Sunday, June 03, 2007

The ethics of citation

I’m sure we’re all familiar with unpublished papers that being something like ‘draft only – please don’t quote or cite without permission’. I’ve started papers that way myself. But then I started to think that maybe this isn’t okay. So: here’s the case against – I’d like to know what people think of this.

Suppose you’ve given a novel argument for p. Suppose this good argument inspires me to give a new argument for q. My argument for q builds upon your argument for p – the argument won’t work without citing the results of your argument. If your paper begins with ‘don’t quote or cite without permission’ then you are now effectively holding me hostage. I can’t publish my new argument without plagiarising your argument. Given that I’m not going to do that, I have no choice but to hold off doing anything with my new idea until you publish your paper. (I’m assuming your permission is withheld – which must be a serious option, otherwise why write the command in the first place?) Your argument might have completely altered my way of approaching a topic – so now all my new work has to remain on hold. What happens if you change your mind about your argument and decide it shouldn’t be published? I still can’t take credit for having that idea myself, so unless you give me permission am I never to publish the ideas your original idea sparked in me?

Imagine if Kaplan had started ‘Demonstratives’ that way, or if Kripke had placed that restriction on his Locke lectures. All the great literature that those papers spawned whilst circulating unpublished would have had to remain unpublished.

I’m tempted to think that if you put a paper up on the web, that’s to put it in the public domain, and it’s no more appropriate to place a citation restriction on such a paper than it is on a paper published in a print journal. I’m even tempted to think that conference presentations can be freely cited; i.e.that I shouldn’t have to seek Xs permission to refer in one of my papers to the presentation X gave. Papers circulated by e-mail to a small group of people seem to be a slightly different case – but even then the above argument bothers me.

On the other hand, I think it would be a real shame if the tendency to circulate draft papers or put them on-line was diminished by people being worried their ideas would be cited before they’re fully developed.

So, basically, I don’t know what to think. What do other people think?

UPDATE: Brian has a discussion of this over at tar.

UPDATE 2: Brian initiated a discussion of this at crooked timber, too: lots of interesting discussion.


Carrie Jenkins said...

Yeah, it's a tough one, isn't it?

I've experienced both sides of the problem - been left sitting on my own stuff while waiting for other people to publish theirs, and had unpublished stuff borrowed without permission from an online draft.

My considered opinion is that permission should be required in order to cite unpublished material (at least, if the author has asked that permission be sought first), *but also* that it ought to be regularly given. To facilitate this, it should be cited in sensitive ways which do not make the original stuff unpublishable or obsolete, and (it goes without saying) with due acknowledgement. If this is not possible I think a ban on citations is fair, at least for a while, to give the author a chance to publish. But maybe there should be a time limit ... sitting on something for years and holding up important developments in a field isn't good.

Aidan said...

There's also a worry that these kinds of considerations also apply to things people have said in conversation and the like, and there we are, I take it, even less prone to thinking that it's ok to cite. One just needs to read the first few pages of the preface to Dummett's 'The Seas of Language' to see what a mess that can develop into.

Robbie Williams said...

I guess I've got a lot of sympathy for the "if it's on a website, it's in the public domain and should be fair game" line.

I guess there's citations and citations. If an unpublished work is the focus of a paper, or a section of a paper, then that's one issue: I do think that it'd be polite to contact the author if nothing else.

But what if you want to do one of those "other people have thought about this stuff too" footnotes, where really you're not reporting the content, but giving readers a guide to some interesting further reading. I really can't see a problem with that sort of citing (and most of the time I find myself wanting to cite unpublished stuff, it's in this sort of way).

By the way, since we're on a weblog, what about citations in e-forums, in talks, on websites like this?

Ross Cameron said...

I think you should be able to cite blogs and the like without permission. Of course, most of the time, one doesn't want to :-) (Except with MV, of course!)

Robbie Williams said...

I was wondering about whether it's ok to cite unpublished online papers in a talk or electronic forum, rather than citation of weblogs or whatever (TAR had a bunch of stuff a while back about the etiquette of blogging about talks and conversations).

My intuitions are that it's positively good for someone's work to be discussed in this way... and totally ok to do so if they've put the relevant material up online in a publically accessible way, and you link to it.

I think a lot of this has to do what one counts as prestige-markers. In some disciplines, the extent of citations is really important. That is rarely mentioned in philosophy (partly because we lack a decent citation database). But also I get the feeling that what counts as an esteem-marker varies across the discipline: getting publications in high-rep journals is high in people's consciousness at the moment, but it's not a priori obvious to me that the whole profession thinks like that, or that it is the best esteem marker. As I say, extent of citations seems equally important (over the long term), though of course just as there can be good papers in poor journals, there can be excellent papers that people somehow miss.

If we put more emphasis on those sort of factors as marks of esteem, maybe people wouldn't worry so much about their ideas being discussed (with due acknowledgement).

To be honest, the only decent case I see for putting restrictions on the citation of stuff that people have put online is if it damaged the prospects of that person getting that piece published. I'm not sure there's as much danger of that as people sometimes suggest.

It goes without saying that unacknowledged lifting of material is clearly a bad thing, and if someone has put a note on their paper asking you to contact them before citing, then it's probably only polite to do so. (But people should also remember that in lots of cases, people might not have a copy in front of them when citing it, and so might just not recall there was such a note attached to it.

Anonymous said...

I'm not from a field that has such notes, but I think you're simply mistaken to consider the possibility of permission being withheld. As a number of people said on the crooked timber thread, the point is for you to check for a latest version. Perhaps it means something else in philosophy, but you can't figure out what it means by just looking at the words.

Also, it seems absurd that someone can tell you an idea, and then prevent you from using it. Perhaps they can refuse you permission to cite or quote a particular document, but you can always just cite the person. (Citing a conference talk is not so different from citing a person, since the reader cannot look up the talk.)

In my field, people might get upset that an idea be developed further before the originator was done with it, but no one would call that plagiarism.

Ross Cameron said...

I wasn't suggesting that was plagiarism, or would be thought of as akin to plagiarism. I think some people would be upset because their idea becomes outdated.

I think it is a genuine possibility that permission is withheld - I don't think the request is just elliptical for 'please check the latest draft': but perhaps those in philosophy who make the request can step in here and say what they meant by it.

One of my best friends from high school was called Douglas Knight. But his field is now renting out videos, so I doubt you're him. But it was a nice reminder anyway. :-)

Ross Cameron said...

For the record, as a result of the various discussions this prompted around the web, my view is now the following:

Adding that request at the top of your paper is permissible provided that there's a general convention that permission will be given provided the reader wants to cite from the latest version.

However: *if* what people intend to convey by 'please don't cite without permission' is 'please check with me that you have the latest version before citing' then I still think it would just be easier for everyone if they simply said *that*!

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