Even as online media companies accrue a powerhouse of resources for their talent that could theoretically provide staff writers with subscriptions to Project Muse and EBSCO, the latter issue — audience and readability — remains. And while these gatekeeping strategies exist, blaming the writer who didn’t utilize the great wealth of research on the feminization of vocal fry for his 1200-word defense of Kim Kardashian feels misplaced.
Even taking the academy as nonexistent — which for all its accessibility, it might as well be — there’s something about a tendency for internet writers not to even cite their own peers that points to a more troubling problem in terms of the voices that get left out. We should talk about citation generally, as a community-building practice, as a discussion enriching practice, and as a practice that can undo or prevent the force of erasure in terms of marginalized voices. I want us to talk about citation as a loving practice.
Is it incumbent upon us, the community of readers and writers, to become the gatekeepers? Medium, for instance, has a way to report copyright or trademark infringement buried in the “report this post” link, but it is not immediate and obvious to use like other reports. Is it our ethical obligation to use that when we see unattributed material posted in an article? I agree that to put the onus on the writer seems unfair, since a writer may read something then, days, months, or years later post something about it, and may not even remember where he or she first read about it, or even that he or she read about it previously at all. This is not an ethical failing on the writer, and should not be treated as such.
I would say it is also not possible for old methods of gatekeeping to be effective anymore, we we likely cannot rely entirely on a staff of employees to oversee things fairly and completely. Not only does it come with the baggage of implicit biases and assumptions on the part of the editors creeping into the writing, but there is no editor alive who could be expected to keep up with the forty-bajillion articles posted on the internet everyday.
But, perhaps there are workable solutions to this very real cultural problem. It has been said that the medium is the message. I can reply to a post, send a private message, recommend it, or report it for having a problem. I cannot click a button to suggest an attribution. If the medium really is the message, the message this is sending me is that, if I want to go to all the trouble, I can send a private message to a writer with an attribution suggestion and hope that he or she sees it, but that it’s not the intended use of private messages and probably a waste of my time. It is also telling me, by not having a method of making copyright reports as clear and obvious as reports for spam, harassment, or inappropriate content, that the staff doesn’t really want to hear it unless it is something incredibly overt (blatant plagiarism), and they probably couldn’t do much about it anyway unless, again, it were incredibly overt.
If the option to suggest an attribution were present and easily accessible, it would send the message to me that I can help out an author I like with a friendly attribution suggestion and, in fact, Medium wants me to do that to protect the intellectual integrity of this site and all the many writers who post here. Just like I get a notice that tells me when people recommended or replied to a story I wrote, or started following me, I could get a notice that tells me someone suggested an attribution. It could work like the highlight, but be a different color, and supply a link that I have the option to add. Only the writer of the story would see it, and blocked people couldn’t spam writers with bogus attribution suggestions.
This would seem to be in keeping with your assertion of attribution as a community and enrichment building practice, with which I agree. And, if the medium is the message, writers will know that attributions are expected by the very framework of the medium in which they are writing, and give more importance to including them in the first place. The message would be: we give attributions where attributions are due.
I may be giving writers the benefit of the doubt, and there’s really a lot more deliberate negligence than benign neglect going around, but it would, at least, be a step in the right direction, so all the ethical, well-meaning writers could get a chance to do the right thing and make the attributions they should. We just won’t follow the rest.