questionable.

I have a question on which I’d like any opinions… this has been coming up for me lately, as I assess what I can do in the future to develop a more efficient, faster research/writing process.

Here is the type of situation I wonder about. I’ve made up a hypothetical one:

Let us say I want to discuss the concept of “cyberincentableness” in a paper. I learned about cyberincentableness in a paper by Doe, who explained that the concept of cyberincentableness was first developed in Smith, 2001.

So, do I:
1. Say “cyberincentableness is a term coined by Smith, who elaborated the concept in the context of the Theory of Insufferable Neologisms” and cite Doe, which is where I got this information?

OR

2. Dig up Smith, 2001, read it to verify that Doe’s interpretation is correct (or at least agrees with my own), and cite Smith, 2001 for my statement: “cyberincentableness is a term coined by Smith, who elaborated the concept in the context of the Theory of Insufferable Neologisms” ?

To me this is a no-brainer and the correct answer is 2. But as I pay attention to this in the (peer-reviewed) literature, I notice more and more of the first. In fact, the example I made up is adapted directly from something I just read in a well-regarded LIS journal.

Do I have an idealistic, perfectionist, and ridiculous notion of the level of work I am supposed to be doing? Is that (part of) why my literature review has taken 18 million years to write? Because when you go back to Smith you inevitably find that cyberincentableness is based on the ideas of Jones and Patel, who have some other ideas that seem relevant to my work…. etc etc etc.

(all hail the mixed blessing/curse of the highly associative mind!)

At some point you have to stop tracing everything back to its foundations, or you will spend your entire life reading backward in time. I think the process of the lit review has taught me to be much more skillful at knowing when to quit.

Do I also need to be training myself to not go read the original, but instead rely on the interpretations of others?

I’ve also been noticing the disturbing proliferation of a certain typo in the surname of a researcher who wrote a huge, dense, oft-cited work. It is not exactly a time-priority of mine to go back and ascertain that my sense is correct, (maybe I should do a study…) but it seems that authors citing papers that make the typo are likely to make the typo. Is it cynical of me to start to suspect that these people are citing something they haven’t put their hands or eyes on? It is hard to believe that the same careless mistake would be made by so many people so many times.

Early on in my doctoral studies I was disabused of the notion that I should only cite works I had carefully read in full so that I felt confident I understood all of the concepts and arguments, and could remember and talk about them at any time. (But saying so still feels like divulging a dirty secret.)

My current understanding of “the rules” is that you are not supposed to cite things you have not even looked at. Am I wrong about that too? Or do we say it is BAD to cite things you haven’t looked at, but the dirty secret is that it is done all the time…?

I guess the larger question is how many corners can you cut before you start cutting into your academic integrity? And is my notion of academic integrity getting in the way of me producing my academic work in a timely manner?

4 thoughts on “questionable.”

  1. It sounds like what you’re doing is something beyond 2. I think 2 is right, but you seem to suggest that you find stuff in the original article and chase further down the rabbit hole. Stop yourself AT 2. Furthermore, you don’t have to read the whole article at 2 to assure yourself that the article you started with properly characterized the concept, no?

    Good luck!

  2. I’d argue that you’re right, the thing to do is 2. Anything less potentially ends with this a fiasco like this: http://hdl.handle.net/2142/1697

    Of course there are always going to be things you can’t get your hands on, because they were published in 1957 in a defunct Polish journal or whatever. When that happens you do 1, but I’d suggest you write something like: “Doe’s interpretation of Smith’s concept of cyberincentableness blah blah…”

    Also, no, you can’t spend all your time now reading backwards in time. You have the rest of your career for that.

    1. Oh my. The Salton this is simultaneously hilarious and appalling. I hadn’t heard of it before.

      Yep, I’ve had to do the “Doe’s report of Smith’s findings…” thing before. It was one of those industry research reports on consumer photography. It wasn’t in WorldCat and it cost like $10,000. I wonder how *anyone* got hold of that one…

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