— Cultural Sources of Newness

Sources desired!

Sometimes the obvious has to be stated: sources are not just desirable, they are essential if we want to generate something identifiably new. At least in the academic world. Just what this means was the subject of a seminar on Plagiarism and the scientific process at the WZB last week, well led by an international expert in the field of good scientific practice, Debora Weber-Wulff (HTW Berlin).

Debora Weber-Wulff at WZB

Debora Weber-Wulff at WZB seminar March 20 2015

She covered a lot of territory in two hours, which this blogpost is not designed to replicate! See her book and blogsite (copy-shake-paste-blogspot.com) instead. Here are just a few points that struck me.

False Feathers, by Debora Weber-Wulff

Interestingly, the group of participants was quite small (ca 15 people) but very mixed and they came for diverse reasons. My interpretation is: the topic is multifaceted and relevant across the population of the academic world, but not enough members of this community are investing the time to learn about it. For example,

  • Young scholars wanted to know–provocatively formulated!–“how sloppy can I be?
  • A translator/technical editor wanted to learn about how to identify problems she might come across in her work on a text
  • Post-docs wanted to address (a) the topic of self-plagiarism, and (b) plagiarism in student papers
  • Librarians came to share their experience, e.g., with search engines.

Debora Weber-Wulff’s main messages on these topics were about how to assure transparency of sources in one’s own writing. She discussed various sites to help track down plagiarized texts, and provided many examples of texts she has examined, and gave a link to a VroniPlag Wiki tool for comparing texts. She has reviewed many plagiarism detection tools (see her copy shake paste blog for a review), and emphasized that such software cannot be relied on to solve the problem: schools and universities need to train future academics in good scientific practice from the outset.

She also addressed a topic that no one had mentioned at the outset, namely how to decide on co-authorship. Her presentation of the Vancouver Protocol offered a clear guideline (see note at the end of this article for key points I extracted from the protocol). It rejects the still rampant practice of authorship-by-status.

Vancouver protocol on authorship: summary by Debora Weber-Wulff

Vancouver protocol on authorship: summary by Debora Weber-Wulff

Particularly in a blog about cultural sources of newness it is quite depressing to write about problematic practices that continue to impede the generation of real new ideas. But if we don’t have the courage to talk about the problems in our community, and do not take the time to learn how to eradicate them, why write at all?

For readers who need summary notes from the Vancouver protocol, here are notes I extracted:

Secondary publication in the same or another language, especially in other
countries, is justifiable, and can be beneficial, provided all of the following
conditions are met.
1. The authors have received approval from the editors of both journals; the editor
concerned with secondary publication must have a photocopy, reprint, or manuscript
of the primary version.
2. The priority of the primary publication is respected by a publication interval of
at least one week (unless specifically negotiated otherwise by both editors).
3. The paper for secondary publication is intended for a different group of readers;
an abbreviated version could be sufficient.
4. The secondary version faithfully reflects the data and interpretations of the
primary version.
5. The footnote on the title page of the secondary version informs readers, peers,
and documenting agencies that the paper has been published in whole or in part and
states the primary reference.
A suitable footnote might read: "This article is based on a study first reported in
the [title of journal, with full reference]."

and about (co-)authorship:
All persons designated as authors should qualify for authorship. Each author should
have participated sufficiently in the work to take public responsibility for the
Authorship credit should be based only on substantial contributions to 1) conception
and design, or analysis and interpretation of data; and to 2) drafting the article
or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and on 3) final
approval of the version to be published. Conditions 1, 2, and 3 must all be met.
Participation solely in the acquisition of funding or the collection of data does
not justify authorship. General supervision of the research group is not sufficient
for authorship. Any part of an article critical to its main conclusions must be the
responsibility of at least one author.
Editors may ask authors to describe what each contributed; this information may be