Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

The Relationship of Blogging to Academic Work

In July, the US Chronicle of Higher Education’s Career section featured an article about the impact of job applicant blogging on the deliberations of academic hiring committees. Titled Bloggers Need Not Apply, (and attributed to the pseudonymous “Ivan Tribble”), this article questions the wisdom of academic job applicants’ posting sometimes deeply personal information about themselves on the web, in full potential view of any hiring committee member who can google. The article draws particular attention to blogs that contain

what turned out, in some cases, to be the dank, dark depths of the blogger’s tormented soul; in other cases, the far limits of techno-geekdom; and in one case, a cat better off left in the bag.

The pertinent question for bloggers is simply, Why? What is the purpose of broadcasting one’s unfiltered thoughts to the whole wired world?

The article goes on to note that blogs give hiring committees access to applicants’ views on potentially controversial topics – politics, religion, fashion, etc. – that might never have been broached in an actual job interview, but that could affect a hiring committee’s perception of the “fit” between an applicant and a job. Blogs also potentially expose the hiring committee to the applicant at their worst (intellectually and/or emotionally), particularly if the blog hosts complaints about an applicant’s workplace or a detailed account of petty grievances and gripes. Even at their best, blogs contain unpolished samples of applicants’ writing and thought-process, which may not represent the best possible image to a hiring committee. The article therefore warns:

More often that not, however, the blog was a negative, and job seekers need to eliminate as many negatives as possible.

We all have quirks. In a traditional interview process, we try our best to stifle them, or keep them below the threshold of annoyance and distraction. The search committee is composed of humans, who know that the applicants are humans, too, who have those things to hide. It’s in your interest, as an applicant, for them to stay hidden, not laid out in exquisite detail for all the world to read. If you stick your foot in your mouth during an interview, no one will interrupt to prevent you from doing further damage. So why risk doing it many times over by blabbing away in a blog?

We’ve seen the hapless job seekers who destroy the good thing they’ve got going on paper by being so irritating in person that we can’t wait to put them back on a plane. Our blogger applicants came off reasonably well at the initial interview, but once we hung up the phone and called up their blogs, we got to know “the real them” — better than we wanted, enough to conclude we didn’t want to know more.

The impact of this article was accentuated by the near-contemporaneous decision by the University of Chicago not to tenure two prominent academic bloggers – Sean Carroll and Daniel Drezner. The University of Chicago’s actions prompted a burst of blogosphere speculation on whether the tenure decision related in any way to blogging, speculation which ultimately bled into the mainstream print news. While both Drezner and Carroll appear agnostic over the relationship between their blogging and their tenure decisions, their fates, combined with the very public castigation of jobseeking bloggers in the Chronicle, sparked a cascade of reflections on the wisdom of blogging by untenured academics.

For some, the issue of academic blogging touches on broader themes of generational cultural change within the academy. Some commentators asked whether received systems such as tenure need to be reviewed. Others questioned whether the current model of peer-reviewed academic publications needs to be modified to allow for freer distribution and access to peer-reviewed works and/or to recognise different levels of validity for academic work, on a continuum from draft-like blog or public access productions, through to the traditional “gold standard” of peer reviewed publications. Others asked whether universities better need to acknowledge the value of academics’ serving as “public intellectuals” and writing for the non-academic community, as well as for their academic peers.

For others, the concern was more pragmatic: must I blog anonymously, at least until I secure tenure?

In terms of my personal perspective on the relationship of blogging to my academic work: I understand this site as part of my academic production. The materials I post here are drafts – I would hope that anything I submit for publication is more clearly (and concisely!) written, provides a more thorough “apparatus” of citations, etc. Yet the material I post here, while rough, is not intended to be “first draft” quality – I view blog entries as intermediate-level academic writing, somewhere between the “gold standard” of full publication, and the various kinds of field notes, sketches, dot point outlines, and other material that I produce during my research. This is one of the reasons I will sometimes have long gaps between posts: I don’t always have the time to write something of sufficient quality to post on a public forum.

I have also made a very conscious decision to focus on theoretical or historical materials in the blog, rather than more contemporary ethnographic or oral history materials – at least until I am much further along in my research. Analysing interview material on the blog is, I feel, a more fraught enterprise – both practically, and ethically. Practically, many of the people I’m interviewing know of the existence of this site, and I don’t want to them to worry that their words might end up here and self-censor as a result. Ethically, because I am committed to maintaining the confidentiality of the people to whom I am speaking, and posting quotations or reflections on interviews here too soon after the interviews have actually taken place might make it easier to deduce the identity of the speaker. In various ways, this limitation does “flatten” the material presented here, in that it skews the blog away from analysis of empirical material. Then again, I knew this would be the case when I started the blog – hence the choice of the name “rough theory”…

Initially, I also intended to keep the blog loosely anonymous – meaning that I did not post my name anywhere on the site, but provided enough information about my project to allow someone to figure out who I am, if they were particularly curious. I changed this approach when I realised I was being quoted on other blogs, and felt silly being quoted as “NP”. As a result, I’ve now added my actual last name to my posts, although I’ve still hedged my bets a bit by not including my full first name – I suppose I’m still reluctant for my life to be easily googled…

This strategy is not, though, intended to keep hiring committees away from the site. I have shared the site link quite freely, and have never intended to keep the blog a professional secret. As a consequence, however, I limit my discussion here to the sorts of things I might say in an informal, but still professional, context. I view the site, ideally, like one of my university’s research conferences – as a place to air considered, but not quite finalised, reflections so that I can receive feedback and arrive at better ideas and better means of expressing them.

How I personally view the site is not the only issue, of course. As the Chronicle’s follow-up article on the blogging issue notes, there is a distinct cultural divide between a generation of younger academics who are very comfortable with the internet as a means of professional communication, and a generation of tenured academics who worry about a potential decline in intellectual standards associated with internet communication:

As my original column made clear (and many amid the outcry reiterated) when it comes to blogging, I just don’t “get it.” That’s right, I don’t. Many in the tenured generation don’t, and they’ll be sitting on hiring committees for years to come.

In my personal experience, this cultural divide can result in a reluctance to read material posted to the blog – due, I suspect, to the assumption that the material can’t be worth someone’s serious attention and comment, because I’ve just dashed it off to an online forum (I get the impression that some people must be visualising that I’m posting to a chat room – as if my thoughts on social theory will go scrolling past, interspersed with 13-year-olds asking “rU hot?”). I’ve had a couple of experiences where, unable to convince someone to take a look at a blog entry, I’ve pasted the same material into a Word file, emailed it off, and gotten quite positive and considered comments…

Even those who are willing to take the plunge and read a blog entry are markedly reluctant to post their responses – I get replies in person, or via email, but (as you can tell from the comments fields here) rarely on the blog itself. I find this more understandable, as it takes time to write a considered reply posted to a forum where other people might see it – and time is always going to be a limited commodity. Personally, I’d rather people worry less about this, and just post messier, draftlike comments under a pseudonym – I would benefit from their more informal comments (and get the opportunity to reply online myself, if I choose), and they would not have to worry so much about creating a public record of their informal comments. But feedback in any form is valuable and, when people are busy, it’s simply more efficient for them to provide feedback in the most comfortable form. And, for many academics, the most comfortable form is still not unstructured discussion in an online forum.

11 responses to “The Relationship of Blogging to Academic Work

  1. MT December 10, 2005 at 5:43 pm

    There seems to be blogware out there that lets only people who register at a site post comments to it. Even if you weren’t exclusive, I imagine that an appearance of exclusivity might make the site a little more welcoming to the stuffy academics. Also perhaps a means for people to edit their comments–which message boards allow. (Why not host a message board?) I’m not sure there’s anything to be done about the older folks. My parents are both not-quite emeritus academics in the humanities and although they’ve been word processing for a couple decades, still they avoid the Web at all costs . I think they like to continue to imagine the computer is just a type writer.

  2. N Pepperell December 10, 2005 at 8:48 pm

    I don’t really think it’s necessarily stuffiness that prevents people from posting – at least, I know that some of the folks who periodically read posts here, and speak with me about them in person, are definitely not stuffy. 🙂 I think a lot of it comes down to time: if you’re not very used to internet posting as a medium, it will simply take longer to get your point across, than it does to express it some other way. (And, of course, people can simply be too busy to keep up with all the writing, or to comment at all…)

    In terms of modifying the capacities of the site: WordPress does allow me to impose registration, if I choose to. Imposing a registration would probably be the easiest way to accommodate another feature you mention: allowing users to edit their own posts. (Registration is the easiest way to track who has written what, and therefore assign editing rights to specific authors…)

    Registration also provides a few other tools for, e.g., combatting spam and such. So far, this has not been a major issue here so, for the time being, I’ve aimed for making it as easy as possible for people to post, if they’re interested.

    My feeling about message boards is that they’re better for high-traffic sites (and also probably better when you have a committed core of people gathered around a common purpose). The broader research project I work within has discussed the potential of putting together some kind of message board, to help each of the researchers keep track of what all of the others are doing. I’m not sure, though, whether there is any intention to open this board to the public, even if it is created… If this should happen, I’ll post the link at this site.

  3. Ryan/Aless May 19, 2007 at 4:01 am

    This issue hits right at the heart of my current decision to shut down my blog temporarily. While I absolutely love blogging, I do share some of the concerns you point out in this entry. It seems unfair, though, that we bloggers should have those concerns. If we choose to ramble on political issues or even about our personal lives, why should that affect a department’s decision to hire us or give us tenure? The article you quote is almost giving this injunction to hide certain aspects of our personality, and maybe this is naive of me (being a grad student with very little professional experience), but why should we? Why should those things be relevant to the decision as to whether to hire someone or not? We know we all have these quirks, these political views we don’t all necessarily agree on. I understand that there are certain things we do hide during an interview, but to extend the interview process to our personal blogs (Are they even cited by the applicant? Or does the hiring committee simply looks for all the info it can find about them?), to, as it were, our personal lives? That’s a little bit fascist, isn’t it? Microfascist.

    Blogging I think provides a lot of benefits. It certainly makes me a more prolific writer, not only in making me articulate the muddy thoughts in my head (Saussure would say that “indistinct mass”) but, in writing a lot, it makes the words themselves flow faster when I’m writing my official seminar papers (Blogging serves as “practice” writing, as it were). It also immerses you in conversations with fellow bloggers, see other points of view, see the different concerns in the community and the points in which they resonate. It’s definitely beneficial for someone to be able to do “writing exercises,” as it were, before writing an actual formal article (or seminar paper), but it is even more beneficial to post it in a blog: not just in a megalomaniac way that you want the world to see what you’re in the process of writing, but as you say, to get feedback (like in a conference, or in a class when you’re presenting a lecture) so that you can anticipate attacks on your argument and maybe modify or forget them altogether.

    There is one danger, though, in having your rough drafts (as you call them; I finally know what Roughtheory means! 🙂 ) out there, or at least one I can anticipate, and I wanna ask you what you think about this: Do you ever worry about being plagiarized? What if you post a blog on a topic that you don’t really get to fully develop until much later (what with the heavy courseload you have, the classes you have to take in my case, the reading you still need to get done, the background you have to acquire)? What if someone reads an idea you posted and writes an article from it? Is that a valid concern? Or is that just a megalomaniac paranoia of someone who’s never been published (and who so badly wants to be) (not out of personal whim, but what choice do we have? That’s how the academy measures your standing)? Have you heard of any problems like that? When I think about this, I take comfort in the fact that “professional” bloggers think enough of themselves that they wouldn’t insult themselves by doing that.

    As I said, I absolutely love blogging, especially when you’ve become part of a community and gained a certain following or conversants. It’s so rewarding to have your thoughts out there (bec. as I said, blogging is one way that you can articulate them, but also) to have others read them. Especially when you feel you have something to say, it becomes a convenient way to direct others to your blog and have them read what you think–from which, hopefully, a conversation springs. Blogging is good especially in that it acts like a rhizome. We don’t have a select group of people imposing rigid standards who decide what gets published or not, what gets the chance of being read. That way, as you say, we don’t get read just by our peers but truly become public intellectuals. Wouldn’t that make theory–and philosophy in general–more relevant, seeing its state (esp. in America) right now? Isn’t the rhizomatic network that blogging creates a mcuh freer way to converse (to relay thoughts, as it were, mass thoughts 🙂 )? (As for the quality of the thoughts in the blog, well, that’s for the reader to decide. As for the quality of the writing, again, up to the reader to decide, and I don’t think serious bloggers are bad writers anyway, even if what they have so far is just a rough draft.)

    So I guess overall I am for blogging. I feel, however, that of late I’ve been a little distracted by it, and, more importantly, my eyes have just been hurting so bad from using the computer too much with all the work from this sem and the blogging. Hopefully, though, I’ll be back out there again soon.

  4. N Pepperell May 19, 2007 at 1:53 pm

    I hope you’re back out there soon 🙂 Maybe with a better monitor to help with the eye strain…

    There’s a lot in your comment, and I’m unusually groggy today – apologies if I don’t do the comment justice.

    I’ve actually written on the plagiarism issue. By far the most common reaction when I mention the blog to professional colleagues is that they assume it’s some kind of space for trivial writing. The few colleagues who do realise that I’m actually outlining theoretical concepts here (that I’ve developed material for publication after first exposing it on the blog), always immediately ask about the plagiarism issue.

    My general position on this is that a blog is a publication – it establishes a clear provenance for written work so that, if any conflict were to arise over the source of the actual words, it’s quite clear who wrote what. There’s a more complicated issue, of course, about the origin of concepts. I have to admit, though, I’ve always been a bit weird on this: my concepts borrow heavily from other people, often in off-the-wall ways, but certainly not in any way that would lead me to feel that they are “mine” in any strong sense – creativity is collective, and I’m not sure we can ever really adequately acknowledge our debt to thinkers who have shaped us, other than by contributing what we can to the formation and development of other thinkers…

    I realise that there is a “hard” practical issue: that obtaining an academic position requires a publication record, and that there can be an objective sort of zero sum game to this. I don’t blame anyone who wants to keep their thoughts to themselves before they are ready to submit them to a journal.

    Part of the issue may boil down to the fact – and I readily admit this – that I’m not terribly practical in this way. I’ve had a fixation on a particular set of issues for a very long time, and this fixation has led me into, and out of, the academy at various points. Please trust me when I say that I don’t recommend this approach. For want of a better word, it’s more symptomatic than strategic. As it happens, I’ve been very, very lucky, and it hasn’t hurt me as much as, by rights, it should have.

    For me, there are some other practical benefits to blogging. I’m actually – I’ve written on this before – painfully self-conscious about my writing. Sheer volume may disguise this, but it is extraordinarily difficult for me to post serious material here – I actually find the process terrifying. And I find the process of forcing myself to write anyway to have the cumulative effect of reducing this kind of fear. So early on, for example, I primarily posted things related to either literature reviews or empirical research related to the research project to which I am attached (which, for complicated reasons, has become divorced from my dissertation). I then gradually started posting some things relating more closely to my own interests, and then branched out into actively pursuing conversations on specific issues with other people – all small steps along a continuum of discomfort… 😉 One consequence is that types of writing that would have made me very nervous in the beginning, I can now do fairly casually.

    But it’s a moving point – the sorts of material I’ve been posting in the last several months, which hits at some central issues in the theoretical framework I’ve been wrestling with for a long time now: I want criticism and discussion of these concepts, and I find the discussions I’ve been able to have here and elsewhere have been shatteringly helpful in refining concepts and working out how to communicate them. But I still find public writing on the issue enormously painful.

    But there are other practical reasons to do this. Blogging and my local reading group provide far more substantive feedback on my work than, for various reasons, I can obtain in more formal ways. Some of this is simply a time and motivation issue: people have to be fairly interested in similar theoretical issues to be bothered reading the sorts of very long and very rough theoretical materials I put up here. Some of it is also that my work tends to get weird reactions – I’ve had one formal reviewer admit privately to me that they had found a particular work too difficult to follow, and had therefore greenlighted it… I find this depressing… I intend the theoretical work to be aimed at substantive issues, and so the concepts need to be tested – the point isn’t to intimidate people out of responding… One of the nice things about blogging is the relative unselfconsciousness about expertise and about whether someone is “qualified” to respond – people will just haul out with whatever questions or objections they have, and you work from there. As long as someone is actually having a serious go at having a conversation (and I realise that this doesn’t always happen), this is always productive…

    And yes, the hope would be that it would also get ideas out there, begin to form communities of various sorts across unusual boundaries… I think the medium can also make it easier to recognise – more quickly than traditional publication – when a concept or way of posing a problem is trending. It’s very easy to trick ourselves into believing that a new idea is ours alone – blogging, and reading blogs, is a humbling corrective to this – as well as a tool for sensitising ourselves to what might be in the winds at our moment in time…

  5. Ryan/Aless May 19, 2007 at 2:25 pm

    Well, if I still had any hesitations as to whether I should go back to the blogosphere, you’ve managed to convince me otherwise. 🙂 You make really good points on the originality issue, the point that concepts really are collectively developed. Anyway, anyone who’s so afraid of being plagiarized is probably just really insecure that he would run out of “original” ideas. If you’re confident about your theoretical abilities, that shouldn’t be so much of a concern. Then you can blog and you can get all the community and feedback benefits that you talk about.

    Although I don’t discern at all the writing self-consciousness that you talk about, as I said, I do think that blogging makes one a better writer. Just the sheer volume of it, making writing as though it was a part of everyday life, something you do whenever you blog–that really helps demistify writing I think, which ultimately makes one a better and more productive writer.

    Well, I hope to be back in a month or so. Still got to rest and reconfigure my understanding of some theoretical concepts. For the meantime, I think I’ll chill at other people’s blogs and leave goofy comments . . . 🙂 Thanks for this very enlightening post.

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  8. Ryan/Aless November 14, 2007 at 7:31 am

    NP, do you know of any resources on (or have you written anything about) the issue of copyright and blogging? I mean, I don’t know what the policies (or courtesies) are exactly, but what are we, as bloggers, expected to do when we cite a book, for example? Do we take the necessary precautions that we do as though we are writing a professional article (with page numbers and all)? And how do we ensure that our own writing (the blog posts) are protected from plagiarism? I was trying to look for resources online, but I couldn’t really see anything that made sense. So I thought I would turn to you.

  9. N Pepperell November 14, 2007 at 9:55 am

    I’m not a huge expert in this, and copyright laws vary a bit from country to country (Australia, for example, is more draconian in certain strange respects than the US, in the sense that “fair use” provisions are much more ambiguous here). Note that the issue of plagiarism, and the issue of copyright violation, aren’t quite the same, although they can sometimes wrap around one another. Plagiarism is more a professional ethics issue, whereas copyright relates to property law in intellectual products: it’s possible to plagiarise something that isn’t copyrighted, and it’s possible to violate copyright without necessarily running afoul of professional plagiarism standards…

    At any rate – with the caveat that I’m far from an expert at this: I’ll start with the easier question, which is your rights over how other people use your own work. Last time I checked, the presumption in the US (I know you aren’t personally in the US right now, but I would guess that’s still where the blog is hosted?) is that you have copyright in anything you write, automatically, unless you do something to waive it. You can strengthen your right of recourse against copyright violations, though, by including a copyright notice (you can also strengthen your rights by formally registering your works – there’s a cost involved to doing this, though, and I’m simply not sure how this process works for a blog – whether it’s possible to register the whole thing as “a work”, or whether you’d have to register each entry separately… From vague memory: you hold copyright anyway, without a notice, and without formal registration – you may need to register your work if you actually intend to sue someone for damages, but you can register at any time – it just gives you a stronger legal position if you register soon after publishing a work… !!Not a lawyer!! So my knowledge here is coming from a very “lay” perspective).

    The Creative Commons licenses used on many blogs are a way to post a copyright notice on your work, and to clarify exactly what you will and won’t allow other people to do – there are many CC licenses, which state everything from the “all rights reserved” of traditional copyright (which basically prohibits people from doing anything other than minor quotation, unless they contact you for permission), through to placing your work in the public domain (which lets anyone use it, with or without attribution, whatever way they want).

    The CC license I use licenses people to reproduce what I write here, as long as they attribute the content to me, don’t modify the content to produce derivative works, and aren’t trying to make money from the content – so it enables free reproduction of this material for, say, cross-blog discussions, use in teaching and study, etc., as long as it would be clear to the reader that I’m the person who wrote the material. Any other use would require some kind of direct permission from me. The “no derivative works” provision is the only thing I’m slightly ambivalent about, as most kinds of “derivative works” probably wouldn’t bother me in practice – but I could think of certain kinds of derivative works that would (translations would be the obvious example of a “derivative work”: I don’t in principle mind the idea that someone might want to translate a snippet from here, but translations could also re-present my work in unintentionally problematic ways, etc.)… So I’ve put that in the license, and technically someone would have to seek permission if they wanted to use what I write here in any other way than what the license allows.

    Blog comments are a bit more ambiguous: the default presumption, as I understand it, would be that the commenter is licensing the broadcast of their comment on your blog automatically, through the act of posting – but that they are not necessarily licensing other uses (say, the possible republication of their comment in a book you later assemble from materials posted to your blog). I’ve seen blogs set up their “post” process to require commenters to license the use of their comments by the blog in specific ways, or even to assign copyright over to the blog. I’m not comfortable doing that – my CC license stipulates that it applies to things I write here (which also means that it doesn’t apply, say, to posts LMagee writes here, which would by default remain LM’s exclusive copyright).

    But the Creative Commons licenses – although they can be simple statements of conventional “all rights reserved” copyright notices – are often used specifically to indicate that the author is happy to license certain uses of their material, above and beyond the default copyright provisions. You do not have to include such a license on your site or on your posts to establish default copyright over your works – although having some kind of notice can make it easier if you have to communicate about the issue with someone.

    These legal rights can in some circumstances intersect with the issue of plagiarism: clearly people plagiarise the blog content – I get several google searches each week to the effect of: “Karl Marx appears to abandon his earlier theory of alienation in his later works. Discuss.” – it’s the inclusion of the “discuss” that kills me – not only are these people plagiarising, they can’t even do a decent google search to find their plagiarised content… ;-P

    If I were to become aware of who was doing this, copyright would give some right of redress. I’d be more likely, though, just to approach their university or other appropriate professional body, and complain that they are violating professional integrity standards, than I personally would be to pursue a complaint under copyright law (among other things, because undergraduate students plagiarising my material for a course assignment likely aren’t doing financial damage to me, harming my professional reputation, or doing similar things for which I might want financial redress).

    I’m not personally too concerned about this kind of copyright violation – partially because I think my writing is such that… er… I don’t think many people would believe that some random student, struggling so much to pass their course that they need to plagiarise, would suddenly rock up with the sort of analysis I write on Marx… ;-P And having the content online means that people can google and find the original source.

    More serious forms of plagiarism – someone trying to reproduce work in, say, an academic article: again, the publication of the material here establishes a clear provenance for the content, so it makes any action easier, not more difficult. And, again, I’d be more likely to approach it as a professional ethics issue, than as a copyright issue per se.

    There is some ambiguity around things like content aggregators that scoop up content from various sites online: on the one hand, those sites can sometimes be honest about attributing content from where they’ve scooped it – thus meeting that requirement of my license. On the other hand, they are scooping content in order to make money – thus possibly violating the “non-commercial” dimension of my license – so I probably have some recourse to ask them to take content down. What blurs this sort of thing is that technically services like google are also making money off of reproducing content from website – and yet most people accept this as a cost of having their content searchable… The difference between google and the sorts of content aggregators that annoy me… I’m simply not sure how this is defined in law (anyone else know this?)… That said, if something is aggregating content from a blog, and someone doesn’t want it to happen, there are various sorts of recourse – starting with contacting the site that’s doing it (if you can figure out how), and moving on if necessary to contact their host…

    In terms of our own citational practices: in the US (this is for various reasons more ambiguous in Australia), there are “fair use” provisions that allow you to reproduce portions of copyrighted works for purposes of analysis, commentary, etc. This allows for quotation – even in situations where the author might not want to be quoted (say, if someone’s quoting them in order to write a critical review, or to create a parody of a work). It doesn’t necessarily allow for quotation that misleads or misrepresents about what the author was trying to do (say, a quotation that implies incorrectly that an author supports a disreputable political position) – but this probably gets more complex than my lay understanding of these issues should try to cover. Again, exact rules differ a bit from place to place – Europe probably acknowledges certain kinds of authorship rights that don’t have as much currency in the US… So details can get messy and well beyond my competence…

    There are no hard and fast rules for how works should be cited: you can establish these rules for your own works if you use a CC license (or some other kind of license) that includes specific instructions on how you want people to attribute your content (so someone could say, e.g., “To quote work from this site, you must include a link back to the original URL and the attribution ‘by massthink’ or ‘by Ryan/Aless'”) – then anyone who didn’t use the attribution you specified would technically be in violation of your license. I tend to run into these sorts of attribution requirements most often when I’m reproducing, say, an artwork someone has licensed for reproduction: it’s not unusual for sites that do this, which are often also selling their art, to require a specific sort of announcement accompany the reproduction of their material.

    In terms of our own citation, absent these sorts of requirements: I take the point of citation to be enabling the reader to find the source content as easily as possible. For online content, a link back to the source can be more efficient and clearer than conventional citational form – so, when participating in a cross-blog discussion, I don’t do the formal “Author (Year) ‘title’ date [url]” format – I just link. Same with citations to, say, Marx’s texts that are available online (although there I’ll usually also provide enough information that someone following along a print version could find what I’m writing about – but I don’t do this out of copyright concerns, but just because I want people to be able to follow along).

    Citing offline texts on the blog – I generally give reasonably full bibliographic details, with page numbers. (Recently, though, I’ve tended to search google books, to see whether I’ll come up with a highlighted page with the passage I’m quoting – figuring that this gives online readers easier access to the exact text I’m looking at, and also enables them to browse around what I’m quoting a bit. If I get a google books hit, I may include more minimal bibliographic details.)

    I don’t think blogs are obligated to strict academic referencing protocols: academic journals aren’t the only sorts of writing where things are cited – journalistic articles might also cite something, for example, without the full academic regalia – say, a single quotation from a book, with only the author and book title provided, and no other publication information or page numbers. (To be honest, I’ve seen published academic texts do this sort of thing, as well…) I regard it as a courtesy to readers to provide detailed information – I don’t see it as an obligation. So I’ll generally provide details if I’m writing the sort of thing where I think readers plausibly might want to double check me or follow along – otherwise, I’m often more loose.

    As you know, I’m not a lawyer, and not an expert – this is just my loose sense of how things work. I don’t offhand have anything to refer you to either – maybe have a trawl around nolo or a similar site, and see if they’ve put up anything relevant (note that I haven’t done this before writing this response! So come back and tell me how wrong I am in my gut feel for this stuff!!)

  10. Ryan/Aless November 14, 2007 at 7:15 pm

    Thank you, as usual, for your very informative blurb (and sorry for disturbing you on your “break,” which I hope is going well, by the way). Yes, I do get those google searches, too, for “the base and superstructure,” for example, for “Nietzsche’s will to power,” and so forth. In fact, I think most of my readers are undergrads trying to scramble for a paper they have to submit the next day . . . 😦

    I guess I just get worried sometimes about how professional my writings in the blog should be. I certainly do not want to be plagiarized–but it just hit me the other day that in not citing the pages of my sources, well, I might be doing that very thing! So just got a little worried about copyright issues there. I mean, I do cite my sources, but I deliberately take off the page numbers so as not to allow other people to, well, just copy what I’ve written and pass it off as theirs. But I wasn’t sure whether it is mandatory, when quoting sources, to give full citation. I think I might actually change my protocol and edit the posts I already have, so as to include the page numbers. This way, the readers will also find it easier to go back to the texts I’m quoting, and I won’t have to worry about infringing on a published author’s copyright rights (although I think it’s more the publishers that are concerned about this).

    But it’s good to know that by default, whatever we’ve written goes right back to us, by right (That’s one thing we’re pretty certain about, ya?). Getting copied by lazy undergrads is one thing–which does not really do much damage (to me; to them, well, it does a lot of damage!)–but someone getting your idea that you’re trying to prepare for a professional article is another. But then again, I do not think (perhaps this is too optimistic of me) that there is a writer of such caliber who gets published in professional journals who will do that sort of thing. So I guess that puts my worries to rest . . . Now I have to do a lot of editing . . .

  11. N Pepperell November 14, 2007 at 7:47 pm

    My memory is that the US law changed some time in the late ’80s, so that copyright has been automatic, regardless of whether the work is formally registered or a copyright declaration appears on the work. Adding notifications and formally registering works strengthen the copyright claim (in the former case by making it more difficult for someone to claim they weren’t aware the work was copyright, in the latter, as a precondition, I think, for certain kinds of legal actions – again with the caveat that I’m writing from memory, and have no legal training).

    But issues of plagiarism relate more to professional standards than to formal copyright – regardless of copyright status, an academic who used someone else’s work without attribution would be asking for trouble.

    One complication: you mention above a worry about someone taking an idea. Ideas are tricky. Copyright doesn’t protect ideas, but the form in which ideas are presented or expressed. So copyright law wouldn’t, for example, protect me if someone were to take, say, my Marx posts, rewrite the ideas entirely in their own words, and then ship them off to a journal. Professional standards around plagiarism might offer some protection – but it can be difficult to determine the source of an idea.

    This potential problem can be exacerbated by a sort of common myth I run into often – at least amongst peer academics locally – that “blogs can’t be cited”. In some cases, people saying this seem to mean something like “I’d be embarrassed to admit I got an idea from a blog”; in other cases, they mean something much more literal – like “I don’t know the convention for citing a blog”.

    Either way, if a lot of people are thinking like this, it may actually make them less likely than they would normally be, to offer proper attribution for blog content – someone who wouldn’t run off and riff off of an idea they heard presented in an unpublished conference paper without attribution, might do so with a blog entry – either from not knowing how to attribute, or from feeling shame at the source… This is a potentially genuine issue for people to worry about, particularly when their work is good and potentially resonant with a wide audience, but they are still too unknown for people immediately to recognise ideas as “theirs”…

    Blog publication still does establish provenance for ideas – but it doesn’t prevent someone from scooping what you write, and shipping it off to a journal without attribution. So this is a call individual bloggers need to make…

    My personal position is that I’m interested in getting ideas in the world, I like writing for this medium and find it a productive way to develop ideas, and I tend to view ideas (and often styles of expression, as well) as largely collective “in the air” sorts of things – I don’t tend to think my ideas are fully “mine”, I’m highly conscious of debts to other thinkers I could never adequately acknowledge citationally, and I view my work as very much an intervention into a (loose, ephemeral and accidental) collective project. And, probably for a fair period of time into the future, the blog is probably a better way for me to establish a voice and have a certain body of work associated with “me”, than other forms of publication.

    But this isn’t something I advocate, if this makes sense: I think it’s perfectly fair for someone to decide not to publish their core work online before it’s ready to go into print. It’s a risk to consider. If people want to make academic work available to a wider audience, this can always be done after a journal publication… For me, it comes down to how I think about intellectual production, and to how beneficial I find intellectual exchange over draft work – and I think there are valid reasons for different academics to think very differently about those things…

    As for my “break” – not quite going well yet. Still getting the word out that I’m not available for other things, so my days keep getting fractured, and I have this annoying cold (although feeling much better today than yesterday). I think most of the problem isn’t really the cold or the interruptions (both of which are unfortunately fairly common dimensions of my schedule at this point) – I tend to be edgy and anxious when I try to push my work into a new level, and I’m currently trying to systematise a lot of material I’ve been tossing around here and elsewhere for some time – the systematic and linear form of presentation, though, is somewhat new. I’ve been sort of restarting every day – going through one of these periods where everything seems either too convoluted, or too simplistic, or too tangential… When Marx writes about beginnings being difficult, I feel for him particularly strongly at the moment… ;-P

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