The Digital Humanities as Accidental Plagiarism

Karl Grossner, my colleague here at Stanford who I work with supporting digital humanities research, got a chance to read my previous post on geospatial information visualization. Karl’s got a PhD in geography and a bit of experience with geospatial information visualization as well as spatial thinking, so I was looking forward to his response to my essay. That is, until I heard his response.

“I liked it, but I was surprised by the fact that I wrote the first two paragraphs,” is not what one wants to hear about their writing. That initial piece of writing, I was reminded, was a draft abstract for a paper Karl and I had considered writing for DH13, but abandoned in favor of different proposals. The topic came from a presentation that I’d put together and presented at an earlier conference for which I had produced the maps and interactive application put forth in the post.

As anyone who found out on a chilly Monday morning that he was a plagiarist would do, I thought this would make an interesting topic to explore on the very same blog where I had done the deed.

While Karl laughed it off, I naturally found it very disconcerting. The chain of custody on the writing is, like many digital documents, quite messy: it went from a Word document to an OpenOffice document to a Google Drive document to a WordPress blog post, and in between transformed from an abstract for a paper that was abandoned into a more informal short essay about the same subject matter. By the time it was a months-old chunk of text on Google Drive, I’d forgotten that I hadn’t written it, and proceeded to explore the topic as if I had.

Probably more strange to an academic audience is that while I find it disconcerting, I’m not very surprised by it. That sounds more flippant than it really is, but I just cannot imagine how the constant collaboration and repurposing of code, text, designs, and data won’t create more situations like this. But there’s something about text, and not just in humanities scholarship, where reuse and mashing up does not occur quite so easily as with the rest. Plagiarism comes from the Latin plagiarius–literally a kidnapper–and carries with it a heavier condemnation than the use of some technique to represent data that was pioneered by one researcher without reference to that researcher, or the use of some small function in a larger piece of code, or the use of data without citing the provider of the data.

It’s my feeling that as we struggle with properly assigning credit for work done on large, collaborative projects, that the overwhelming ease and amount of collaboration will make it harder and harder to parse just where and how an idea came into existence and who and what described it. The only thing I feel I can do is that in those situations where I forget to do so is to immediately point it out when it’s happened, no matter how¬†embarrassing¬†it may be.



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