Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Pattern of Injuries

The careful scholar might worry about plagiarism. Replicating another's work is plagiarism, which is a serious offense because it erodes the trust necessary for scholarly conversation to take place.

Anne S. Huff
Writing for Scholarly Publication, p. 56.

The first three pages of Karl Weick's Sensemaking in Organizations replicates substantial parts of Ron Westrum's "Social Intelligence About Hidden Events" (Science Commmunication, 1982 3(3), pp. 381-400). Because Westrum's name is mentioned seven times in the course of only three pages, with four specific citations, we are likely to think he has been given more than enough credit for his contribution. Weick certainly doesn't seem to have been trying to hide anything.

In this post, I want to show that Weick's referencing is nonetheless inadequate. First, let me summarize the passage in question with an emphasis on what Weick does and does not cite Westrum for.

After the opening paragraph that I covered in my last post, Weick cites Westrum in the second paragraph in order to define "battered child syndrome" (BCS), correctly citing a specific page.

The third, fourth and fifth paragraphs are devoted to the history of BCS. Weick's account appears to be well-versed in the clinical literature, mentioning a central article by John Caffey, along with contributions by Silverman and Wooley and Evans. He describes these articles in various degrees of detail. He also tells us about a 1961 meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a subsequent editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Here he is even able to emphasize the crucial introduction of "data from a national survey of 77 district attorneys and 71 hospitals" which yielded 749 cases of BCS (p. 2). It is only in the last of these paragraphs, when noting the reaction of the public, that Weick finally mentions Westrum again (and again citing a specific page), this time as the source of estimates of the prevalence of BCS in the U.S. between 1967 and 1976 (p. 2).

Weick now goes on to defend the idea that BCS constitutes "an instance of sensemaking" by redescribing the events in terms of the "seven properties of sensemaking" that will be presented in greater detail in Chapter 2. His argument here is that if the story of BCS can be told in terms of these properties then it involves sensemaking. Along the way he invokes Westrum's "fallacy of centrality", quoting at some length (p. 2-3).

He next moves on to the question of how this counts as organizational sensemaking and presents some normative suggestions about "incentives for reporting anomalies and penalties for non-reporting" (p. 3). He closes the section by noting the importance of deploying an effective symbol: "battered child", he points out, "evokes a graphic picture of parents beating and killing their children" (p. 4).

All in all, Westrum is credited with the definition of BCS, a set of statistics, "the fallacy of centrality", and the phrase "uncorrected observations from experience" (which is actually a misquote). But everything except the redescription as sensemaking and the gesture at organization can be found, often using very similar wording, in Westrum's article. All the scholarship and most (I'm inclined to say all) of the analysis of BCS research has been carried out by Westrum.

Let's look at some examples. On page 387, Westrum writes:

The public reaction was immediate. Newspapers, magazines, and professional journals printed articles on the problem and stirred up medical and public opinion, leading within a few years to laws requiring reporting of apparent cases of BCS in all the 50 states.

On page 2 of his book, Weick writes:

Public reaction was prompt, and within a few years, laws in all 50 states required that suspected cases of BCS had to be reported.

Two more sentences of statistics now follow:

By 1967, when better reporting channels had been established, it was estimated that tthere were 7,000 cases. This estimate climbed to 60,000 by 1972 and to 500,000 by 1976.

Here Weick references (notice that he has not quoted) Westrum's paper on page 392, which reads:

In 1967 when the reporting channels were better established, one epidemiologist estimated a total of about 7,000 reports (Gil, 1968). In 1972 this figure had reached 60,000, and by 1976 it passed 500,000 (Sheils et al., 1977).

As we try to decide whether this paraphrase is too close for comfort, let's not forget that the sentence about the public reaction immediately before it was not referenced at all.

Here's another example. Weick does not once refer to Westrum's recommendation on page 395, which reads:

The most desirable system as far as information is concerned would be one in which there would be positive incentives to report or penalties for nonreporting by qualified observers, as in the case of the battered child syndrome today.

But he does offer a suggestion of his own, as it were; namely,

Organizations stay tied together by means of controls in the form of incentives and measures. This suggests that incentives for reporting anomalies, or penalties for nonreporting, should affect sensemaking.

Even the word "anomalies" belongs more to Westrum's article than Weick's chapter.

Finally, what about Weick's observation of the "graphic picture of parents beating and killing their children"? Westrum is given no credit at all for it, even though he writes the following on page 398 (my underlining):

Caffey certainly recognized the problem for what it was, but he was reluctant to come out in print and say unambiguously that parents were beating and killing their children (cf. Miller, 1959: 1209). The reason for this diffidence is not clear; but there is no question that the graphic label "battered-child syndrome" did much to persuade the public (and probably physicians as well) that there was a definite problem to be faced (Silverman, 1972).

We could perhaps take any one of these examples as an isolated anomaly if they were separated by ten or fifteen pages of independent, discursive prose and involved multiple sources. Gathered together on barely three pages at the beginning of a book and drawn from only one source, however, they suggest something we might call "shoddy work syndrome", to borrow an epithet from the American Historical Association's professional standards. There is now talk of a systematic pattern of scholarly offenses.

Ironically, Westrum defines the battered child syndrome as "a pattern of injuries" that go unreported for a long time and then turn up only under the close scrutiny of X-rays. At first, researchers like Caffey thought parents may simply not have "fully appreciated the seriousness of the injuries" (in Weick's paraphrase) but they soon began to suspect "intentional ill-treatment" (Westrum, p. 386). It's a bit like that here. At first, one simply thinks, "It can't be, therefore it isn't." In this spirit, perhaps, I still believe that Weick just doesn't understand the seriousness of proper citation.

Tomorrow I will offer some suggestions about how to avoid the charges I am making here. Here, again, I like the American Historical Association's attitude: it's about protecting you from this kind of charge, it's about "the formation of work habits that protect a scholar from plagiarism". It is also about not misleading the reader. Finally, of course, it is about giving due credit to thorough scholarship like that done by Ron Westrum.

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