[SIGCIS-Members] nothing to see here, please move along...

Nathan Ensmenger nensmeng at indiana.edu
Thu Oct 9 07:22:17 PDT 2014

I appreciate Tom's reminder that everything one says on the Internet becomes a public and (mostly) permanent document.  I am afraid that this means an end to that job offer from Harvard that I was anticipating...

That being said, I also share Lee's questions about what it means that these two situations were "resolved" and whether or not such resolutions were sufficient (and who gets to decide).  Do the authors in question feel that their concerns were fairly and sufficiently addressed?  That seems relevant.  

Certainly I do not know anyone who read the original version of Atlantic piece on Helen Keller at MIT who felt that it was appropriately attributed, and the fact that when this was pointed out the article was immediately updated to comply with acceptable journalistic standards suggests that neither did the author and editors.  Is this sufficient resolution?   Perhaps.  But even if it were, does this mean that we are no longer allowed to talk about the incident, its nature and causes, the individuals involved, or our concerns about future reoccurrences?   

Similarly, the fact that so many trained historians familiar with the computing and cybernetics literature failed to understand that the New Yorker piece was intended to be a book review suggests that the problem may have been with the article itself, and not with our collective interpretive abilities.   A quick survey of the New Yorker website reveals several recent examples of book reviews and critic-at-large reports that are unambiguously reviews.  The reviewers reference the original author(s) and work(s) early, frequently, and with enough context to make it clear whose ideas belong to whom.  And again, even if a certain flexibility of attribution were the norm for certain forms of “highbrow journalism,” does that mean that we are not free to disagree and to apply our own standards of academic and intellectual integrity?   I am a regular reader of the New Yorker and generally admire it --- but I do not see why their authors and editorial staff get the final word on how our research can be acceptably used and appropriated.  *Cybernetic Revolutionaries* was a multiple prize winning book in the history of science and technology published by one of the top academic presses in our discipline.  If the New Yorker piece treated the book with the respect that it deserves, then I clearly missed it.  In this I might be mistaken (and in voicing my concerns I was almost certainly impolitic) but I do not I was egregiously out-of-line to at least raise the issue.

The discussion about these particular incidents may have long ago passed the point of being productive, but I hope that the larger conversation will continue (although perhaps it would be best to do so offline, as the eyes of the world are clearly upon us).  Regardless of where any of us come down on the merits of these specific cases, we should all be asking ourselves these questions: What if that were my article, or my book?  Would I have felt fairly represented or acknowledged?  If not, what would be an appropriate resolution?  And again, who gets to decide?

With that, I am ceasing-and-desisting on this issue so as to not cause anyone any additional awkwardness.


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

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