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Attribution in a Web 2.0 World

February 19, 2009

Yesterday, I saw an interesting RT of an @marciamarcia reference to a Time story.  In it, @marciamarcia tweeted “UC Berkeley study: Leadership is determined by speaking up not competence” and provided a link to the original story by Time magazine.  Intrigued, I followed the link, thinking I would see some great data about leadership and extroverts.  There was some to be sure, but not as much as I was hoping.

Normally I would just follow citations back the original research.  No dice.  The story is so loosely referenced that I literally couldn’t find the source.  There is no APA citation, no in-line citation, no link, and worse, not even a clear reference to the name published research article.  Given that this was an *online* story, this is totally unacceptable.  Here is the full extant of the citation:  “…a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology…”  That is about as vague as it gets, making it nearly impossible to verify or research further.

Ok, so why am I making note of this in my blog?  In a nutshell, I think there is something to be learned here.  In a world that is increasingly driven by peer-to-peer exchanges and the sharing of personal expertise, we really need to adopt a “trust but verify” mentality.  This shouldn’t be viewed as “distrust,” but as a professional activity similar to “due diligence” in the world of finance and acquisitions or “discovery” in the legal world.  In a world of peer-to-peer exchange, we often don’t know our peers.  In this scenario, the only reasonable information posture is respectful skeptism.  We should all work and communicate with an expectation and understanding that our work will be peer reviewed by people who will check the source.  Our philosophy should be “judge and prepare to be judged.”  Further, we should teach this skill to our kids and cultivate it in ourselves.  Unless of course, we want to raise the next generation of Madoff victims… ; )

Equally important is the ability to “dig deeper” – as I wanted to do.  When a learner or community member finds a topic of interest, he or she should be able to follow related links and source material as far back as possible.  In a constructivist model of learning (which I wholly ascribe to), people learn best by “connecting the dots.”  More dots = more connection = more learning, either big picture or deep dive.  One of the core benefits of more user-generated content is the ability to learn more, but you can’t learn more without links to course material.  The Time article had lots of links to the semi-related stories (also on Time), but not the most important link – the source material.

I also think that referencing another’s work without easily followed citations is a bit like plagiarism.  At the very least, it’s disrespectful.  Time just wrote a whole article on someone else’s work, and yet didn’t so much as name the study.  At the very least, the people who did the original work deserve both credit and recognition for their efforts; better still, their work should be promoted and seen by as many people as possible.  Isn’t that at least one motivation for publishing in the first place?  By referencing the work, but not the actual paper, the author of the Time is basically stealing the glory, right?  Maybe this is too harsh, but it just feels wrong.  More importantly, I think it’s demotivating for contributors.  If we want users to share their expertise and ideas, we damn sure better get in the habit of proper attribution and citation.  Nothing will kill sharing faster than the perception of users stealing each others’ ideas.

Lastly, at the bottom of the article, there was a section called “Connect to the TIME story” and the first set of options was titled “Interact with this story.”  What would that suggest to you?  To me, it suggested that I would be able to comment on the article or discuss it or rate it or any number of other “connecting” or “interacting” sort of activities.  It did not suggest to me that I could post it as a Facebook story or Digg it, or email it.  How is that interacting or connecting?  These are promotional activities that help Time through increased page views, but do nothing to help me share or interact with the story.  Nothing about these options enrich the discourse or layer additional value which is what connecting and interacting should be about.

Needless to say, I was disappointed in Time, pretty much all around.  Good bloggers and blogs typically do much better than this.  (Which may be why the news industry is doing so poorly. )  As we move toward a world of user-generated content and peer-to-peer exchange, we need to do better as well.  We need to cite our sources and make the references easy to follow.  We should assume, as a matter of course, that fellow learners and community members will follow our citations and verify our work.  We should get in the habit of doing the same, and none of us should be offended by any of this activity.  Rather we should embrace it as a healthy part of this evolution toward user-generated content (and really, we should have been doing this all along – it’s always been a mistake to assume that experts are any more infallible than non-experts).    Lastly, we should always provide opportunities for sharing and connecting around our content – real opportunities, like comments, discussions, ratings and the like – to encourage the extension and use of the information in new contexts and new circumstances.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Owen permalink
    March 3, 2009 2:36 pm

    Hi David,

    Totally agree that critically appraising the original source of the story is going to be an ever more important skill. Given the number of myths floating around in the business world, and the learning field in particular, we should always be skeptical about simple explanations for complex functions.

    If you’re still interested, there’s a pibmed citation and the study has been pretty well reviewed in a couple of blogs:


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