[SIGCIS-Members] historians and journalists

Nathan Ensmenger nensmeng at indiana.edu
Sun Oct 12 15:04:58 PDT 2014

Since I was called out specifically in Janet Browne's email, I feel somewhat obliged to respond to the entire list.  

First, I would like to say that if my earlier email implied that either of these recent incidents was a reflection on the Harvard History of Science department or its faculty then I sincerely apologize.   My point was simply that both of these recent incidents involved trained historians (or historians-in-training) and not newcomers or outsiders to our discipline.  When I referred to both authors as being Harvard-trained, the emphasis should have been on *trained* and not on Harvard.  To paraphrase another timeworn defense, many of my best friends have gone to Harvard...

Janet, your email seems to imply that the article that Latif originally wrote for the Atlantic did contain an appropriate acknowledgement of the work of Mara Mills, and that the editors of that journal subsequently removed this attribution without his knowledge or consent.  If so, he has a serious complaint against that journal.  He should perhaps consider making it public.  It would be a welcome contribution to our ongoing conversation about the relationship between academic and journalistic ethics.   If editors in these genres do have such unlimited license to modify (and in this case, seriously distort) our work, then we as historians should be even more wary of contributing to such journals --- or at the very least, we need to be very careful as we read through our author contracts.

On the other hand, if the version of the article that originally appeared in the Atlantic was approved by Latif, and it was only *after* the public outcry that he realized he did not properly acknowledge his (sole) source --- well, that is exactly the problem we are concerned about.  I do not buy the argument that calling something journalism eliminates one's responsibility to acknowledge one's sources properly.  And I should say, neither do most journalists.  The fact that the article was eventually corrected is nice, but does not change the fact that it was published at all.   The original version was widely disseminated for days before being updated, and the updated version contains no acknowledgement that the article had ever been modified.  How many people read the original version, rather than the correction?  And as far as I am aware, no apology was issued, either publicly or privately.  Has Latif made one? That would be a collegial thing to do.

As for Evgeny's article: he has made two distinct and somewhat contradictory defenses.  The first is that his article was a book review of Eden's work, and that anyone who read it otherwise "doesn't know what they are talking about."  His second defense is that the article is actually original research, and that therefore he is justified in only mentioning *Cybernetic Revolutions* as one source among many.  He combines this with a long discussion about the limitations of the New Yorker format, and why it is impossible in such a format to properly cite sources and influences.  

The first defense is specious, as even a casual reading of just about any other book review published by the New Yorker will reveal.  I am not sure what to make of the second: we are being told (by him, and I suppose, by you) that we should trust this to be the case.  The fact that so many experts in this historical sub-discipline still have concerns is revealing, and perhaps ought to be taken more seriously.

When I was in graduate school I took a seminar course at Princeton with Mike Mahoney and Angela Creager that explored the relationship between cybernetics, computing, and biology.  In that seminar we read the manuscript version of Lily Kay's *Who wrote the book of life?*  (Stanford, 2000) along with many (actually, _very many_) of her primary and secondary sources.  Some of these sources were already well known to historians of science, others were not, and we might even have discovered along the some relevant materials that Kay herself had never discovered.  While we may not have spent the six months of primary research that Evgeny claims is enough to make a subject one's own, we spent at least four or five.  I have never worked harder in a graduate seminar, or learned more.  But in that seminar I was *learning how to do historical research*, I was *not doing historical research* (or at least not doing original historical research).  Without Lily Kay's map (and without Mike and Angela coming alongside as skilled guides) I would never have known such intellectual territory existed, much less known how to navigate it.  Yes, by the end of the seminar the path seemed obvious (perhaps even a little well-worn), but without Lily Kay to blaze the trail, we would never had even known in which direction to set out. 

I like to believe that if, even as a graduate student, I had been asked to write on the relationship between information theory and genetics for the New Yorker, I would been clever enough able to figure our a way to acknowledge my intellectual debts, even without resorting to footnotes.  At the very least, I hope that I would have been been appropriately humble about my own limited experience and respectful of the cumulative and collaborative process that is historical scholarship.   I see none of that humility or intellectual graciousness in Evgeny's original article or in any of his subsequent communications.   I agree that ours is a small discipline and that we ought to strive to be collegial, but respect is a two-way street.   

Finally, although I was the person who first brought these two issues to the attention of the SIGCIS list, I am not the only one who noticed these incidents or who has expressed their concerns.  While it is true that my own negative experiences might have heightened my sensibilities to incidents of intellectual misappropriation by journalists, this is not some personal crusade or vendetta.   To suggest that this is so is to minimize the professional judgement of a much broader community of practitioners.  We all have a stake in our work being used fairly and appropriately.


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

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