What is PressForward?
Roughly speaking PressForward is a back-end WordPress plugin developed by the Center for History and New Media that allows users to aggregate, curate, and redistribute web content pulled from RSS or ATOM feeds, or through the use of PressForward’s Bookmarklet tool. Once a site-runner has added their desired feeds to the plug-in, or has marked content for rehosting through the Bookmarklet tool, they can review specific pieces, add metadata, format them for Word Press, add any categories or tags they wish, and finally publish the content on their blog.
There are a few ways to start collecting content for rehosting through PressForward, but let’s start with web feeds. RSS (Really Simple Syndication or alternatively Rich Site Summary) basically takes unique text files from websites that a user would like to “subscribe” to that, when uploaded to a feed reader program like Feedly or The Old Reader, then allows users to create their own feeds of automatically aggregated content. So instead of visiting a bunch of blogs individually, you could just have posts from all of them pulled into the feed reader program to create your own newsfeed. ATOM on the other hand is a more recently created alternative format to RSS. Linking these feeds to PressForward creates a feed of content within your WordPress site (visible only to you), from which you can begin to select specific content for rehosting.
The second key way to collect content is through PressForward’s “Nominate This” bookmarklet. While RSS feeds pull content from designated sites as it is published, “Nominate This” allows for a more intentional selection of specific content from specific sites. Say you found a cool blog post on a site you have not incorporated into your RSS feed, or for which RSS is not available. In this case you can just click the “Nominate This” button on your browser’s toolbar and send the selected content to your WordPress Drafts section manually. If the site does have an RSS feed you are unsubscribed to, this tool also offers you the option to do so if such a feed exists.
Once you’ve got your feeds set up/articles from other sources nominated, it’s time to curate. At this stage you can start picking out content from your feeds for republication on your blog. There are two key panels to use here, the “All Content” panel and the “Nominated Panel.” The former contains all of the content pulled from your RSS feeds that are pending review and nomination, the latter contains content that you have marked for republication. At either stage you can use the Reader View option to open the content to check for readability and any errors in the text or formatting before sending it over to either the Nominated Panel or to a Word Press Draft.
Now that you’ve sent content over to the drafts section all that remains is formatting/editing the post and publishing it to your blog like any other post. Which brings us to the overarching goal of this plug in: to disseminate scholarship, blogs, digital projects, etc. to a wider audience by allowing bloggers and site runners to curate their own informal journals so to speak. Unlike content-scrapers, which have a less than stellar reputation among digital content creators, PressForward is not intended to be a platform by which people can collect and republish content to their sites in an unethical drive to increase their own site traffic (and ad revenue) by rehosting others’ unattributed work. Yet when you get down to brass tax I don’t really think its all that far off from such tools.
PressForward does a few things to encourage responsible aggregation and republication: it “offers the option to auto-redirect back to the original source,” it “retains detailed metadata about each aggregated post,” and “the original author’s name will appear with a republished post if you use WordPress default themes such as Twenty Fourteen.” The FAQs also emphasize that author consent should be sought before republishing. Reading through the plug-in’s Manual and FAQs I noticed that there are a lot of “ifs” involved when it comes to the display of metadata. If users want to display more metadata, they have to use Custom Fields. If users have the overwrite author option enabled (it is by default but can be shut off), the author of the original post will be displayed on your rehosted site. Links to the original post are contained in the new Draft post, but can be deleted if the user chooses to do so. None of these options seem to impose a strict requirement that users include metadata in their final posts. If a user does not “use default themes,” will the metadata still appear?
I don’t mean to be overly critical about PressForward in this respect, especially as there are far easier ways to go about plagiarism, and chances are digital humanities scholars aren’t exactly the same level of target for content-scrapers as say artists or tech-reviewers. But, I do think the conversation surrounding the ethics of content-scraping and rehosting is an interesting one to have especially if we are talking about shifts in the landscape of scholarly publication. While scholars may not be producing their content for ad revenue as other types of digital producers may be, is it ethical for a “big” blog like Digital Humanities Now (which does actually publish a full list of the feeds they are subscribed to) to pull content (and views) away from their pages? Is re-hosting really all that different from linking to a blog post as a form of citation (I think it is)? While it could certainly be argued that there are philosophical differences in the motivations behind publishing a scholarly article and a swing-cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” shouldn’t scholars still have a right to their labors?