Scott Nelson has written an insightful article ‘Attribution Lacking‘ on plagiarism, more especially his experience of plagiarism.
Its avoids the fallacious reasoning which identifies the harm of plagiarism as a property issue with all its attendant incoherence. How can an individual can be said to ‘own’ something which she cannot exclusively possess? Instead Nelson explains why being acknowledged by attribution is important to scholars, using the example of historians.
“Historians show their work — their research in the archives and their indebtedness to other authors — with footnotes. Journalists show their sources by mentioning the authors’ names. I have sympathy for reporters with impossible deadlines in an age when newspaper subscriptions are declining.”
Its important to both scholars and journalists to be attributed not because they exercise some kind of right over something as ephemeral as an idea, but precisely because its so difficult to delineate the origin of ideas, or even to unpick the tapestry of ideas in which any one idea must be situated to be meaningful at all. Scholars and journalists who have spent a lot of time and energy unearthing something new, or combining old elements into something new, enhance their reputations as contributors to the commons. Scholarly and journalistic reputations are often important to professional success but equally importantly to their standing with their peers.
But as Nelson points out attribution is important to scholars for an equally compelling reason which has much more to do with the interests of the academic commons than an individual claimed based on sweat equity.
“Once discovered, those arguments become axioms, and eventually the traces of their authorship disappear. Scholars often find such effacement frustrating, but not because we want to footnote everything or demand credit for all our observations. Instead, usually decades later, we want to know whom to blame for possible mistakes.”
Nelson also agrees with something that I have pointed out before, that in the age of Google its easier to detect verbatim copying, at least if what is being copied is available on the Internet.
In other words unacknowledged copying from an open access journal is far more likely to be detected than unacknowledged copying from an all rights reserved journal. Scholarly journals which charge hefty subscription dues are thus both less likely to be cited, and more likely to be successfully plagiarised.
But what will this look like in the post-google era?
Wolfram Alpha which according to its website is due to be launched in May 2009 (wait isn’t it May 2009 already) is one example of a new generation of search engines which will, it is hoped, be able to answer a question in the way that a human would. In other words someone should be able to pose a question, at least a factual question, and obtain an answer. The way that Wolfram Alpha intends to achieve that is through powerful algorithms, but also by putting content, curated content, into a particular format. That won’t displace Google for people looking to buy a book, grokking a contact, or looking for news. It will affect how academic researchers use the Internet.
What will that mean for current concepts of attribution, plagiarism, teaching and evaluation?