Thursday, February 21, 2008

Making Sense of Paraphrasing

It's not just about putting it differently; it is about putting it in your own words. Paraphrase is not the art of using another scholar's ideas without being accused of plagiarism. It is about legitimately using another's research to your own ends. This assumes something very important, namely, that you have your own reasons to write about the subject.

Reading those opening pages of Sensemaking in Organizations we at first think that Weick wants us to know about battered-child syndrome in its details. We believe him about these details because we have no reason not to and he seems to know what he's talking about. How else could he know all those facts? (This is a bit like that amusing anecdote about a drug deal, except that the ruse is discovered. We're not going to swear by Weick ever again.)

For as we get to the end of the section we see that the details didn't matter at all. In some cases, they were even a bit odd. It is certainly not clear why he wanted us to know so much about BCS except, perhaps, that he wanted us to think he knows a whole lot about it.

If you look closely you can see how things go awry for Weick because he is paraphrasing with the sole aim of saying the same thing as Westrum using different words. After quoting Westrum's definition of BCS, Weick continues as follows:

The injuries can often be seen only in X rays, which explains, in part, why it took so long for this syndrome to be recognized by the medical community and eventually outlawed by every legislature in the union. (Weick 1995, p. 1)

This sentence is an attempt to paraphrase the content of two sentences on page 386 of Westrum's paper:

Beginning as uncorrelated observations, the "symptoms" of the BCS became increasingly recognized, if somewhat controversial, in the medical community and, following a public furor, became the basis for legislation in every state in the union. ... In many cases the injuries may be visible only on X-ray photographs, a factor that contributed to delay the initial recognition of the BCS and also contributed to the skepticism of pediatricians that the injuries had really occurred or were the result of parental assaults. (Westrum 1982, p. 386)

The sentence about the X-ray photographs actually follows right after the definition quoted by Weick and he therefore, properly speaking, fails to cite Westrum for the idea (the reference gives credit for the quoted material, not the elaboration that follows).

He also fails to cite Westrum about the enactment of legislation. But because he is trying to say it using different words, he makes an additional mistake, ultimately saying something that is actually nonsense. Westrum tells us that the symptoms of the syndrome became the basis of legislation. Weick finds himself saying that the syndrome was outlawed. What could this mean? It was now illegal to have the symptoms? To diagnose them as BCS? This is not the writing of someone who has gained mastery of the subject.

So should Weick simply have left this whole topic alone? No. He found a well-researched paper on an interesting topic that bore upon issues he had been thinking about himself. Worries about plagiarism should not frighten anyone away from reading other people's work. What lessons, then, can be learned from all this?

Well, beyond getting the work of others right and referencing it properly, I can make some suggestions at a perhaps deeper level. Avoid writing any passage of prose simply to get the reader to believe something another researcher has discovered. In academic scholarship there is an implicit assumption that things are either known or not known. If they are known then your reader in principle also knows. Don't insult your reader by informing them about something they could have read somewhere else. Just mention that all the facts are available in that other place. Scholars will know how to find them. Spend your effort telling the reader what you want to do with these facts.

Jonathan already pointed this out in his comment to yesterday's post. "When another scholar has done a significant amount of one's work already," he also said, "then that provides an opportunity to take things to the next level." Faced with an interesting idea, we might say, the plagiarist laments not having thought of it first instead of celebrating not having to come up with it himself. He offers neither himself nor his reader the opportunity to take anything to another level.

Only laypeople (readers of what Nabokov rightly called "topical trash" and "illustrated ideas") aren't interested in the next level. (We are all trashy laypeople on topics where the next level is of no interest to us.) Weick has in fact mistakenly put himself in the role of a popularizer of Westrum's ideas. He does not imagine that his readers might want to converse with Westrum; he is not bringing battered-child syndrome into the conversation. He thinks that transferring knowledge from the sociology of science to organization studies is a mere matter of relating what is known in one field to those working in another. He is not talking to peers but to laypeople.

But Weick's misunderstanding of interdisciplinarity in this case is worth a post of its own (much later). In an important sense, neither Weick nor his reader knows anything about BCS by the top of page 4. Knowledge is always part of a conversation. And here let us end with another nod to Anne Huff's very useful manual.

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