[SIGCIS-Members] historians and journalists

Nathan Ensmenger nensmeng at indiana.edu
Tue Oct 7 10:30:39 PDT 2014

It has been interesting to follow this discussion about the Issacson book (which I have not yet read) and the larger questions it raises about the relationship between the popular and academic history of computing.

There is an aspect of this relationship that has come up several times in the past few weeks that I think it would be useful for all of us to be aware of, and it has to do with the misuse of academic scholarship by popular historians/journalists.

The New Yorker has just published a piece by Evgeny Morosov on “The Socialist origins of Big Data,” which describes the Cybersyn project in 1970s Chile.  As you might know, Project Cybersyn was the subject of my colleague Eden Medina’s prize-winning book Cybernetic Revolutionaries.  In fact, the Morozov article is essentially a retelling of Eden’s story — with an almost complete lack of attribution.   There is a single sentence acknowledging her book, but the rest of the piece is presented as if it were Morozov’s own research.

I hesitate to link to the piece, but here it is:


This is the second time in as many weeks that a major publication has plagiarized the work of academic historians of science and technology.  The Atlantic recently published a piece on an extraordinary visit by Helen Keller with the MIT cybernetician Norbert Weiner.  A fascinating story  — and one which was drawn entirely from the work of Mara Mills.  The original article included only a single sentence about Mara, and then only in seeming support of the author’s conclusions.  The fact that all of the original research was Mara’s went unmentioned.

In response to a Twitter-based outcry, the Atlantic piece was substantially revised to recognize Mara’s essential contributions, although no acknowledgement of or apology for the original “mistake” has been made.

Lest you think that either example of misappropriation was the result of a well-meaning but uninformed journalist, note the Morozov is currently a PhD student in the history of science at Harvard, and Latif Nasser, the author of the Atlantic piece, is a graduate of that program.

What makes the Atlantic incident particularly egregious is that the Atlantic has been actively soliciting submissions from historians of science and technology.  While that in theory is a good thing for our discipline, in practice it is clear that they are just as likely to steal your material as publish it.   

Many of us have had experience spending a lot of time and energy talking to journalists and then being eliminated from the resulting article.  I had my work plagiarized by the Washington Post in an incident that ended up being the subject of a self-serving editorial “apology” by the WaPo ombudsman. (See “Who stole the Computer Girls? http://thecomputerboys.com/?p=289)  It was a frustrating and very stressful experience.  I no longer talk to journalists about my research.

Two take-home lessons for us as academic historians:  

1) No journalist has the ability to guarantee that you will be correctly attributed in an article. Editors can and will remove citations, references, and call-outs in the interest of making the article “more readable.”  They will defend this practice as being legitimate, despite the fact that if one of our students submitted such an article, we would fail them immediately.

2) The only way to change this situation is to publicly call out the offenders. The Atlantic piece was only changed as a result of a Twitter outcry — and even then only after most readers had already seen the original unattributed piece and then moved on to other things.  If you are active on social media, make your presence known.

I say all of this somewhat reluctantly.  I have always been interested in engaging with a broader public.  Like Paul, I even worked on a Hollywood development project (think Mad Men in the late 1960s computer industry).   But it is clear that there are dangers to doing so.   I am not suggesting that Issacson is guilty of misappropriating sources.  But I also think that as a community we need to engage critically with work’s like his, and in doing so, be careful to constantly acknowledge and highlight the contributions of scholarly historians.


Nathan Ensmenger
Associate Professor of Informatics
School of Informatics and Computing
Indiana University, Bloomington

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