Jul 152018

I was startled when I saw journalist Erin Blakemore’s recent Twitter apologia, in which she defended omitting citations in articles drawing on historical research. I wasn’t sure why she felt the need to do so; journalism isn’t scholarly work. Various historians responded, however, with complaints that such was theft of their work. Clearly here, a notion exists that the product — not just the form of presentation, but the history itself — belongs to these authors. It follows then that making use of the knowledge gained from secondary literature is thievery, nullified only by citation.

The historians’ claim springs from the framework of the discipline. Academics search out new areas of inquiry to examine, and success in the field lies in creating novel and compelling histories that make one notable within the profession. Citations are the recognition of historians’ work. Plagiarism — which includes passing off someone else’s research as one’s own — is theft of the intellectual property of another scholar, which, again, is mitigated only by the footnote.

Historians do go to significant expense and effort for their research. They often must travel to archives and other locations to cull through evidence, and grants never cover all of one’s financial obligations. Additionally, monographs represent countless hours of work — research, analysis, writing, and editing. It is one’s life, and having birthed a project, it is natural to have a sense of ownership over it. This is your work.

But, of course, it is ridiculous to suggest that the collective past of a body of people belongs to any one scholar or group of professionals. Firstly, the evidence left for historians to peruse is not theirs; it was made by someone else and most often is kept in places for the public trust (historical societies, museums, etc). The lived experiences this evidence presents are not the historian’s either. A scholar’s past may at best overlap, but histories are not memoirs. They are the stories of strangers, ancestors, and classes of people, rather than the author’s biography. As such, a historian cannot say that the history is theirs in a possessive sense.

Ownership lies solely in the storytelling — the creation of a book, essay, or presentation organizing and depicting the narrative. If a historian is successful with their work, the audience is enlightened, but the knowledge gained is also not owned by the scholar. No one can claim another’s understanding, even if they caused it. An idea once passed to another becomes part of the learner’s knowledge, stored in their memory for their use. It isn’t possible to possess another’s understanding.

Finally, the purpose of scholarship is to inform others. It’s a communal effort intended to better humankind — not enrich an individual researcher. Scholars do not receive remuneration for their interpretations. Acknowledgements are their considerations — benefits to the author, but readers do not purchase a share of ownership. Citations are an intellectual convention that point to a resource. Knowledge, however, has an existence outside of literary sources. You may commodify the histories, but the history cannot be owned.

Scholars err when they confuse compensation for delivery of learning with any claim on the knowledge itself. The work of writing history is altogether separate from the effect it creates. This is the difference between stories and comprehension, and education — the means for learning — undermines intellectual property rights even as it spreads content. We have come to think of the literature as information, when it is really a mode of communication. Hence, the citation belongs to the academy alone (which exists to exchange information). Professionals erroneously believe that novelty creates ownership, but they are the sole perpetuators of that fiction.


 Posted by at 5:27 pm

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