Fine words! I wonder where you stole ’em?

There’s just over a hundred articles on Capacify now, so perhaps I’m permitted a little bit of introspection. After all, where is all this heading?

In addition to using WordPress, I use Slideshare, Twitter, LinkedIn, ResearchGate, and the institutional repositories of three different universities. It’s quite a change of pace for a person that resisted having an online presence for years – and while I’m still very cautious about how much of my personal information is published (and Facebook still gives me the creeps) I think it’s good for my professional life to be visible.

“It sounds a little extreme, but in this day and age, if your work isn’t online, it doesn’t exist,” says Austin Kleon, author of ‘Show Your Work: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered’. From what I’ve learned in conversation with students, they really do seem to believe this: several times I’ve been told: “I did a literature search, but there’s nothing.” Never, yet, have I found it to be true, but there’s another factor: nowadays there’s so much literature out there that anything not immediately available will be overlooked by all but the most diligent scholar.

And why does it matter? Surely anybody that’s too dumb or too slapdash to use a library properly doesn’t deserve access to information, right?

Wrong. Because those of us who conduct research operate in a “gift economy”.

Unlike the Western world, where a person might be judged by the car they drive, the clothes they wear, etc., in a gift economy your worth isn’t judged by the wealth that you hoard. Instead, you are defined by what you give away. If this sounds naïve or simplistic, perhaps you’re right: it was the kind of system practiced by certain Pacific islanders before they were introduced to capitalism… but it’s also the system by which an academic is judged.

How many publications do you have? In other words, how many things have you discovered or interpreted, and then shared with the world? An academic’s promotion (or next job application) hinges upon their demonstrated ability to share new and interesting things with the rest of humanity. A successful academic isn’t just one that has authored a lot of papers, of course, because a simple measure such as this would be defeated by the cunning author who reports the same thing fifteen different ways, or indeed by a person who simply generates high volumes of drivel. Instead, then, we get judged by citations: a measure of how many times our work has been acknowledged by others… and once again, your work being cited depends upon its being visible. Hence my efforts to build a ‘personal brand’, and make some contacts along the way. I haven’t actually been approached by a wannabe co-author yet, but I’m still hoping.

The funny thing is, even when you’re doing your best to give something away, it seems there are still people who manage to steal it.

It’s almost ten years since David Buxton and I wrote a paper about the use of agent-based simulation to explore the payback time for aero engines under a variety of business models. I remain interested in that aspect of the aerospace supply chain, and I continue to read articles about the topic to this day. That’s how I came to read an article in the Indian Streams Research Journal (Volume 4, Issue 7). My goodness, I thought, this sounds familiar. And then I thought, hold on a second: I remember drawing that figure… and in the end I downloaded the article and submitted it to Turnitin, the originality checking system that we and many other universities use.

With a similarity score of 94%, the result was incontrovertible, and the editor of the Indian Streams Research Journal agreed… eventually. At second request, the plagiarised article was removed from their website. (Although they never did publish a correction, as far as I know.)

TurnItIn similarity report

Extract from a similarity report on the ISRJ paper: the red sections indicate text plagiarised from a single source. Charles Caleb Colton said that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, but I’m not so sure.

You have to wonder what ‘authors’ Farhan Akthar, Syed Amer Ali, Shiva Prasad Padigala and Bommidi Bhaskar of Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University, Hyderabad thought they would achieve… although as one of my colleagues observed, “they’ll probably get a job on the strength of that, and end up designing airliners or something.”

Let’s hope not – for all our sakes. Meanwhile, in Europe…

BBC News: German Education Minister Annette Schavan forced to resign

Never a good idea: German Education Minister Annette Schavan was forced to resign after the University of Düsseldorf revoked her doctorate because of plagiarism. [BBC News]

The initial reaction of a person who falls victim to academic theft might be to seek to withhold their work, and hide it away. That’s a mistake, though: in fact, I believe that the best defence against having your work ripped off is to share it widely, as soon as possible. I appreciate that it’s a difficult balancing act: lecturers exist in large part to disseminate information, and yet providing too much information opens one to accusations of ‘spoon-feeding’. An education should be about learning how to find out, not simply about remembering what you were told. Also, as researchers, we exist to discover new knowledge, which is pointless if there’s no dissemination… yet we must be careful with the data of our collaborators. We give information freely to our students, but if a company expresses an interest in something that we do, we need to seek a much more formal arrangement.

It’s complicated.

I know, from too many occasions where I’ve had to learn a topic in order to stand in front of a class and speak about it, that the best way to learn something is to teach it: the best way to get really good at something is to pass it on. That’s why Southwest Airlines are well-known for welcoming visitors, and have never been defensive about how they pioneered the low-cost strategy: the more you pass something on, the better at it you become.

American author Annie Dillard would approve:

“… the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

For this reason, and for many other reasons, blogging here at Capacify continues to feel like the right thing to do. And, most of all… it’s fun. After over a hundred posts, I’m still enjoying it. So there.

And remember, kids…

The Credible Hulk always cites his sources

(Totally stolen without permission, from Twitter user @stephenjenkin)

Also, the title for today’s article was similarly “borrowed”… it’s Jonathan Swift.


3 thoughts on “Fine words! I wonder where you stole ’em?

  1. You’ve published lots of really interesting posts – Thanks for sharing them. FYI – Another great resource re author branding ‘Rise of the Machines: Human Authors in a Digital World’ by Kristen Lamb

  2. Pingback: Social Marketing | Capacify

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