Friday, October 31, 2008

Some Thoughts on Plagiarism

Most people know that I am very interested in the issue of plagiarism. There are many reasons for this, some principled, some more accidental. Today, I want to put some of these thoughts down.

First, plagiarism is an important concern in second language writing instruction. Attitudes toward plagiarism, it turns out, are culturally conditioned, so that students and researchers who started in non-Western educational systems sometimes don't understand the importance of proper citation. Also, even once this is understood, copying the exact words of an English-language source is, of course, easier than putting it in your own. The temptation for second-language users to plagiarize is therefore, at least arguably, higher.

My allegorical notion of research "as a second language" offers a way of transferring this point as well. Some fields are less persnickety about citation than others, and some scholars got their start as writers well outside the academic community. They therefore bring attitudes and habits with them that may not be acceptable in their chosen "second language", their new research idiom. Also, as fields previously dominated by "scientific" styles of writing move towards more "literary" modes, some writers seem to be taking a great deal of "poetic license" in regard to academic standards. We need to keep in mind that the standards we apply to a great poet like Shakespeare cannot be directly transferred to a scholar at the start of her career.

Unfortunately, well-established scholars appear to get away with plagiarism much more easily than students. That is in part more an appearance than a reality. Many more students than scholars plagiarize; not all of them get caught and some are let off without any formal reprimand. And when they do get caught, the clemency they enjoy is less publicized than in the case of high profile scholars. But it is true that highly respected scholars often retain their status even when their transgressions are discovered, while students often fail the course or are expelled from school. As I am discovering these days, too, it is easier to publish an "appreciation" of a major theorist's work, than it is to publish an exposé of his or her poor scholarship.

So I've been thinking about my position on scholarship as "academic misconduct". I think the moral tinge that the accusation unavoidably has hinders our enforcement of the relevant standards. In most cases, I think, students should simply be deducted marks for plagiarizing because it is "shoddy work" (as the American Historical Association puts it), not failed for cheating. It should be treated like getting a fact wrong or drawing illogical conclusions from premises. I leave aside cases of stealing or buying another student's work, or submitting whole passages transcribed from books. That is more obviously cheating. My point is that there is a great deal of plagiarism that should be taken as a deficient scholarship, not academic misconduct.

In a slogan: We need to teach proper citation, not preach it. (I swear I just made that up; but I'm not the only one, of course.)

In this spirit, revealing plagiarism and misreadings in the published work of one's peers should be normalized as acts of ordinary "critical reading". It should be like pointing out errors in reasoning, dubious inferences from data, and methodological problems. It should be taken as a criticism of the paper in question, not the scholar who wrote it. Above all, it should be talked about openly. Community standards are just that: a collective concern.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Comprehensive Vision

Over the past few years I have been pursuing this idea of "research as a second language" by many, often divergent routes. I am going to have to take some time to bring it all together sometime soon, or I may get completely lost. One way of doing this, of course, is to imagine the act of putting together a book.

As the descriptive subtitle of this blog suggests, I really have three main focus areas: writing, representation, and the criticial standing (crisis) of organization studies. These are actually organized from the least to the most "philosophical" concerns, and, perhaps ironically, from the most general to the most specific.

Writing: At the most general, and least philosophical, level I am interested in the writing process. This includes everything from planning your work to developing your voice (your style). One part of a book called Research as a Second Language would address these issues and, hopefully, provide a comprehensive vision of "composition", i.e., the art of drafting, redrafting, and finishing a text. The art of putting your reseach in writing.

Representation: Representation is the ability of one thing to stand for another thing, or one person to speak on behalf of others. And, of course, the ability of a reasearcher to speak on behalf of one or another reality (an object of research). In academic writing, this is a very important capacity and one that we develop whether we like it or not in the course of our studies. I say "whether we like or not" because representation has seen a great deal of challenges over the last 20 or 30 years. But whether representation is something you struggle for or against, it remains central to the art of expressing yourself in the research idiom, your second language.

Crisis: Organization studies faces a number of a specific challenges to its critical standing. This is in part because it is a relatively young discourse, and is still struggling to come into its own as an "academic" field. It lacks a strong tradition of scholarship and therefore a naturalness about how to present and respond to academic criticism. This has deep consequences for what is meant by knowledge in org studies. In an important sense, research is a second language for organization theorists as such, either because they have closer affinities with on-the-ground management than the world of research or because they received their training in more established fields and have to learn a new set of terms, and new set of standards.

Well, there you have it, my comprehensive vision. My suggestion is to develop your work habits, your representational (or deconstructive) capacities, and your criticial faculties (both in your head and on your campus) in order to become a respected member of the organization studies community, a competent user of its language. Pretty much in that order.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Publishing Pressure

Since I talk to academic writers every day, I get a good sense of the pressures that they work under. In general, I support the idea that academics should publish their results and, even more generally, that they should open their thinking to "public" comment. Although I think the most important forum for the dissemination of results (at least in terms of long-term social consequences) is the classroom, the journal literature is a way of improving the quality of the ideas that are taught. It is therefore fair to demand that even very good teachers publish their ideas in peer-reviewed forums as well.

But there have to be limits to this pressure. A research manager (often a research group director or a department head) will have to be sensitive to the mood in which publication is talked about. Are researchers enjoying the craft of shaping their thoughts for peer-review? Does the question of what one's peers think (or, sometimes, who one's peer might be) interest the writer? Or has publishing become an unwanted chore?

Academics do many things. And while they should be reading, thinking, and writing almost all the time, (pretty much every day), there are times when it is less than constructive for them to approach these tasks as a public matter. There may be times when you should write, but not "for publication". Just write. This may give you the energy and desire you need to write for your anonymous peers again in the future.

In fact, my usual suggestion for planning your writing process includes periods of fixation on publishing and periods that are not so fixated.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Ramping Up

Okay, I'm almost ready to get back to making videos. I'll probably have one up next week (promises, promises). Here are a couple of drawings that I'm hoping to be able to animate in a future video. I came up with them when explaining to one of my authors what was wrong with an early draft of a paper.

I call this the Ramp for Readers approach. A paper is trying to raise the knowledge level of the reader. We're trying to get our reader to understand something better than they did before they read us.

The problem with my author's paper was, in part, that it assumed too little about what the reader already knew, and, worse, that it gave the reader nowhere to put the new information after reading. I drew this picture:

Reading the paper looked like it would be a constant accumulation of information intended to get someone who knows nothing about the subject to know everything about it. It would be like rolling a ball up a hill, but once once up there you would have keep standing there to keep it from rolling back down to the bottom ... and into the abyss.

As an alternative, I proposed the following image:

Here we have a platform or rest station, both at the top and at the bottom. (We could add a few along the way as well, of course.) If the reader gets tired, the ball rolls down to a level of already accomplished knowledge. If the reader succeeds, there is a nice place for it to rest at the top.

The trick is to identify the ball and the ramps. The ball is your main point, the ramp is your writing. The reader has to get that ball up the ramp. So make sure the ball isn't too heavy, and the ramp isn't too steep.

It also the reader's job to get to that first ramp, where the ball is waiting. That was another problem with the draft we were talking about. It started as though the reader was already pushing the ball up the ramp. But a paper always has to start by identifying the ball and the first platform. It has to tell the reader what the writer assumes about where the reader is, right now, as the reading begins.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Ins and Outs of Crisis

I'm going to have to write a longer post about this a some point, but I want a get a few thoughts down. I have long held that academic research ought to be a series of "ordinary crises", which, being ordinary, would be unthreatening while at the same time offering a continuous challenge to one's foundations. The coming and going of such crises, and the habit of dealing with them, is what would turn our writing into what I call "critical occasions", i.e., opportunities to rethink things at pretty deep level.

Academic research is "critical" in way that is very different than what you might find at the "critical care" unit at your local hospital. And yet, it's the same sort of idea. As an academic your work is connected to the possiblity of your being fundamentally wrong. The important difference is that in academics you survive, even if your ideas don't. You have a right to be wrong.

But there are other kinds of crisis. There is, for example, the financial crisis (though I am told this industry is relatively "recession proof"). There is disease, divorce, and, yes, there are broken bones. It makes life difficult, throws you off your game and makes work harder. Like I say, this is not a finished thought. But as I look forward to casting off my knee-brace, I am begining to see the importance of various kinds of a "critical conditions". Now back to the couch.

Monday, October 20, 2008


An orderly writing process is not an end in itself. Neither is a steadily growing list of publications. A sustainable research process depends on the recurring satisfaction of your curiosity. If you are not discovering interesting answers to your own interesting questions on a regular basis you will get lost in a thicket of extrinsic motives.

I see evidence of this all the time, and not just among the authors I work with myself. PhD students start looking for something akin to school assignments from their supervisors. Researchers begin to chase calls for papers and start demanding explicit criteria from their schools and departments (what journals "count"?). And they begin to lose sight of why they got into research in the first place.

External constraints are an important part of academic life. But they only make sense if you insist on your own, internal motives to engage in research. To my mind, the best way to insist on these motives is to acknowledge your curiosity and make a real effort to satisfy it. This effort will shape much of your research process in a natural way.

Beyond that, you will need to impose some artificial structure in order to "get things done", as it has become fashionable to say. The trick is not to let this artificial structure trump your natural curiosity. It should complement it.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Grasping the Azure

Know the point of rest and then have an orderly mode of procedure; having this orderly procedure one can "grasp the azure," that is, take hold of a clear concept; holding a clear concept one can be at peace [internally], being thus calm one can keep one's head in moments of danger; he who can keep his head in the presence of a tiger is qualified to come to his deed in due hour.

The Great Digest, §2
trans. Ezra Pound

The Great Learning is a short text written by Confucius around 500 B.C. It outlines, as Pound puts it, a program of "adult study" or, perhaps more precisely, it expresses the spirit in which such study may be carried out. Pound was always trying to glean meaning from the "pictures" in the Chinese characters. In this case he apparently saw in the words "Ta Hsio" the idea of "grinding the corn in the head's mortar to fit it for use" (§1, p. 27).

The bit about the tiger may not seem very relevant to academic writers today. But the value of organizing your study as an "orderly procedure" around a "point of rest" should make sense to most of us. "Grasping the azure" has also been translated as achieving a "calm unperturbedness". (A comparison of the two translations can be found here here.) "Azure is a near synonym for the color blue. Commonly it refers to a bright blue, resembling the sky on a bright, clear day."

Monday, October 06, 2008

Screen Capture Software

I'm trying out this new screen capture software. It should allow me to make movies of my editing in real time. Also (as I am now noticing) it will make me more selfconscious about my typing. Maybe also my thinking. The software is not expensive (and I'm using a free trial version right now). I wonder if there is any pedagogical value in watching yourself type, witnessing your first impulse and your first few corrections.

Well, this has now taken me about three minutes to write. I now going to publish the post and get the video ready for upload.

Friday, October 03, 2008

More on Audience

I used yesterday morning's thoughts on your dissertation's audience in my "craft of research" seminar yesterday afternoon. One of the participants took me to task on the idea: surely, she said, a dissertation can't keep switching audiences? In fact, I found the position difficult to defend for a moment. After all, you do want the dissertation to read like a coherent whole.

So I think I need to modify my suggestion a bit. And that might make it too complicated to count as a rule of thumb. But here's a first stab at it. Your dissertation has a real audience: your committee and those peers who want to read it before your defense (if your system involves a public defense). You may also have some readers in the various hiring committees that you will pass through after you get your degree.

But you can't address these readers directly. If they don't get the sense that you are addressing some wider audience, your work simply won't seem competent. It will read like a term paper.

The first broadening of your implicit audience can, of course, be quite homogenous. You may be able to identify with an area of research constituted by a particular interdisciplinarity, a particular mix of theories and methods applied to a particular set of objects. It may be enough to write your thesis only to this group. In fact, even if you follow my advice and identify different audiences for each chapter, you should go back and "smoothen" your style so that readers in your area of research can follow each chapter without (ideally) noticing the underlying shifts among still wider audiences.

My advice is intended to focus the problem of writing the chapter—to identify the central task that you face in each chapter. And here it can help to construe your audience in a more specialized manner. It also lets you know when you have to mediate from an established discipline to the particular interdisciplinary constellation that defines your area.

It was good to have to defend this idea because it definitely has a limit. It may be much more useful to think of a primary and secondary audience for each chapter. Only the secondary audience changes. The primary audience is composed of the peers in your area. The secondary audience belongs to the disciplines (or other bodies of knowledge) that your inter-discipline brings together. You don't have to impress them enormously; but you do have to satisfy their minimum standards.

If you write about the organizational dynamics at Google, for example, you don't have to be whiz with computers, but you shouldn't appear completely ignorant about the history of the Internet. That may be a more useful way of thinking about the audience of your dissertation.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Your Dissertation's Audience

Can my "1000 x 8" paper outline, asks one of my readers, be used as a guide for a dissertation? I had to think about for a bit, but I think the answer is more or less yes, and the more I thought about it the more fruitful the idea came to seem. Obviously, we'd have to multiply our word count by between 10 and 20. (I'm still negotiating with our professors to find out what an acceptable upper and lower word limit on a dissertation is.) But, from there on, the outline yields some useful insights rather quickly without too much modification.

An outline for a dissertation works best if each chapter is seen as a separate "rhetorical situation". That means it has its particular exigence, audience, and constraints, which together distinguish it from the other chapters. If there is no difference in the rhetorical situation of your chapters, then they really only mark convenient places for the reader to take a break, as in a novel. More on that in a bit.

Exigence and constraints are obviously different in your theory and method chapters. You have to explain your theory or method (that's your exigence) and you have only so many pages and so much time to do it in, and do it in a more or less orthodox way (constraints). So it is tempting to say that we don't need to think about audience as a relevant rhetorical difference between chapters.

Think again. Audience is perhaps the most practical way of identifying your rhetorical problem in each chapter.

Suppose you are writing about media coverage of the ratification of the Lisbon treaty, using Luhmann's systems theory as a framework for understanding newspaper coverage specifically. Now consider the eight chapters of our automatic outline:

  • Introduction
  • Background
  • Theory
  • Method
  • Results
  • Analysis
  • Recommendations
  • Conclusion

Let's consider the different audiences for the introduction, the theory chapter, and the results chapter. Who is going to read these chapters? Yes, your committee will read all of them, but your committee will always read your work on behalf of a constituency, and this constituency changes as we go along. So we are talking about an implicit audience (much like Booth's "implicit author"), the composition of which differs from chapter to chapter.

In our imagined example, the theory chapter should be written for systems theorists, sometimes called Luhmanians, who should be able to assess it independent of their knowledge or ignorance of the Lisbon treaty specifically, the EU in general, or even journalism. But your results should be written for people who are interested in the topic of your research. What was written in the papers about the Lisbon Treaty? That's the question it should answer.

The introduction is perhaps the most interesting rhetorical situation. It is written for people who may be interested in the EU, systems theory, or newspaper journalism, of course, but, more precisely, it is written for the actual reader of the book. You are addressing the person who is about to read the whole thing.

Like I say, these audiences are implicit or imagined, often outright fictional. But they are very useful fictions. In fact, the difference between a dissertation and an essay could be explained in terms of the stability of the audience, or the reader's position of subjectivity. An essay, like a novel, is trying to hold the attention of a single mind throughout. The chapters just divide up the task of reading (and writing) into manageable chunks. A dissertation, by contrast, addresses multiple audiences, preferably one chapter at a time.

You can be more or less subtle about these differences (and the subtler the better, I'd say, in general) but here's something to remember: The important thing in the theory chapter is not to force the theorist, who may not care very much about your specific set of results, to take an interest in your empirical content. Don't make it necessary to understand the newspaper coverage in order to assess the rigour of your theoretical framework. Bring in empirical materials as common-sense illustrations, even where they also constitute empirical observations in a strict sense. Similarly, don't force the reader of your results to acknowledge your theoretical sophistication, even where your results are very sophisticated indeed. Let your readers think they are learning something about the newspaper coverage as such. Let a word like "communication" appear in its ordinary sense, even as it also tells the systems theorist what is going on.

Finally, mention the physical book itself, its pages, its development, your efforts at writing it, only in the introduction. Only this audience can be expected to take the book, as a book, seriously. You will meet again in the conclusion.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Positioning Template

I have written about Birkenstein and Graff's They Say/I Say before. What I want to do this morning is to generate what they call a "template" or "formula" that can be used to write a paragraph that positions your research results within a body of existing research. Such a paragraph must show both that your work resonates with current views on your topic and that it has the potential to shape their further development. You have to indicate both the points of convergence between your work and the existing literature, and points of divergence.

In order to generate the template, I will here abstract the rhetorical form of a paragraph of Quinn and Worline's paper "Enabling Collective Courageous Action" (Organization Science, 19 (4), 2008, pp. 497-516) from its specific content. In a future post, I will critique the way they "fill out" the template. Here is the paragraph:

Given the problems of collective action aboard Flight 93, a useful literature for helping explain events comes from the study of social movements (Davis and Thompson 1994, McAdam et al. 1996, Tilly 1978, Zald and Berger 1978) and particularly research on the framing of social movements (e.g., Benford and Snow 2000) because of its focus on language use. This perspective on collective action examines how people work within a social infrastructure to construct interests and mobilize resources. Rather than assume that actors’ interests are given, social movement scholars show how people create the conditions under which social action happens (McAdam et al. 1996). These literatures are limited, however, in addressing the interactive and discursive nature of real-time collective action. Social movement framing focuses on sensegiving rather than sensemaking and largely ignores how people manage the intense and often debilitating emotions that often accompany duress. (498)

The first step is to strip out all the content:

Given the problems of ____x____ in _________, a useful literature for helping explain events comes from the study of ____y____ (_________) and particularly research on ____z____ (e.g., _________) because of its focus on _________. This perspective on _____x____ examines how __________. Rather than assume that __________, ____y____ scholars show how _________ (_________). These literatures are limited, however, in addressing the __________ nature of __(mod)__ ____x____. ____z____ focuses on _________ rather than _________ and largely ignores how __________.

Notice what is going on here. The first sentence identifies a general notion (x) that is relevant to the particular empirical situation that the paper discusses. This notion is the located in a broader literature (y), and then focused by reference to a particular corner of it (z).

Throughout, we are told what the referenced literature "assumes", "shows", "focuses on", and "ignores", often using contrasts ("rather than"). It is important here to make sure that your work shares a focus (in Quinn and Worline's case, "language use"), eschews the same assumptions ("actors’ interests are given"), and seeks, in general, to show the same thing ("how people create the conditions under which social action happens").

But the crux of a paragraph like this is, of course, the identification of limits in the referenced literature. You are listing its accomplishments, we might say, mainly in order to identify its failings. That's where the opening for your contribution is established.

These literatures are limited, however, in addressing the __________ nature of __(mod)__ ____x____. ____z____ focuses on _________ rather than _________ and largely ignores how __________.

Notice the precision that this formula allows. The notion (x) that you share with the specific corner of the referenced literature (z) is restricted using an adjective (mod, i.e., "real-time" in Quinn and Worline's paper). And this restricted notion is further assigned a particular "nature". It is an understanding of this particular nature of the shared notion in a restricted sense that is beyond the "limits" of the existing literature. You can then go on to explain that this limit arises because the literature focuses on one thing at the cost of another, while almost entirely excluding something else. This orthodox focus ("sensegiving") should, of course, not be very interesting to you, while the generally accepted cost ("sensemaking") should not be acceptable to you. And what is "largely excluded" by the literature, finally, should serve some essential purpose in your own work.

On the surface, Quinn and Worline carry off this rhetorical task very nicely. In my next post, we will see whether they get the literature they cite right. That, of course, is important too when writing this sort of paragraph.