Communal research

December 9, 2005

I have been reading recent letters and articles about the web and plagiarism. While not wishing to deny that there is a problem, I find myself asking whether there hasn't been a qualitative change in the way we research, write and publish - a change we need to recognise and acknowledge.

Where once each of us cultivated our own little ornamental pond of text, we now all swim in a great ocean of text.

When I research a topic, I no longer read a number of authorities on the topic, think about them and then start constructing my own argument. I download everything that interests me - what I agree with and what I disagree with - and carve my argument out of what I have. So does almost everyone, I imagine.

I find it hard to believe this isn't affecting the way our thought relates to the thought of others working in our fields. In a book soon to be published, I observe that the actor playing Viola, in the original production of Twelfth Night , was "a boy pretending to be a girl pretending to be a boy". I took this phrase from a webpage, and agonised over whether to acknowledge it. I decided not to. The thought isn't original, it is just well put.

Thanks to the web, scholarly writing has become more communal, less individual. Fewer people are impressed by the sophistries of postmodernism but it got one thing right: it is the discourse that prevails. We just trim it and adjust it. I don't know where this is leading, but I do know we need to understand that we're being led.

David Parker
Kingston University

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