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16 October 2014

Morozov-Medina Kerfuffle: Precarious Academia

Response to:

Morozov Plagiarism Accusation Is Organized Envy

Date: Thu, 16 Oct 2014 21:17:34 +0200
From: t byfield <tbyfield[at]>
To: Nettime-l <nettime-l[at]>
Subject: Re: <nettime> Evgeny Morozov and the Perils of "Highbrow Journalism"

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, promotion, tenure.

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 times.

(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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