In a Digital World: Always Attribute Sources! Back-to-School 2011

Old card catalog drawers at the Library of Congress

When I was in what we used to call junior high, working on my first bona-fide school research projects, mired down with things to read, and wishing to be finished, my father reminded me over and over again, “… you cannot attribute too much, only too little.” Even now, years later, with only a few words written on a page, I start thinking about Dad’s attribution credo.

Every parent of digital kids needs to share Dad’s strategy whenever children are working on school projects and papers. It is way too easy, in this age of Google, Wikipedia, and easy instant access to digitized scholarly articles, to write about another person’s ideas without giving credit.

I was reminded of my dad when I read the September 11, 2011 Washington Post Ombudsman column. In Plagiarism or Poor Attribution? Patrick B. Pexton writes about an op-ed piece on women and computer programming that appeared two weeks earlier, one that described how many woman used to be programmers. Pexton wonders if the author credited enough of her sources.

When I read that article, written by Ann Lewis, it seemed interesting and intriguing, so I thought it might be a good topic to write about on this blog. I did some additional searches, trying to learn more about the subject. I found a lot about the history or women and programming, and I’ll write more about what I found in a later post.

What is especially interesting — in fact, what jumped out at me from the Ombudsman’s column  — is that Patrick Pexton, in his September 11th piece, wrote about the same researcher that I discovered, Nathan Ensmenger, an academic who is responsible for a good deal of research on technology history, women, and programming and who was not credited in the article. Maybe I sensed the omission too, because two weeks ago, within a few minutes of reading the Lewis piece, I discovered Professor Ensmenger at The University of Texas, Austin and emailed him. In his e-mail reply he provided links to his detailed website about the early role of women in the world of computing.

Pexton, in his ombudsman piece, wondered whether plagiarism was involved or just poor attribution. Read his Ombudsman’s column to examine the issues more thoroughly.

But here’s the bottom line for parents and kids. We live in an instant information culture, and children today do not have the same understanding of plagiarism as they did when I started teaching 30 years ago. That sets the stage for many problems as children move along in school.

These days kids and even their parents do not depend on the laborious process of working through a library card catalog — with tiny pencils and scraps of paper — to find information. Instead, the sources practically jump out at us. The process of finding information is so instantaneous that most of us could get started with serious writing on a topic without even thinking about where the information came from.

As we learn to navigate the world of digital resources, many of us may make attribution mistakes, so we need to figure out what can be done to minimize them (and avoid embarrassing incidents).

My suggestion? Share my dad’s advice with your kids and do it every time one of them is working on an assignment —  “You cannot attribute too much, only too little.” (Source: My dad, Rev. Elmo Pascale)

If you like this post, and admire my dad’s advice, check out our iPad for Dad adventures featuring a retired minister/college professor and his adult daughter (who gave him the iPad for his 87th birthday).

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