Toward an Ethos of Attribution

Recently while driving home, I was listening to an academic podcast and was struck by a verbal pattern of the hosts.  They were referring to others’ ideas, research, and writing without clearly or explicitly identifying these others.  Although the episode’s web page includes links to some of these materials as “additional resources,” in nearly 20 minutes, the hosts drew heavily on a few sources without once mentioning a single name or title.

Instead, they referred to the institution where one of the studies took place:  “There were some folks at X University who did some research specifically on….”  They went on to use language like “The main thing that came out of the research was that…” and “What some people call….”  The underlined words are where, in academic writing, the authors’ names would appear.  They also spoke occasionally in passive voice, such as “a concept that has been identified as….” The passive verb “has been identified” of course allows the omission of who did the identifying.

I think a lot about attribution, citation, giving credit where credit is due.  In fact, I hold high an ethos of attribution–both professionally and personally.

A Toast
(photo filter by Dreamscope)

As an academic in general, I include generosity among my highest values.  (See one of my old newspaper columns.)  I’m inspired by Alison Phipps and Ronald Barnett‘s notion of “academic hospitality,” as in the “friendly and generous reception of guests or strangers or…new ideas” rooted in the Greek “philoxenia,” or “love of the stranger” (237-238).  They note that citations are one of the “place[s] where ideas and people meet and greet in celebratory, communicative and often critical modes” (253).  And so, like academic blogger Pat Thomson, I view “counter-competitive ways of doing and being scholarly” such as “reading other people’s work and giving feedback, working collaboratively, co-writing…, mentoring and supporting those who are where you were a couple of years previously, making your work available open access on academic platforms, setting up writing and reading groups, organizing seminars and so on” as central to my academic practice.

As a writer, I try to be as precise and clear as possible with sources for words, ideas, and inspiration, even erring on the side of overciting.  After all, I see what I see only because I “stand on the shoulders of giants.”*  Much of the time when I’m reading or talking or listening, swirling through my head are connections to the writings of others: additional resources, texts that agree/disagree/offer an alternative perspective, genealogies of books and articles that have led to someone’s comment, juxtapositions of authors that would make for a great dinner party, etc.

As a journal editor, I look closely at authors’ choices of quotations, how and when they cite each other (or don’t), and who cites whom.

As an English professor,  I love teaching how to elegantly integrate quotes into our writing, weaving others’ voices in with our own.

As a bibliophile, I love books of quotations.

As a woman (and introvert who doubly struggles to elbow into certain conversations), I try to “amplify” (Crockett) or “shine” (Friedman) a light on my peers’ good ideas to ensure they’re heard and given credit for their ideas.

As an American raised partially in Southern states, I’m not bashful about calling attention to others in public, much to the dismay of some of my Canadian friends and colleagues.    (I won’t call you out here, but you know who you are!)

Perhaps ironically, I’m not sure where this ethos came from.  Sure, I was schooled in the MLA, APA, and Chicago citation manuals, and I remember learning about plagiarism and how to prevent it.  And I know about the importance of using textual evidence when making claims.  But as Phipps and Barnett and Thomson reveal, there are affective, interpersonal, and power-related issues involved that for me make it less about being credible and staying out of trouble, and more about trying to be what I consider a good scholar and a good person.

*  Although we credit Isaac Newton for this phrase, it first appeared in a 12th century text by Bernard of Chartres (e.g., see Stock; Sarton et al.).

Works Cited

Chick, Nancy. “In the Company of Vampire Bats.” Rice Lake Chronotype, 11 May 2011.  Accessed 19. Jan. 2017.

Crockett, Emily. “The Amazing Tool that the Women in the White House Used to Fight Gender Bias.” Vox, 14 Sept. 2016.   Accessed 19. Jan. 2017.

Friedman, Ann. “Shine Theory: Why Powerful Women Make the Greatest Friends.” The Cut, 31 May 2013. Accessed 19 Jan. 2017.

Phipps, Alison, and Ronald Barnett. “Academic Hospitality.” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, vol. 6, no. 3, 2007, pp. 237-254.

Sarton, George et al. “Notes and Correspondence.” Isis, vol. 24, no. 1, 1935, pp. 102–126.

Stock, Brian. “Antiqui and Moderni as ‘Giants’ and ‘Dwarfs’: A Reflection of Popular Culture?” Modern Philology, vol. 76, no. 4, 1979, pp. 370–374.

Thomson, Pat. “getting published? its (dis)positional.” patter,  19 Jan. 2015.   Accessed 19 Jan. 2017.

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