Those who disseminate ideas must acknowledge the routes they travel

The internet is unravelling intellectual ownership, but without citation, academia's shared conversation will be lost, writes Kathryn Sutherland

April 30, 2009

It is becoming harder for us to hear voices other than our own in a world in thrall to the screen and the search engine. Anyone who writes, whether from inner necessity, habit or as a way of earning a living, believes their voice is bound up in what they write.

We recognise this in the case of great writers - the imprint of a voice on the page. At the heart of Justine Picardie's novel Daphne is the seedy real-life figure of J. Alex Symington, who appropriated and altered Emily Bronte manuscripts, passing them off as her brother Branwell's. But do we care when the labour of less glamorous writers is taken over unacknowledged? Is the principle that our writing is ours any less true?

It is clear that something momentous is happening as we shift from print to digital communication: concepts of ownership are unravelling; intellectual property rights are under threat. We are becoming less sure of the rights of anyone to be identified with their own work, not least because the internet is loosening what book technology appeared to have tied down definitively - the bond between author and product.

We are what we read, but we are also how we read. Digital tools encourage searching, linking, cutting-and-pasting, skimming and swooping. But many forms of writing bear another burden and are more than just information sites to be looted. Good reading means reading thoughtfully and in the round, which involves hearing, and respecting, all the voices.

The ongoing dispute between Louis Vuitton and Google over whether the latter's practice of selling advertisements related to search terms is legal or involves trademark infringement offers an interesting twist on the issue. The charge is that an authentic brand name is being used to disseminate the very fakes that steal its identity.

Among the latest developments in the relentless scientific modelling of all academic disciplines is the open access repository, which takes the results of research already paid for by university salaries or grants from funding agencies and makes them freely available and searchable online. The impulse in some quarters is idealistic: increased circulation, increased visibility, increased scholarship. British universities are simultaneously surrendering to bibliometric citation indices, both as a measure of the impact or quality of published research and as a way of apportioning further government funding. Open access repositories grew out of the needs of physicists for the fastest possible circulation of experimental results. Even here, open access carries enormous risks. Because it does not limit the volume of material published as journal articles do, it gives scientists the opportunity to publish all their findings rather than a selection - which can be a good thing, but so easy to misuse.

It is not at all clear how the same model serves the humanities: how urgent is our need to process data or share results? How fast do humanists really need publication to be? The only obvious answer is that it serves the research assessment machine.

There are many things that are wrong with a knowledge model for the humanities that levels all forms of writing to "grey" literature, a halfway house in publication terms, or information sites to be power-browsed as a good enough indicator of scholarship, thoughtful engagement and professional esteem.

But if the for-free component of open access repositories challenges more than the filters and costs of conventional distribution, if people feel free to take your research, your ideas, without proper reference or attribution, if they believe all debts are already paid (because, as some argue, public taxes subsidised the initial research), how exactly will it work? What credit will be left to us?

In recent decades, academics in the humanities have become ever more marginal figures in the wider cultural conversation. Often we appear wilfully to seek out difficult styles; sometimes we need more commercially attuned writers to help circulate our ideas.

But those who spread ideas must acknowledge the routes they travel. Without that honesty, they deny others their voice. At worst, they impersonate them, stifling the possibility of shared conversations.

The academy depends on the scrupulous acknowledgement of other voices - this is both a basic courtesy and our lifeblood. It is what we still impress upon our students.

Of course, being academics, we are schizophrenic about this issue: we are making it ever easier for our work to be misappropriated, and while there are no robust plans to police electronic repositories and enforce proper usage in public circulation, we are also coming down like a ton of bricks on students we suspect of plagiarism.

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