The post not posted

I have been finishing off a long-ish post that I've been meaning to write for a while, but now I don't think I will post it. This is because I came to realise that it's actually stuff I want to write about more formally at some stage, in my thesis or in a paper. Generally speaking, the things I write about on this blog are more closely related to my actual research than many other academic history blogs, which is how I wanted it to be, but it does seem that I've reached a limit here! I guess it's because blogs have no particular academic standing, so it's like I'm giving away something (my research, my ideas) for nothing. Somebody else could take those references and ideas1 and publish them before I get a chance to, or maybe I'll say something careless and wrong that will reflect badly on me; a journal article at least passes before several more sets of eyeballs before it gets to the outside world. I don't know that I'd go so far as to say that presenting research on a blog or other non-peer reviewed forum is career suicide, but it may not be particularly wise either. Now, I don't mind posting snippets of interesting or curious information which I don't have any particular use for, and which I may or may not use some day. That can be a helpful form of thinking aloud, for one thing, and it may lead to something more formal. But it seems to be different when it comes to my core research. Posting about that makes me nervous, I find, so I tend to talk about somewhat peripheral (but hopefully still interesting) subjects. That may be safer, but it probably also reduces the potential benefits of having a research blog.

So, I might re-work the post not posted into a shorter, more general piece. And it's not like there's a lack of interesting but non-threatening things to blog about -- the trouble is finding the time to do it! I suspect, too, that my more central research concerns will be easier to write about on here when I am also writing them up for publication or presentation. But I don't know. Am I being too paranoid? Not paranoid enough?


  1. Not that I am claiming to have had any brilliant ones ... 

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6 thoughts on “The post not posted

  1. A very recognisable set of concerns. For me, not posting about current research and ideas for fear of plagiarism is less of a problem - I buy into the idea that getting the ideas out there with your name attached to them is actually a useful way of demonstrating ownership. You might say that that's easy for me, as a more or less established academic, to say, and I remember spending much of my time as a grad student being paranoid about my work. But from experience of friends and colleagues who did have work pinched - in one case by an examiner - it's much harder to do anything about if it's just you and yours who know about the crime. One might hope - perhaps in a utopian fashion - that the academic blogosphere would become self-policing in such matters.
    What is much harder to do, I think, is to overcome the personal fear boundary about sharing what you think are fully formed ideas with the rest of the world. It is hard to go solo if you're worried about being shot down (to use an airminded metaphor). Another issue, which actually makes this situation a bit easier for me to ignore, is that if you're writing to contract, one's publisher might get rather sniffy about everything appearing online first.
    I guess the answer - if there is one - is to do what you're comfortable with at different points. And perhaps just publish a hint of what you're thinking about online and ask for comments - that way you get the benefit of other bloggers expertise without the fear factor.

  2. Brett Holman

    Post author

    I think it's plagiarism that worries me most. Or rather, it's that I'm not sure that it would actually be plagiarism, if somebody took a post I write for this blog and worked it into a paper or something. Put it this way -- if they wanted to use the ideas/data I presented, would a journal even allow them to cite my blog in a footnote? Would readers take it seriously if they did? I don't think so, not yet anyway. Instead, they'd have to replicate my research, which is not a bad thing in itself, but I wouldn't get any credit for it -- they would actually have gotten there first, as far as most of (non-blog-reading) academia was concerned. As I say, I'm not even sure this counts as plagiarism (unless they did just use chunks of my text or not look at the primary sources I've referenced ... more fool them, in that case!), it's more like inspiration. I want to get people interested in my topic and my work, but I don't want to inspire them to go out and beat me to it :) You're right though, that this is a common sort of worry for PhD students ... every new book or paper on your area is a potential threat, because it may (you fear) pre-empt your entire thesis. And you're right too that it's probably something to evaluate on a case-by-case basis. This particular post didn't seem troublesome when I started it, but became so somewhere along the line, so if I rewrite it, I can probably salvage it. If nothing else I can save what I've written for that possible chapter down the line!

  3. Yes, it would be plagiarism. As the form all our undergraduates sign when they submit any piece of coursework reads: 'I understand that plagiarism is the use or presentation of the work of another person, including another student, without acknowledging the source. By submitting this work I acknowledge that the writing up of this assignment is my own unaided work and that where I have quoted or referred to the opinions or writings of others these have been fully and clearly acknowledged.' (Half way, nearly, through my marking now, btw). Ideas, then, not just words.
    There are certainly plenty of examples of online sources being referenced in recent articles and books that I've read, and providing we stick to academic rules about referencing when we're online, I think that those who use our material will be encouraged to do the same. And it is surely easier to suggest plagiarism if an idea is datestamped and commented on (yes, I know that is probably fakable, but given the relatively small subset of academic bloggers at the moment, I think we're probably keeping tabs on each other), than if it's a thesis tucked away in a university library. In the latter case, you can tell people till you're blue in the face, but if someone else has published before you get there, you're in trouble.
    Think how instinctively we search engine a new topic now. That might make your work easier to steal - but it should also mean that others interested in the same topic come across your site as well - and it's they who will call the plagiarism, even if you don't.
    That being said, I recently read a fascinating profile of myself and Alex Danchev in the online journal of the Singaporean Armed Forces which seemed like the result of an in-depth interview, but which was in fact the result of extensive googling.

  4. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Yes, ideas can be plagiarised, but I think it's much more of grey area than copying text, it's harder to prove for a start. I guess what I meant by "inspiration" was more that if I have this great idea and I post it on here along with a couple of quotes and pointers to the primary sources, I don't think I've really laid any claim to that idea, because I have not published the paper (and in fact have not done all the research). If somebody else looks at that and says, interesting, goes away and does the research and writes the paper before I've done it, then I think I would only have myself to blame. Put another way, I don't think my half-arsed speculations about Kitchener's secret passion for morris dancing can be plagiarised if I don't back them up with evidence; it would need to be a solidly researched piece of work to be plagiarisable. But somebody else might take that idea and write the definitive paper on the subject before I get around to it. Perversely though, that's why I think that sort of thing might actually be safer on the net, for the reasons you state -- eg it establishes priority. But blogs tend towards the half-arsed ... so it's a matter of choosing which ideas you want to keep in reserve and which you aren't so attached to and so can blog.

    Eh, that probably makes no sense, it's 4:32 am and I need sleep :) And it's probably one of those areas where thinking too much about it makes me more confused, best just to rely on gut feelings as to what is bloggable and what isn't.

  5. I knooooooow exactly what you mean about the inspiration factor. For example if you're the only person to think of researching airman ponsonby-smyth's mother-in-law's WW1 diary, and you mention it on your blog, all of a sudden everyone else knows where it is before you've published.

  6. They may know where it is, but they've still got to go and find it, read it and work out what it means. Protecting your ideas is one thing, access to the sources is something else. (Alerting people to neglected primary sources is a jolly good thing in my book.) I don't generally give exact archive references in blog posts and that's just to protect against anyone taking the ideas and footnoting the reference as though they've read the original when they haven't. But I do try to give enough information that if someone could be bothered to traipse out to the archives, they could probably track it down for themselves. (And if someone is interested enough to write to me personally, I'm always happy to share.)

    I agree with Dan that blogging your research can actually protect you from plagiarism: you then have something you can reference to prove that you did it first. But a dissertation may be a slightly peculiar thing in this respect compared to anything you write later for publication (it's no fun if something goes wrong with a book/article, but it doesn't have to 'pass' examiners with potentially disastrous consequences for someone's career if it screws up).

    Nonetheless, deciding how much of your PhD you want to put out in the public domain before you submit isn't exactly a new problem. A necessary part of the PhD process is sharing the ideas and getting feedback (eg, conference papers), and that always involves the small risk that someone will pinch your stuff and pre-empt you with a publication. But PhD students need to consider a couple of things:

    1. Remember that it can take a considerable time to get things through the peer review process and into publication; a thief would have to work pretty damned fast to get anything substantive out there before you complete.

    2. Moreover, they'd have to steal a LOT from you before it'd be likely to affect your PhD in any serious way. A PhD is a big thing, of which only quite a small part has to be entirely 'original'. Most PhDs involve a lot of reinventing of wheels: various people somewhere, in some language, in some form, will already have done much of what you do so painstakingly and painfully in your dissertation, and you'll probably never know of most of it. But no one will have, or ever will, put it all together in the same way as you, with the same sources, using the same 80,000+ words, drawing the same conclusions. The 'originality' of a history PhD (things can be a bit different in the sciences...) is a quality that's hard to define, but it doesn't consist of tangible, quantifiable chunks of original-ness that can be undone by someone getting out a publication containing some arguments that are similar to some part of your dissertation a few months before you have your viva.

    (Hell, now they'll throw me out of the historians' guild for revealing trade secrets that students are only supposed to be told after they've been through the horrors of the PhD initiation rites...)

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