A couple of weeks ago I noticed on my twitter feed someone – let’s call them Tweeter A – being advised by Tweeter B to ‘check out the original’. The original happened to be a writing strategy taken from Barbara’s and my recent book about publishing. It turned out that Tweeter B had used our writing strategy and acknowledged the source in a presentation on academic writing. However Tweeter A, a doctoral researcher, had attributed the strategy to Tweeter B, because that’s where they’d first heard it. So Tweeter B steered the doctoral researcher to the source of the workshop material. At the same time, Tweeter B was also providing a lesson in ‘citing it right’.
And a while ago I also noticed that one blogger, let’s call them Blogger A, had written a post in which they referred to one of the metaphors Barbara and I use as a strategy to get to grips with literature work. It was acknowledged appropriately and the post linked to our first book. That was great and we were duly pleased – that’s why we write the books, to get the stuff out there and used. (Heaven knows we don’t make any money out of writing them – if only.) But then I spotted only this week a post by Blogger B. Blogger B had referred to our metaphor and attributed it to Blogger A, and not to us.
In both instances the problem was the same. Tweeter A and Blogger B had committed what is known as a MISATTRIBUTION.
A misattribution arises when you attribute something to the wrong person. It often occurs when you are CITING A CITATION.
Misattribution is often a problem in theses and journal articles. Let me give you a couple of examples. A writer might attribute an idea like ‘emotional labour’ to a recent article that they’ve read on service workers. However the article’s author has actually read the primary material, and attributed the general ideas of ‘emotional labour’ and ‘greedy institutions’ to Hochschild (Hochschild, 1983) and Coser (Coser, 1974). The writer in question however only cited the citation, and not the original source.
Mis-citing citations is particularly obvious when the idea is really really well known – say when someone attributes the idea of ‘the Panopticon’ and the ‘surveillance’ of modern life to a recent text in which someone is citing and working with Foucault (Foucault, 1977). (Of course Foucault was himself using the work of Bentham and if it is only the Panopticon that is discussed then the citation really ought to go back to that primary source.) Failing to recognize that panoptic surveillance is a very well known theory which emanates from Foucault actually says a lot about the writer who is misattributing. It suggests that they are not very well read.
Misattribution is actually pretty common, and it doesn’t do anyone any favours.
The originator of the material misses out having their contribution recognized. In these times when citations count, this can be a serious issue. Misattribution can cost the scholar who isn’t cited. So in an audit context, an omission via a misattribution could well constitute what Thesis Whisperer might suggest is academic asshole behaviour.
The person who cited correctly has been misread by the misattributor. They are credited with an idea that is not their’s and that it was not their intention to steal – which is what the misattribution could be seen to imply if the reader of the misattributor’s text doesn’t go back to the secondary source to see where the chain of misattribution starts.
However, the most serious consequences come to the person who doesn’t cite it right. Readers who know the correct attribution will assume that the misattributor is either just being lazy and can’t be bothered to go back to the primary source – or they haven’t actually read the material they are citing properly. Whichever of these is assumed by their reader, the misattribution will be put down to sloppy scholarship, and that then throws the rest of the misattributor’s work into doubt.
Sometimes, of course, the misattribution is just a simple and unintended oversight, and a simple email to ask that it be fixed is sufficient. That’s what happened with me and Blogger B. I emailed, pointed out the slip and they fixed it. So that’s the other thing about at least some misattributions, particularly in social media, they can be rectified without much trouble.
But there IS a lot at stake in attribution. The message therefore is – cite it right!! Attributing to the primary source is not just about doing the right thing as in the correct thing to do, it’s also about doing the ethical thing by acknowledging the contribution that was originally made.
Coser, L. A. (1974). Greedy institutions. Patterns of undivided commitment. New York: The Free Press.
Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish. The birth of the prison (A. Sheridan, Trans. 1991 ed.). London: Penguin.
Hochschild, A. (1983). The managed heart: Commercialisation of human feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.