about zines published in 1972; it seems unlikely that we would be able to find the publisher and author, although of course we’d try. But scholarship on such a topic would be of vital interest to the scholarly fan community. Fans disappear; people die; time goes by. In the online realm, if a fan chooses to gafiate, we assume that if she wanted publicly posted material out of the public eye, she’d remove it. In our experience, the writers who really have issues with being linked or how they’re linked or what name is being used will write back. It’s the fans who don’t think there’s even a need to ask or who are fine with it that may not answer, which makes it hard on the fan scholar when she’s offering opt-in. So the writer is offered the information and can choose to not see her stories discussed. We think that this is a tolerable compromise. The scholar is in charge of contacting the fans, or making a good-faith effort to do so.

The last issue is that of linking/referencing stories and potential outing scenarios. That is certainly a fear. In fact, many of us acafans publish under names that are not the names you see on our fic and vids and meta. Acafans and fans have the exact same concerns, and people who are educators are particularly alive to the threat of being outed. All fan-created work is cited under the name it’s published under, which is typically not the person’s legal name, and the scholar would never publicly link the two names.

That being said, it’s up to fans to protect their own identities. The burden of what we share in public is on us. If we don’t publicly connect fan and real-life names, readers won’t make that connection either — which brings up the issue of added publicity to your story or post or LJ. Looking at the numbers, we can promise you that Delicious will drive more traffic to your journal than a TWC essay could ever hope to. And Delicious is googleable (something that as fans we find problematic because it suddenly puts your name in Google when you opted out your LJ). This is why AO3 has a security setting — so you can control whether your stories get indexed or not. (This applies to AO3’s bookmarks, too!)


In the end, this is what the issue boils down to: fans worked in public, but nobody paid much attention because nobody cared. We all thus developed a false sense that we were separate from larger online society. But we’re not, and really, we never were; it just felt like it, because we built a closed community. This reaction is a kind of nostalgia for a simpler time, the Golden Age of Fandom, when it felt like nobody was looking. But of course people were looking and were writing, and fans got hurt. In fact, considering Google’s archiving of old newsgroup posts and the Wayback Machine’s massive collection of older Web pages, online material of a decade ago may be permanent in ways that an unindexed LJ post may not. If anything, our guidelines in TWC are anticipating and trying to prevent that.

We are an academic publication drawing from a myriad of different disciplines and fandoms. We have created an ethics guideline that forces scholars to seriously consider the potential costs of citing, referencing, and linking even publicly posted material. We are doing our best to meld together academic and fannish requirements.

— Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse
Editors, Transformative Works and Cultures
December 5, 2009