Sunday, 1 July 2012

Citing your sources

When you use material somebody else created, does it suddenly become your own?
Lately I have been noticing more and more blogs and tumblr pages that aren't citing the sources of their photos. And when readers comment on that the response seems to be mostly along the lines of 'well that's how I do this, deal with it'.
I find that really worrying.

For me, knowingly not citing your sources is about as bad as faking your data. And that applies to both science and blogs.

In science citing is fairly straightforward because it doesn't cost you anything to cite somebody and say 'hey, that person had a really good idea/did a really cool experiment that had some amazing results' or 'I think their results are b#$%@&*^ and here is why...'.
I remember my mentor in third year telling me that you can never cite too much. I have had many discussions with her about writing style since (especially after she turned into my PhD supervisor) but this is something I wholeheartedly agree with. Yes, I hate those hours you spend trying to track down a paper that you read ages ago that says whatever you are trying to say but you don't remember who actually wrote that paper and when just as much as the next person. But just because I don't enjoy it that doesn't mean it's not the right thing to do.
Perhaps, coming from this background it shouldn't have surprised me a while back when I realised I wasn't trusting this paper I was reading mainly because the introduction had annoyed me immensely - they hadn't cited where they got their ideas from. And it wasn't anything trivial, they were making (in my opinion) controversial claims and were making it sound like nobody had published on the topic before.
Here is where the similarity to blogs and the internet comes in for me.
Let's take food blogs as an example. Recipes don't happen in a vacuum. You always get your inspiration from somewhere and more often than not you get your inspiration from recipes and other people's cooking.

The thing is, 'it's not wrong to copy [...]. But it's wrong to deny where you [got] the idea from.'

(Claude Bosi in the lovely chef rant at the beginning of Lucky Peach #3 - see what I'm doing here? I'm telling you where I got some of my inspiration from...go and buy that issue by the way, it has amazing recipes for microwave chocolate cake  and pineapple upside-down cake in there).
When I write a blog post I try to make it clear where I got a recipe from or even just what inspired me because there are so many talented people out there who have so many incredible ideas. And they are sharing them with us. I want them to keep sharing them with me. I want to start off reading about interior design as I am on my eternal quest to find two non-ugly sofa cushions and then realise that it's three hours later and I am currently learning how to make juicy pork buns or how to do a pike with a gym ball without hurting myself.

I love writing about what I cook and bake. And I want you to give the recipes a try or tell your friends about something you made. I also want you to know where they came from because part of why I'm writing this blog is to tell you a story. A story about my life, what inspires me, the blogs I read, the cookbooks I can't get enough of, the trashy tv shows I watch, and whatever else I feel like sharing at that point.
But I am sharing my recipes and photos with the implicit understanding that if somebody uses my work they will at least link to the source.

It is all about trust. We write journal articles with the implicit understanding that when somebody uses our work they will cite it. So what is so different about what we write on the internet?
What worries me about the attitude of 'well that's how I do this, deal with it' which tends to come with the comment of 'if you are a photographer and want me to delete one of your photos from my page, email me' is the fact that this means in the extreme that you, as the person who has created, say a photo, now have to search for instances where people used your images without your permission. Wasting time that you could spend taking more photographs.
In a way it's like an argument that suddenly shifts the burden of proof. Suddenly it's your job to deal with the mess that people who do not link back to their sources have created.

I think intellectual property is important. Not in the 'run you off my property with a shotgun' kinda way (which, thinking about it, is probably the approach major music labels are taking) but more like 'I'm happy for you to enjoy this beautiful garden I have created as long as you respect that it's mine and don't trample the rose bushes'.
Just because you see other blogs or webpages (often even commercial ones) not respecting intellectual property that doesn't make it right. What I love about blogs and tumblr is that you can see how an idea takes off. Somebody posts a recipe and you can follow its ripples through other food blogs. Somebody posts a photo and you can follow it through pinterest and piccsy and tumblr pages and whatnot. You can discover so many other interesting things (and waste your entire weekend on the internet rather than tidying your flat).  I'm addicted to those graphics you can get on some science search engines that allow you to trace who cited a paper and who cited that paper and so forth. What citing allows us do to is see how work is related to previous work and how one idea takes off and is used by others, adapted, reinterpreted, re-analysed, potentially disproved and so forth. But we wouldn't be able to see the thread this idea is weaving through a field or even several fields if people weren't citing each other.

What you do when you are citing your sources is showing that you respect somebody else's  thoughts/work/creativity. You are showing that you respect them as human beings.
And respect (note, that I'm not saying agreement because that has, at that point, nothing to do with it) is all we can ever give and expect.


  1. I completely agree with you. Unfortunately, this "whatever"-approach to citing your sources is very common in public opinion - as you could see in the debate about certain German politicians who copied and pasted their PhD thesis and, when caught, said things like "As a politician and young father, I just didn't have time to doublecheck my quotes". And many people were like "He was so busy and what's the big deal with copy and paste anyway? He's such an honest (!!!) guy, this should not destroy his career".
    (I'm sure that if the same excuse had the word "mother" instead of "father" in it, the predominant comment had been "If she's overwhelmed so easily, she shouldn't be in politics". But that's another story.)

    1. Sad but so true...I'm hoping that one day it won't matter whether that sentence contains the words 'mother' or 'father'...


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...