“Citation Plagiarism”

There’s a very interesting entry by Bill Poser at Language Log on the issue of whether there is such a thing as citation plagiarism. (Poser argues no.) Inside Higher Education also links to a very interesting reply by Kerim Friedman at Savage Minds.

I agree with many of Kerim’s observations, but what I think he makes clear is that “plagiarism” is not a good description of the real issue. The real problem is two-fold. First, the rise of a mode of citation in many academic disciplines in which citations are not used either to identify the author of a particularly pithy, apt or powerful statement or as a pointer to material which provides substantive evidence for a claim made by an author. Instead, a lot of scholarly writing in the humanities and some social sciences uses citation as a marker of institutional sociology, as a performance of intellectual identity, as an affect of authority rather than the substance of it. So when these kinds of “marker citations” are simply copied from another text, they exaggerate a problem that is already present in an original usage of this style of citation. A disparate grab-bag of recent theoretical or especially au courant empirical works drifts like a raft on the ocean, cut-and-pasted into a thousand journeyman articles and conference papers. As Kerim observes, important concepts and ideas start to have a meaning that is simply about the trace of reproduction and replication, not about the original explanation of the concept by its initial author.

The second thing is that some citations are a mark of intellectual labor, that a historian went into this or that archive or that an anthropologist spent time in a particular field location. I had a case early in my career where I gave a paper to a prestigious working group that made use of some unique documents that I had read in the British Library and in southern Africa. Later on, another scholar reproduced the citations in that paper but also cited the paper itself–just not citing the paper each time that scholar cited the original documents I had looked at. I’m fairly sure that the scholar in question had not looked at those documents, and was using them to buttress an authoritative claim based on my use of them. (Partly because I think the other scholar misrepresented what several of the documents said.) That’s not plagiarism, not at all, but it is an attempt, I think, to appear to have done some work that one has not done. Considering that at least some of the embodied authority a historian has is still (properly) based in the assurance that we’ve worked our way through a particular body of documents or texts ourselves, that simulation of intellectual labor seems to me to be a legitimate issue, if not “plagiarism” per se.

On the other hand, however, I scarcely want to encourage even more use of citations, considering how many scholarly works are already too densely choked with footnotes. What I’d suggest instead is that for broad interpretative arguments, scholars should have enough confidence to make those arguments without the safety net of invoking legitimating theorists or disciplinary canons. Citations to secondary work should be either direct acknowledgements of specific intellectual debts or supporting specifically evidentiary claims.

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12 Responses to “Citation Plagiarism”

  1. dnexon says:

    “That’s not plagiarism, not at all, but it is an attempt, I think, to appear to have done some work that one has not done. ”

    Why isn’t that plagiarism? The scholar seeks to claim credit for your research, i.e., your intellectual labor. We have an easy way to deal with this, cite the document “as quoted in.”

  2. jfruh says:

    While I’m sympathetic to many of the points Karim raises, I wonder how far we’re expected to take it. Say I’m reading Secondary Source A and find an intriguing reference to Secondary Source B, which I then follow up on and end up finding better in some way than the same treatment in Secondary Source A. When I’m actually writing something, if I cite Secondary Source B, am I morally obligated to give a hat tip to Secondary Source A?

  3. dnexon says:

    I would draw the line at the scenario you describe. If one has read the source, then one doesn’t need to cite an earlier stage of the chain.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Right. I mean, part of the point of a citation is to draw the attention of readers who are sufficiently interested in the argument to check the citation. Once you’ve read the original, I don’t think you have to reproduce in your own text a comprehensive tale of the exact way in which you encountered all the sources you cite.

    On appearing to do work that one has not done, it seems to me that there is a difference between the work process of academia (studying, reading, thinking) and the work product of academia (published words). Copying published words steals labor twice over; pretending to have done work processes that one has not but producing useful knowledge nevertheless is a different kind of offense.

  5. densely choked with footnotes

    Most of the time I find material insufficiently footnoted, not overly. I do wish people wouldn’t use footnotes as a substitute for a bibliography, though.

  6. Doug says:

    Is the effect of the extra footnoting to allow someone to place a paper within a debate in the field? That is, could one scan the footnotes and figure out, ok, broadly aligned with idea such-and-such — if so, it might serve as signposting. Some portion of the intended audience would then note its place in the debate without necessarily reading the whole thing. That might be useful in some contexts. (I do something similar at times with political texts from unfamiliar authors.)

    I also wonder if “scholars … hav[ing] enough confidence to make those arguments without the safety net of invoking legitimating theorists or disciplinary canons” is simply a function of age and experience within a discipline. I can see people who feel professionally insecure feeling a need to cite, and thus borrow, extra authority. I would imagine that this perceived need recedes with time.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Well, and some of that is not necessarily a felt need, but an enforced one–the comment you’re most likely to get as a grad student about your dissertation, or as a junior person trying to publish an article, is that what you’re writing needs more citations to more things.

  8. Gavin Weaire says:

    You read about an article in a footnote while browsing the recent acquisitions. It’s not something that’s directly relevant to what you’re working on right now, but it sounds interesting, so you decide to spend half-an-hour with it as a break. Refreshes you effectively, you get back to your work.

    You chat about it a bit with colleagues, it feeds into some offhand remarks in your teaching, you meet the author at a conference and tell them how much you liked it. But you don’t do anything with the article, really, just file it away in the back of your mind.

    Ten years later, you’ve moved on, you’re working in a new area, and it occurs to you that the article offers a nice parallel to what you’re doing now. A bit out of left field, has never been cited in this context before, but you can see a connection.

    Are you really obligated to keep track of where you originally saw the article cited? That’s silly.

    What if you saw it cited in multiple places, and it was the fact that it was so broadly influential that led one to read it? Would one want to cite a review, or all the reviews, that led one to decide to read a book?

    It might work for a discipline that consisted entirely of highly specialized problems with hermetically sealed, linearly chronological, histories, in which everything relevant was always cited and each discussion was always in direct response to the immediately previous discussion. No notion of broad professional competence within the field. Is there such a discipline? Would anyone want to work in it?

    On the other hand, I’d think that it was a matter of basic intellectual honesty not to cite something that one knew only indirectly without clarifying that one hadn’t read it for oneself. Same as if one uses a translation without being competent in the original language. It puts a limit on the level of trust that a reader should have.

  9. Gavin Weaire says:

    Looking at the comment thread more carefully, I see that my point had already been made, more efficiently. Post in haste, regret at leisure.*

    *Not original.

  10. jpool says:

    I especially like the phrase, “Of course, if [citation without explanation] were a crime the anthropology job market would be much better than it is.”
    I once read a footnote in a colleague’s dissertation in which she identified a body of texts that she had found general inspiration in while writing her diss, without ever identifying what theoretical or methodological relationship they bore to her actual work. There may have been connections there that I didn’t see and she didn’t explain, but it felt to me like citing the music that one enjoyed listening to while writing.
    I think the type of text also makes a difference. I find that I appreciate the bibliographic footnotes in monographs (as tools for the reader, rather than as displays of competence), whereas I feel like they weigh down journal articles (though I know that when I try to publish one I will feel/be compelled to include them).

  11. Doug says:

    There’s bound to be a happy medium (or perhaps happy media) that those of us here (lurking and otherwise) can push toward. As gatekeepers, maybe do less of the enforcing that Tim writes about above. Imagined Communities doesn’t need to be cited anymore unless it’s being quoted directly. If an author has somehow gotten through to publication without having read it, that will be readily apparent. Anderson is surely an extreme case, but in general, I suspect that Tim is right and less genuflection would be better.

    There are similar questions in my field, journalism and business writing, with added challenges of compression, readability and the presumption of writing for a general rather than specialist audience.

    What I tend to read is on the rigorous end of popular history, so theoretical disputes and footnotes as signals are less common here (assumptions tend to be more embedded), but when the authors cite archives, I tend to presume that they have done the spadework themselves. Sometimes that’s a problem in and of itself: One of the areas I’m interested in is Central and Eastern Europe, where some post-Soviet archives that were open in the early and mid-90s are now closed. At some point you either trust the author or you don’t, and all the rest of the appartus is just there to enable the trust.

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