Monday, July 17, 2006

Karl Weick and I

[Update: there have been some new developments. Read about them here and here.]

When Henrik Graham brought the source of Karl Weick's famous "anecdote of the map" to my attention, we took a close look at it together. Most people are familiar with the story: a detachment of soldiers used a map of the Pyrenees to find their way out of the Alps after a snowstorm. From this Weick famously concludes that "any old map will do" in situations that call for urgent action, and this has become a central tenet of the "sensemaking" approach to organization theory.

But Weick plagiarized the story from a poem written by Miroslav Holub and published in The Times Literary Supplement in 1977. (Holub provides Albert Szent-Györgyi as his source; Weick also plagiarizes this reference but misspells it Szent-Gyorti.) As Henrik and I discovered, Weick has been telling the story the same way since its first appearance in Weick's writing in 1982, and in all cases his method of citation (mostly the lack of any citation) makes it a clear-cut case of plagiarism.

After looking at the issue for some time, and discussing it with peers, we have now published our results in ephemera (volume 6, number 2, link to PDF file here). Ephemera's editors have, to my mind wisely, contacted Weick himself for comment. It appears in the same issue (link to PDF here) and it is an interesting document. I want to take a few moments to note my reactions to it.

The first thing it did was to remind me of the conventional definition of plagiarism, especially as stated by Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb, and Joseph Williams in their widely used manual, The Craft of Research.

You plagiarize when, intentionally or not, you use someone else’s words or ideas but fail to credit that person. You plagiarize even when you do credit the author but use his exact words without so indicating with quotation marks or block indentation. You also plagiarize when you use words so close to those in your source, that if you placed your work next to the source, you would see that you could not have written what you did without the source at your elbow. When accused of plagiarism, some writers claim I must have somehow memorized the passage. When I wrote it, I certainly thought it was my own. That excuse convinces very few. (167)
It uncannily anticipates Weick's account of how the story made it into his own writing.
By the time I began to see the Alps story as an example of cognition in the path of the action, I had lost the original article containing Holub’s poem and I was not even sure where I had read the story. This occurred in the early 1980’s which was quite some time before internet search was a common form of inquiry. I reconstructed the story as best I could. I obviously had no idea whether the reconstruction was close to the original or not since I had no original in hand for comparison.
As Booth et al. point out, this will not convince you if you have both Weick's version and Holub's "at your elbow". Consider:
The lieutenant suffered, fearing that he had dispatched his own people to death. But the third day the unit came back. Where had they been? How had they made their way? Yes, they said, we considered ourselves lost and waited for the end. And then one of us found a map in his pocket. That calmed us down. We pitched camp, lasted out the snowstorm, and then with the map we discovered our bearings. And here we are.

The lieutenant suffered: he had dispatched his own people to death. But the third day the unit came back. Where had they been? How had they made their way? Yes, they said, we considered ourselves lost and waited for the end. And then one of us found a map in his pocket. That calmed us down. We pitched camp, lasted out the snowstorm and then with the map we discovered our bearings. And here we are.

(To emphasize the similarities, I have removed the line breaks from Holub's poem. You can read it in its original form in ephemera.)
It is far more likely that what has happened here is that a word-for-word transcription has found its way into Weick's prose because he forgot to mark it properly in his notes. That's the more common excuse, and it is one that the American Historical Association has apparently grown tired of hearing. Their standards (link here) now clearly say that:
The first line of defense against plagiarism is the formation of work habits that protect a scholar from plagiarism. The plagiarist’s standard defense—that he or she was misled by hastily taken and imperfect notes—is plausible only in the context of a wider tolerance of shoddy work. A basic rule of good note-taking requires every researcher to distinguish scrupulously between exact quotation and paraphrase.
The most disturbing thing about Weick's response to our charges is that he doesn't take them at all seriously in terms of a breach of scholarly standards. In 1990, at roughly the time when a "helpful colleague" pointed out his mistake to him, he won the Academy of Management's Irwin Award for "contributions to scholarship". And yet, this distinguished member of the academic community, when confronted (for at least the second time) with his mistake, boldly declares that, "Other than to insert a footnote saying ‘source unknown’, I would not have done anything different were I in the same position today."

Now, I don't recommend such a method of citation to any of my authors. But Weick here does, which is more than unfortunate and, I think, somewhat shameful. If he had written "source unknown" it would today look like he was outright lying. (I stress the "look like": one of the troubles with plagiarism is that it makes people say the darndest things in their defense. I don't think Weick has really thought this response through and is, as both the AHA and Booth et al. predict, trying to talk his way out of it.)

Weick goes on to make the absurd claim that "I took no credit for inventing or discovering the story, and instead, used it as one among many examples to illustrate [a] general idea," when the truth is that that he in most cases gave no credit for the story (and thus implicitly, by all standards, took it) and in the two cases where he made some acknowledgement, mentions (but does not cite) Albert Szent-Gyorgyi as its "discoverer" or "inventor", Miroslav Holub as its "preserver", but no one (other than himself, by implication) as the story-teller, i.e., the crafter of the particular wording that appears in his text. Interestingly, it is precisely that credit, i.e., for mastery of the art of making "interesting verbal patterns", that Barbara Czarniawska (in Contemporary Organization Theory, eds. Jones and Munro, Blackwell, 2005: 274) has given to Weick. That is his lasting contribution to organization theory.

But the main point here is not which writer deserves credit. Avoiding plagiarism is about being up front with the reader about where your words come from, so that your reader can proceed on the same scholarly basis that you have. Without that respect for your reader, you don't have a serious interest in the academic community. And I think it is that effront to the (very supportive) sensemaking community that really sticks in my craw. In 1990, Weick should have recognized his oversight and made ammends by publicly acknowledging the shortcomings in his citation, ensuring it did not carry over into subsequent reprintings, and (it is odd to have to say this) by not doing it again. Sixteen years ago, he did none of these things.

Weick mistakenly believes that his references to Holub in the 1990 and 1995 appearances of the story are sufficient citation. But as Booth et al. point out:
You plagiarize even when you do credit the author but use his exact words without so indicating with quotation marks or block indentation.
(Weick knows how to do this when quoting Pablo Neruda, for example, in Sensemaking in Organizations, p. 18-20.) The travesty here is that, while Weick may well get away with it, many others will not, including his students. Facing expulsion and, later in life, loss of tenure, they are being given some very bad advice in Weick's response.

Lastly, let me note that "this style of using stories," as Weick puts it, does not "displease" me, as he also puts it, because I "favor other forms of evidence". I simply insist on conventional forms of citation--minimal standards of scholarship.

Thus noted, for the record.


Peter J MELLALIEU said...

I commend this blog entry and the 'ephemera' articles to all scholars and their students. Especially for those teaching research methods, and supervising research. I have enjoyed the instructive dialog between these authors and Weick.

If I may recall my story of how I came upon this blog entry. A friend is about to submit her dissertation. Its first two paragraphs reminded me of the lieutenant's story, Weick's version of which I recalled from reading and using in my strategy teaching in the early 1990s.

Could I find the story and Weick's argument about emergent strategy and 'making do with any old map'? If I'm a lucky old hoarder, the study guides for my students might be in one of several dozen dingy boxes in my basement. However, with the power of Google and the internet, your blog entry was the first in my search list, and my curiosity for your blog was piqued.

So thank you for your delightful scholarship. It is salutary to know that our transgressions - whether accidental or malevolent - will surface somehow and prove a moral lesson to others in most unexpected ways.

Incidentally, several days ago I installed the Zotero citation management system on my Firefox browser. My exercise in following the thread of your blog, articles, and Weick's response has proved an excellent training experience for my use of Zotero. (Zotero is a free, open source citation management system... I highly recommend blog readers exploration, as it integrates nicely into one's Firefox web browser.)

I have, of course, kept a VERY diligent Zotero record of the documents comprising my enquiry.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Thanks. I'm glad to have been of service. Yes, my hope in writing both the paper and the blog post was to save other scholars the trouble we had. We started with the question, "Is the story true?" But had to settle for a detailed answer to the question of where it came from. Over the long term, I do of course hope that our work will change the way the story is taught in strategy courses and organizational development seminars.

Thomas Basbøll said...

And, yes, we do have to do something at the level of instrution in research methods. Like Weick, I "haul this story out every chance I get"!

Peter J MELLALIEU said...

So here is a challenging exercise in web research for y/our students...

Holub prefaces his poem 'Brief Thoughts on Maps' with a note that: "Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, who knew a lot about maps according to which life is on its way somewhere or other, told us this story from the war due to which history is on its way somewhere or other:...".

Your research tasks are:
Find the original story(s) that Szent-Gyorgyi told 'us'

Identify the context in which the story was told. For example who are 'us'? Which war?

Extra for experts: After Szent-Gyorgyi 'self-terminated' his career in the army, he became a politician and scientist. Identify episodes in Szent-Gyorgyi's writings and/or life that illustrate the moral of the story 'Brief Thoughts on Maps'

Thomas Basbøll said...

Well, I'm actually doing some of that research these days. I haven't found anything at all. I've looked at Szent-Gyorgyi's own writings, many of which are available online (though not all in searchable versions).

I'm also tracing the transformations of the story through the strategy literature (builidng on the work we did in our ephemera article). There are some interesting twists (most recently I even found someone who has mildly plagiarized our ephemera piece. Ah, irony!)

BTW, have you noticed that Holub's translator is one of your rather more controversial countrymen?

Thomas Basbøll said...

When I say I haven't found anything at all, I mean that the poem seems to be the source of all accounts of the story. Every mention of it I have found cite either Weick or Holub (or appears in context that make it pretty obvious were it came from). So if your students find something I would be VERY interested to see it.

Peter J MELLALIEU said...

"The thot plickens"...

I have attempted to source the original poem by Holub that perchance Weick happened to view in a university tea room prior to publication of his first (and uncited) reference to the poem in 1983:

Weick, K. E. (1983) ‘Misconceptions about managerial productivity’, Business Horizons, 26(4): 47-52.

Let's suppose Weick read:

Miroslav Holub. (1977, February 4). Brief Thoughts on Maps. Times Literary Supplement (TLS), 118.

A contemporary Google internet search finds plenty of references to the TLS article.

However, I wonder how many of the citators have actually read the TLS article? It is not available online, and the article does not present in a search of the TLS archive. I am sure, of course, you can obtain an interloan copy from your friendly national library.

It is easier to find the poem in one of the English translations from the original Czech. But then you don't have the 'thoughts on maps' that no doubt also inspired Weick .. as indirectly it has inspired myself and many others. (I have not procured the TLS article yet ... I am beginning to suspect that it is the poem alone without commentary.)

For instance, on Amazon there is a collection:
Holub, M. (2007). Poems Before & After (New edition.). Bloodaxe Books.

There are earlier editions, dating back to 1990. I haven't identified when the poem was first published in English. According to the Bloodaxe Books entry, I suspected it could be in:

"translations of his later poetry, all written after 1968, including not only those from his two Bloodaxe editions, 'On the Contrary' (1984) and 'Supposed to Fly' (1996)"
Accessed 09 Feb 2009.

As I read Basboll and Graham (2006) more closely, they infer the poem is in the 1977 collection, 'Notes of a Clay Pigeon' according to their reading of Connolly, 1995.

I note that the poem's translators rarely get cited, Jamila and Ian Milner. Surely they should get a mention!

The plot doth thicken......
My being a New Zealand resident, I am intrigued to note that Ian Milner was born in Oamaru, New Zealand, 1911, and became an Oxford Rhodes Scholar then diplomat, then university professor in Czechoslovakia. There is considerable - and unresolved - debate about whether he was a spy for the Soviet bloc.... the Oxford link to the Cambridge four of Kim Philby and comrades! See: Accessed 09 Feb 2009.

... And as for finding the original Czech version ... or Albert Szent-Gyorgyi's story .... I surrender!

Perhaps this whole story is just a communist plot to undermine the integrity of Western scholarship :)

Thomas Basbøll said...

Yes, that's pretty much where I'm at, Peter. We did get our library to find us a photocopy of the TLS version and, yes, it's just the poem (translated by the Milners). In our ephemera paper we note a few odd transformations of Holub's text in the literature. That's why we have provided the full text of Holub's poem (based on the TLS publication). That way, people can at least get it right if they want to.

We do mention the Milners in our piece. I think it was when we discovered that Weick had plagiarized a translation that we (finally) abandonded the possibility that Holub had in fact plagiarized Weick.

Peter J MELLALIEU said...

An even larger windmill to pursue quixotically ... the citation standards of Harvard Business Review

There is an online reprint of a 2003 Harvard Business Review interview between its editor, Diane Coutu, and Karl Weick in Wired Cottages.

The interview re-presents uncited many stories including the Holub 'Thoughts on maps'. The latter rather paraphrased.

Weick discusses High Reliability Organisations (HROs) - organisations such as nuclear power plants that must operate to the absolute highest standards of safety and reliability. He draws lessons for what others term 'business as usual' (BAU) organisations that attempt to operate using more conventional 'command and control' and 'keep it simple' management systems and cultures.

He notes how successful HROs react very promptly to vague, ambiguous early warning signals that 'something is not right'. Furthermore, staff are trained to collaborate and problem solve in these situations of uncertainty ... and persist until they remove the ambiguity, and implement appropriate action.

The article - presented as an interview - includes no citations and no reference to the Holub poem. In contrast, the article includes a section 'Further reading' in which four of Weick's books are referenced.

Perhaps one might propose that the 'business as usual' Harvard Business Review needs to raise the quality of its citation standards in response to the 'early warning signals' suggested by your own blog and Basboll and Graham's (2006) article in ephemera.... "I could not possibly comment!" Note 1.

Another exercise for students: "apply your detective skills to identify the source and evolution of this story from Coutu's interview with Weick. (I find it appealing in a black comedy kind of way... is it really an 'urban myth'?... or did Weick create it himself? ... or?)

"Let me give you an example. One organization that has struggled with reliability is Union Pacific. Back in the 1990s, the company suffered repeatedly from managerial paralysis - even the employees began to call it the Utterly Pathetic railroad. At that time, the following story started circulating among employees and customers: A locomotive engineer got so fed up with the railroad's incompetence that he decided to commit suicide. So he went outside, lay down on the railroad tracks - and starved to death. That kind of urban myth was a perfect way to express just how frustrated people had become with the railroad not doing anything during a period of intense upheaval." (Cited by Weick, in Coutu, 2003)

Basbøll, T., & Graham , H. (2006). Substitutes for Strategy Research: Notes on the source of Karl Weick’s anecdote of the young lieutenant and the map of the Pyrenees. ephemera: theory & politics in organization, 6(2), 192-204. Retrieved February 8, 2009, from

Coutu, D. L. (2003). Wired Cottages - Sense and Reliability: A Conversation with Celebrated Psychologist Karl E. Weick. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved February 9, 2009, from

Note 1
"I could not possibly comment!". A quote made famous by the actor Sir Ian Richardson as ruthlessly ambitious politician in the BBC television trilogy "The House of Cards"

Thomas Basbøll said...

I don't really see the problem with the interview. One doesn't normally expect footnotes in that context, and in this case Weick actually produces a perfectly good paraphrase. There is still the problem that the story is entirely undocumented (i.e., we don't know whether it's true in the first place), and I suppose "several years ago" is a bit misleading in a 2003 article as it makes the story seem much more recent. But that's just imprecision and we expect that sort of thing in an interview.

The Union Pacific example is just plain weird, though! Here is something that is obviously just a joke (i.e., something no one can possibly have believed) that Weick presents as a "story" (or myth or rumour) that "circulated" in the company. That's pretty odd. It says something Weick's eschewal of what B. Czarniawska calls the "strange logic" of distinguishing between "data" and "anecdote". Is Weick really saying that things got so bad that management actually became the butt of the employees' jokes? That would be a bit like telling a Bush a joke to show how unpopular he had become at the end of his presidency, wouldn't it?

Thanks for the tip, Peter. I may work this into an upcoming article.

Peter J MELLALIEU said...

Thank you for the dialog. I have not enjoyed such a stimulating dialog in a long time ... and certainly not by blog. A most rewarding experience.

As for: "That would be a bit like telling a Bush a joke to show how unpopular he had become at the end of his presidency, wouldn't it?" ... "I could not possibly comment" ... except that I might add, in contrast to the employees of Union Pacific, Bush would not understand the joke.