It’s funny how these things happen. You read something on one subject, and end up not only learning something totally different, but understanding something that made no sense to you before. In this case it was an article by Elizabeth Kiscaden, in the March issue of Computers in Libraries on the Prezi presentation tool.
As part of the article, she mentioned a presentation she had created at Waldorf College on how and when to cite properly in order to avoid charges of plagiarism. This was particularly interesting to me because I had always been confused by and annoyed by it. In particular, I was bothered by how certain fields can be really anal about citations and make a potentially career-damaging claim of plagiarism for something that wouldn’t be an issue in a children’s book on the same subject.
In particular, I was still bothered about the 2002 case of the Gene Tobin, president of Hamilton College, who was forced to resign when someone noticed that he used an unattributed phrase from a review on Amazon.com in a speech he gave, thus violating the honor code that he was supposed to enforce. This sent shivers down my spine…I mean, good grief, is the well-read, reasonably informed person supposed to keep notes on everything they’ve ever read or heard so that they can cite it properly months, or even years, down the road when it percolates up from their memory and they say it themselves? If that’s the case, then we’re all guilty of plagiarism, and we’re screwed.
I found the answer to my confusion in that presentation, and it all goes back to an argument I had over 30 years ago with a friend over writing styles. You see, this friend was being trained to write as a historian and an academic, while I had been trained to write as a journalist and a “popularizer.”
According to the presentation I looked at, as a historian, researcher, or some other academic, the point is to show that from the old information you've synthesized something new, and to give the world a new voice, one that is not "authentically yours" if you don't cite correctly and/or present other people's ideas without attribution. In addition, my friend from 30 years ago would say that the point of all those anal footnotes is to leave a paper trail of sorts so that other scholars can check your facts, and maybe refer to one of your sources for their own research.
As a journalist, a blogger, or a popularizer, I don't for a moment believe that I'm adding new material or original research to the canon; nor does anyone else. What I am doing is to make the information that’s already out there accessible to an audience that it may not have reached before. I try to give the readers a few links to where they may find some of that information, but I don't have to footnote every unoriginal thought I put down. I’m simply reporting.
Of course, I could argue that as a blogger, I give the world a new voice, or at least a different one. It’s just that mine isn’t one that even pretends to live up to "academic standards," but rather, those of casual, well-informed, conversation.
Once again, as I think of those casual, well-informed, conversations, I think of how stilted they would be if we had to cite every unoriginal thought or turn of phrase that came out of our mouths. I think about things I heard or read when I was 16, whose sources are lost in the mists of time, but that over the decades become a part of me and my regular conversation. If I had to perfectly cite every one of those ideas, I’d neither open my mouth nor put metaphorical pen to metaphorical paper.
Of course, some of you might like that.