Welcome to BiblioTech – the podcast about emerging technologies for academics. Your host is Rochelle Mazar, an emerging technologies librarian at the University of Toronto Mississauga.
Every month you can listen in as Rochelle talks about what’s new in technology and what academics should be paying attention to. It’s hard to keep up with all of the new software, tools and gadgets. That’s where Rochelle comes in.
Episode 17 – Citation and social media
In this episode Rochelle looks at what social media can teach us about plagiarism and citation. (Running time: 14:18 mins).
If you’d like to get in touch with Rochelle about something you heard in the podcast, please
leave a comment at the bottom of this page.
This episode features the following Creative Commons music and sound effects:
- How it begins (theme music) by Kevin MacLeod, Incomptech
Welcome to episode 17 of BiblioTech – the podcast about emerging technologies for academics.
What do Twitter, Tumblr and citations have in common?
In this episode I look at what social media can teach us about plagiarism and citation.
Citation used to make sense. When you had to walk into a library, find a run of a journal in the stacks, pull the bound volume listing the right year off the shelf, flip through to find the specific issue, and then get to the page number for the article you’re looking for, it made sense to record that journey as a citation at the bottom of a page. A citation is literally the directions to retrace your steps and find the source you’re using. You know, as you’re walking through the library scanning rows and rows of spines storing thousands and thousands of articles, that without that citation information, without those precise directions, you’d never be able to find that quotation again.
But students don’t take that journey anymore. Doing research, especially for undergrads, consists entirely of sitting down at a computer, going to Google Scholar, typing in a subject, and scanning the results. Scholarship doesn’t exist between book covers anymore, nor does it exist as issues of a journal you can leaf through. For students entering university today, peer reviewed material just appears as hits in a list, just like any other search results do. It might be a book, a thesis, or an article, but they all look pretty much the same. It’s as if all this material is bound in a single volume called Google, dated today.
We didn’t help make the distinction between web sites and academic materials any clearer when we digitized everything we could get our hands on. At one point there was a clear distinction: there’s trusted material in your library, and then the crazy, wild, wooly web that you could never be sure about, but most of it was probably lies. But now you can search Google for websites or for serious academic articles. You can read entire academic books through Google. There are some very well-regarded journals that exist only on the web, and never come into the library in physical sense at all.
To the untrained eye, all this content looks pretty much the same. If you want to quote a website, you put the web address as the citation; that makes perfect sense. You find that quote again by clicking on the link. Many students find all kinds of great, relevant, academic material through Google Scholar or their library’s series of databases, and they figure you can find the text they quoted if they give you the link to it. Like every other web page. Everything else in their browser works that way. Unfortunately the link they give you is usually massive and unstable, so you can click on it but it won’t go anywhere. So instructors get frustrated that students didn’t read the instructions on how to cite academic materials. But it’s frustrating on both sides; it seems obvious to us that you need to cite an article as a published work, with a regular citation, and you don’t need to add the link from your browser’s navigation bar to make it a correct citation, but the concept of a published work as distinct from any other kind of reliable web content is rapidly becoming a broken metaphor. There are databases, there are websites, there are journals. An article is in fact a web object with web id. It’s also published scholarship that belongs to an issue and to a journal. Everyone’s right, and no one is happy.
So even constructing a citation is becoming confusing now that scholarship is increasingly digital. Maybe it should be confusing; maybe we shouldn’t do it at all – it’s machine work. It really is: constructing the map back to where something came from is easy work for machines, and we should probably just let them take care of it. A machine knows what kind of document it is, who wrote it, and what citation style this instructor or this journal prefers. In the future, I’m quite sure you’ll add a citation just by hovering over it in e-reader, or it will come along into your manuscript when you copy and paste it. We won’t worry about commas and italics in the future; formatting is for machines to take care of. They’ll get it right every time.
But there’s more to it than that; how do we communicate when you’re meant to cite things in the first place? It’s relatively easy when you’re quoting someone. We all know you need to cite a quotation. We cite quotations on tattoos and t-shirts, we get that part. But what about ideas? It all comes back to our constant conversations plagiarism, and making it clear to students when they’re meant to cite something and when it’s okay not to. I’ve seen this explained dozens of different ways, framed largely in terms of violation, theft, or credibility. Behind it all there’s the hovering threat of being accused of academic dishonesty if you get it wrong. There’s a lot of confusion on this point; when, where, and how should undergraduate students cite what they’ve read? It’s as if we’re treading new ground with them, isn’t it? As if students have no concept at all about what it means to produce work that builds on the work of others.
But that’s not actually true. Not at all. Most undergraduate students entering universities now know exactly how to cite what they read and create new things out of what they’ve read. And know how to do it in a variety of ways, depending on the context. They know how to abide by the rules of the culture in which they find themselves. They know exactly why you shouldn’t publish something based on someone else’s work without giving credit to the original author. I know they understand all of this quite well, because they do it all the time on social media. Citation is framed in metaphors on social media that are not broken.
When Twitter first hit the scene, there was no way to retweet things. All it let users do officially was post 140 characters. But the sense that you don’t copy someone else’s words without citing them was so strong in the user base that the users themselves invented a way to cite each other: you’d paste the tweet you liked, but you’d include the username of the person who said it first, which turned into a link, and you indicated it was a quote with the abbreviation RT (for retweet). That way the attribution was clear, and it allowed others to track back to the original tweeter and tweet. It’s a citation, and it was immediately clear how and when to use it.
Over time the retweet custom became institutionalized, and Twitter built in a function to automatically retweet tweets along with a complete citation back not only to the user who said it, but to the tweet itself. Twitter now has a simple button that creates a complete, perfect, formatted, crystal clear citation so that users can share what they think is funny or pithy or true without ever treading down the path of plagiarizing anyone. Ask students what they think of someone tweeting someone’s terrific tweet as a paste, without attribution, without retweeting. They will probably articulate everything you want to say about why it’s important to cite the authors of the academic work they read.
Another terrific example of baked-in citation in social media is the reblogging function on Tumblr. If you’re not already familiar with Tumblr, here’s a quick summary: Tumblr is a blogging platform where users follow each other, as they do on Twitter, and the Tumblr interface, called the dashboard, shows you all the posts the your followers are posting. What Tumblr does that’s really different is that it provides essentially no mechanism to leave comments on posts by others. You can’t just comment. If you want to engage with someone else’s work, you have to take that content and post it on your own blog. At first it seems like the opposite of what we’re trying to get across when it comes to plagiarism and original work, doesn’t it, but it gets more complicated.
The custom on Tumblr is to reblog things you see that you like, or want to talk about. But reblogging it doesn’t just add the content to your blog; it maintains the history of the content, showing you where it started, and where you got it from, and all the steps in between. When you post something and someone else reblogs it, you get a notification, and everyone who looks at your original post will see all the notifications indicating who reblogged it, who reblogged it and added commentary or images, and who liked the post. So you, as the original poster, gathers all this feedback and attention for every time someone else reblogs your work. Each post becomes a kind of collaborative portfolio of all the people who had something to say about it, or thought it was noteworthy. You can click through the whole history of the post and see it grow and change as commentary and reaction gifs get added to it. Someone reblogging your post isn’t stealing your content, their amplifying your signal, giving you attention, and increasing a little number in the corner that gives you a sense of how popular a post is. Does this sound familiar?
Tumblr is like scholarly communication on red bull and speed, and with animated gifs. Each post has its impact metric baked right in.
It’s utterly fascinating. I know Tumblr has a reputation for being fairly silly, but look at it from the perspective of plagiarism and citation, as a space where people collaboratively build things and expect to have their contribution noted. Someone posts something, another person reblogs it with a funny caption, another person creates a series of animated gifs to articulate their reaction to the image and the caption, other people make jokes or comments as tags on the post, and all of that work can be seen as a whole, or you can peel the layers back and see it’s whole history, all its versions. Everyone who contributes is cited, right there in every version of the post. The system as it’s built is allowing all that citation to happen with the way it tracks who added what and maintaining all the links to the originals. But in the end, it’s the user base that uses those tools, and it’s the users and who enforce their use.
One of the most fascinating things I’ve ever seen is what happens on Tumblr if a blogger takes another blogger’s content and blogs it as if it’s original instead of reblogging it the way you’re meant to. Doing that breaks the chain of notifications, and removes the contributions of those whose ideas it’s built on. It’s plagiarism. On some level, on the individual blog, it doesn’t look that different, but it cuts the original author off from getting feedback, getting credit, and notifications about their own content. It halts the impact metric on the original post from going higher. And Tumblr bloggers get very upset about it. It’s anathema. This is ostracization level stuff. Tumblr users will shame each other into deleting reposted material. They will form mobs and raise the alarm that someone has done the wrong thing. Plagiarism is not okay on Tumblr, not citing the work that inspired you is not okay, and those bloggers, most of them under the age of 22, will make sure you know it.
Maybe it’s time we started to talk about citation in terms of retweeting and reblogging. Not just because that’s the language that undergrads understand these days; but because those metaphors are more in keeping with the forms our work now takes. Scholarship is living, digital material now. It’s escaped from between the covers of all those books in the stacks. Maybe it’s time our metaphors around plagiarism and citation did the same.
That’s it for this episode. Do you think it’s time to reframe the citation discussion? Let us know by posting a comment at the bottom of this podcast’s page at University Affairs dot CA. Until next time, I’m Rochelle Mazar.