[SIGCIS-Members] historians and journalists

PeterEckstein at comcast.net PeterEckstein at comcast.net
Tue Oct 7 19:36:56 PDT 2014

I was not able to buy a copy of the Isaacson book until this morning and have not gotten too far beyond checking to see how he treated my own article in the Annals on the early life of Eckert.  About half a page of the book summarizes some of the facts in my article, but that section is followed by the appropriate footnote, and there is a footnote earlier in his discussion of Eckert that include my work among several sources on which the section is based.  My overall conclusion is that his treatment represented "fair use" with proper attribution. 

----- Original Message -----

From: "Andrew Meade McGee" <amm5ae at virginia.edu> 
To: "Nathan Ensmenger" <nensmeng at indiana.edu> 
Cc: "Computer, SIG" <members at sigcis.org> 
Sent: Tuesday, October 7, 2014 2:18:55 PM 
Subject: Re: [SIGCIS-Members] historians and journalists 


Thank you for sharing this news and for raising some crucial issues. I find it particularly distressing you were treated so shabbily by the Washington Post (someone once told me he could never trust a newspaper for which the popular abbreviation -- WaPo -- sounded like a forgotten Marx Brother). That you have, with good reason, been disinclined to share your work with journalists, is a great loss to civil and informed discussion of the history of the computer in its broader social context. The Morosov essential re-appropriation of Eden Medina's ground-breaking work is similarly galling for ignoring both the considerable legwork that went into gathering evidence and the careful intellectual framework in which the argument and evidence are situated. 

What's particularly grating is that it's the journalistic interpretations as filtered through the likes of Isaacson and Morosov that will be read and discussed, retweeted and reblogged by the chattering classes, those who make policy and art and media, to eventually be consumed by ordinary readers. Good journalism is the first draft of history; what we seem to encounter more and more on the web and in publications is simply strip-mining of other people's writings for interesting tidbits. 

I recently served as a research assistant for a business school professor preparing a syllabus for a business history class intended for second-year MBA students. He prepared a list of potential readings on business and technological innovation, with descriptions of the various books' contents and approach, and had me poll the students on their reading preferences. The students' comments expressed surprising interest in reading detailed "academic" books for greater context and depth of explanation, but they ultimately voted for more "popular" or "journalistic" accounts because they indicated those were the books their peers in business world would be reading and referencing.  

This raises questions of how we historians engage with a larger public while still respecting well-developed professional inclinations for citation, complexity of claim, elaboration of evidence, etc. I come out of a graduate program (UVA's history department) where we are aggressively encouraged to supplement academic publications with journalistic writing, particularly op-eds linking our research to hot-button issues of the day. The motivation is sound, but I've always been stymied by the practice. 

So, building on Nathan's lessons, beyond the essential task of identifying perpetrators of misappropriation and plagiarism, are there best practices folks on the list have for contributing to op-eds, journalistic articles, magazine pieces, internet and blog contributions, etc.? How can we engage more readily with the public while still respecting what makes us distinctive as historians? 

Looking forward to some guidance. 

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- 
Andrew Meade McGee 
Corcoran Department of History 
University of Virginia 
PO Box 400180 - Nau Hall 
Charlottesville, VA 22904 

On Tue, Oct 7, 2014 at 1:30 PM, Nathan Ensmenger < nensmeng at indiana.edu > wrote: 

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 

This email is relayed from members at sigcis.org , the email discussion list of SHOT SIGCIS. The list archives are at http://sigcis.org/pipermail/members/ and you can change your subscription options at http://sigcis.org/mailman/listinfo/members 

This email is relayed from members at sigcis.org, the email discussion list of SHOT SIGCIS. The list archives are at http://sigcis.org/pipermail/members/ and you can change your subscription options at http://sigcis.org/mailman/listinfo/members 

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://lists.sigcis.org/pipermail/members-sigcis.org/attachments/20141008/9c30be07/attachment-0001.htm>

More information about the Members mailing list