16 October 2014
Morozov-Medina Kerfuffle: Precarious Academia
Morozov Plagiarism Accusation Is Organized
Date: Thu, 16 Oct 2014 21:17:34 +0200
From: t byfield <tbyfield[at]panix.com>
To: Nettime-l <nettime-l[at]kein.org>
Subject: Re: <nettime> Evgeny Morozov and the Perils of "Highbrow
On 15 Oct 2014, at 20:30, gab fest wrote:
> Organized envy sounds like a fair characterization. But the
> organization is small and centered on a few friends and associates of
> Medina. Then there are others engaging in opportunistic one-offs on
> Twitter and Facebook, at various levels of engagement.
First: Morozov should have credited Medina's work more clearly *and* the
fabled editors and fact-checkers of _New Yorker_ should have helped to make
sure he did it right. Having said that...
As books about cybernetics go Medina's was a runaway hit, and with good reason.
She did original and meticulous research in an area that's both easy and
hard to define in that STS sort of way; and on that basis she *wrote the
book*, as they say. Though I wonder about waving this scandal off as peculiar
to a small group.
You put it well when you wrote:
> there has only been one notable book written about Cybersyn, and given
> that limitation, it is easy to contend that the topic, the ideas it
> generates and the primary sources are the "property" of the author of
> that work.
But it's easy to do lots of things, so it's worth asking what makes pillorying
Morozov more appealing some other pressing STSish issue (say, the sociotechnical
clusterf-cks fueling ebola).
This kerfuffle says more about the precarious state of academia than it says
about Morozov (or about Medina, for that matter). In a more confident, optimistic
time, it's easy to imagine a lot of publicly collegial high-fiving about
Medina's work making it big and advancing the field's stature, along with
some private finger-wagging about sharing prestige. Instead, what we got
felt more like the resentful, righteous recriminations of a group that's
coping badly with an increasingly marginal status.
The fact that the 'community' in question is extremely articulate doesn't
help much -- if anything, it's a hindrance. They can make incredibly subtle
and detailed arguments about how and why what Morozov did was wrong, and
they can dress up those arguments in all kinds of finery: the young turk
who 'speaks truth to power,' the measured professional who's concerned for
the field, the sanguine ironist, etc. Most of all they can invoke
venerable-sounding categories like 'scholarly norms' to back up their arguments.
But what they can't account for so well is how recent and provisional these
'norms' are. The fact that they're new helps explain why they're being asserted
so aggressively in this case.
It's a bit like Graeber's argument in Debt: academics have the whole
foundation myth backwards. Adapting, summarizing, and occasionally name-checking
are the historical norm in nonfiction across many languages and centuries.
Compendious footnotes that meticulously cite every. single. page. and. note.
of. every. single. source are the novelty. Go to a bookshelf and pick any
widely influential work of nonfiction published in the humanities or social
sciences before, say, the mid-80s -- chances are you'll find a referential
style much closer to Morozov's than his critics'. That's not universally
true. There are fields where you're more likely to find laborious, constructive
documentation: legal-ish commentaries (secular and religious), philology,
biography, maybe mathematics. There are regional and linguistic differences
as well: for example the French were famously lax, whereas Anglophones tended
to approach it more like an exercise in accounting.
Again, Morozov should've done a better job of crediting Medina's work, and
everyone should have been more attentive to the gender aspects. But too many
critics have batted around quantitative-lite factoids -- how many paragraphs,
how many mentions, how many years they've been reading the _New Yorker_,
etc. This shows just how much of the kerfuffle boils down to accounting (and
rules-based accounting at that). It's no mystery why. Every academic knows
that citations are the coin of the land and the key to the kingdom: renewal,
If Morozov had typed MEDINA MEDINA MEDINA MEDINA MEDINA, there wouldn't be
a problem. But instead of a twitter-length point like that, we get this kind
of overinflated bouncycastle gothic:
> As I wrote in my last post: On Twitter, Meryl Alper pointed out that
> there is an additional irony: Medina's "work highlights power
> imbalances in knowledge production and circulation." The
> Medina-Morozov affair is a story of power.
And indeed it is. But if *power* is the real issue, surely there are more
important stories to tell than whether Morozov typed Medina's name enough
(I think "As I wrote in my last post" must be an incantation to ward off
accusations of "self-plagiarism," because the author crossed the "7-10 word
in one sentence" threshold of plagiarism -- as defined in an infographic
he cites, which "Scholars Passed around on Twitter in the Context of the
Medina-Morozov Affair." Seriously.)
*As I said on another mailing list,* Morozov's trajectory through academic
is almost sui generis. That doesn't mean the rules of academic don't apply
to him; but it does mean that we'd do well to take academics belaboring him
about the minutiae of newfound 'norms' with a grain of salt. And trusting
Anglophone academics to define the norms for crediting others is like trusting
oil companies to tell us what normal weather should be. They can't. Their
goals, values, and measures are trapped in an inflationary spiral with
consequences far beyond their field of expertise.
There's also an affirmative reason to question their assumptions as well.
Academic writing is becoming more and more unreadable, and the ever-growing
demands of scholarly apparatus are one of the main mechanisms of that change.
It may illuminate certain points here and there, but the systemic effect
is a sort of 'gravity' that distorts the text. In some fields or contexts
that's necessary, but not in all. If we don't distinguish which is which,
the fields where this kind of scaffolding is new will end up following the
fields where deference to authority -- whether physical or political fact
-- is the norm.
When I first read Morozov's piece I wondered how on earth he could describe
it as "entertaining" -- and wondered if there was a gender aspect to that.
Now I think, if anything, he was trying to do her a favor.
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