Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Challenges of Misattribution

Attribution of quotes is an important part of all academic work. Academic integrity is essential to us as scholars to be able to do our work and for it to have some meaning. Nowadays, there are numerous stories in the news about the academic world where misconduct and lack of citation results in problems, see this story in the New York Times. This is a distinct challenge to our credibility and place within society. This isn't limited solely to academia though, see a recent article about controversy regarding a Quote Linked to Orwell.

Knowing that misattribution is a problem though, what do we do about when people do so honestly? As WikiQuotes can attest, there's a significant number of Misquotes out there. So, what can we do to guarantee our results? I want to take a moment to walk you through a problem that I've been working on at work recently (*Note: these are my experiences and opinions. They do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Edition).

  1. The first issue is recognizing that there is a problem.
    • The quote "the earth has music for those who listen" is commonly attributed to one of two sources, Shakespeare and George Santayana.
    • Knowing that there is a quote with multiple sources tips us off that we want to look for a document to back up these claims.
  2. Researching the issue.
    • Much time and effort has been devoted to looking over the entirety of Santayana's work here at the Santayana Edition at IUPUI (it's kinda the reason we exist). In all of this research, no sign of this quote exists within the documents we have available (thus, we cannot attribute the quote to him).
    • So, we know that it doesn't belong to Santayana, but what about Shakespeare? Well, fortunately a quick Google search lets us know that there is an entire webpage devoted to the problem. Scratch Shakespeare, so now what can we do?
    • For years, the issue was just set aside because no one was able to discover who the quote really belonged to. Then, an unaffiliated researcher was able to provide us the solution.
  3. Now that we have a correct citation what do we do?
    • This is where things get challenging. With the popularity of Twitter, Facebook, and various meme sharing, removing a misquote is incredibly difficult. What avenues do we have to get the word out?
    • First, we updated the quote on WikiQuote, citing our humble researcher along the way.
    • Next, we updated our webpage. If I'm an academic and I know that there is a center for research devoted to a topic I know people might look there.
    • We posted to Twitter and Facebook, letting people know that we had a verified source for the quote.
    • We reached out to our Shakespearean web page owner, asking them to make an update. Hopefully we can break the cycle of misattribution here.
    • Finally, knowing that it is next to impossible to respond to every posting which is incorrect, we've begun responding to institutional tweets and posts which attribute the quote to Santayana. Hopefully that way, more people will be able to see the fix.
  4. So how do we prevent this from happening again?
    • The first key to stopping misattribution is to educate people about the importance of verifying their sources. While we've known about this in academia for years, with the growth of the internet, it is even more important that we be good digital citizens. 
    • Before you click the "share" or "retweet" button make sure that what you're sending is the truth. Check with scholarly institutions or do a little background sleuthing. Yes, it takes more time, but it saves some embarrassment and headaches in the long run. This is particularly important the more followers you have. 
    • If you are sharing materials in a very public way, make sure to verify what you're putting out as content with an actual document. Don't just accept that what you're quoting is accurate or the actual author's intent.
    • Avoid paraphrasing the thoughts of others when you author materials if you're in the public realm. Make sure that you do attribute, but be clear about how you're doing so.
Through a little better digital citizenship, we can help to make our internet sources a little more reliable. People put a significant amount of faith in researchers about the statements that they make. By taking a little bit more time to double-check, we can help to live up to that public trust. In doing so, we protect ourselves, our institutions, and our followers. Please comment, quote, and follow as you deem appropriate. Best wishes.

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