Tuesday, May 20, 2008

For The Third or Fourth Time

From today's IHE, a piece on double-dipping conference presentations. This is a practice that has been on my mind somewhat during this, the most conference-intensive stretch of my current program of study. Of course, the very idea of "double-dipping" resonates with the bucket (or well) model of invention that, at its best, smacks of individualism and zero-sum economics and, at its worst, echoes of such horrifying social (and professional) improprieties as standing over a vegetable tray at a faculty gathering and using, re-using, and re-re-using the same celery stalk as a salivated dipping stick for that zesty ("Maybe dill?") salad dressing. The views included in the short article range from the cynical to the more generous-spirited. From the cynical camp, a shot about dumbfounded graduate students who are oblivious to the ethics of reperforming (revising, retooling, redelivering, etc.) one's work:

As Nelson C. Dometrius, a professor of political science at Texas Tech University, writes in his introduction to [the debate featured in PS: Political Science and Politics], when he raised the question with senior faculty members, he received mixed reactions, with people quickly outlining special cases where they viewed such "double dipping" as justified. When he posed the same question to graduate students, Dometrius relates, "the modal reply was a blank stare -- a lack of comprehension that presenting the same paper as many times as you wished would be viewed by anyone as an unusual or questionable practice."

I don't know whether this says more about Dometrius, about the graduate students at Texas Tech (less likely), or about advanced graduate study in political science (even less likely), but it's a take that doesn't carry all that well over into my own experience developing and giving conference talks in recent years. If we are not to be flavor-of-the-week-ademics, isn't some return inevitable? What's implied here is that carry-over is suspicious, an indication that someone is slacking off or falsifying a work record.

On a more nuanced note, the exec. director of MLA--who was quoted in the article--suggests that re-use is smart and appropriate, especially when you take audience into account. If the audience is not the same from conference to conference, the matter of "double-dipping" becomes less a question of conferencing ethics and more a question of growing one's vita by dubious means (i.e., double-dipping as the HGH of higher ed). I would guess this works very differently when, for a dissertating graduate student, the list of life's work is fairly short and centered on a small number of projects than it would around year six or seven of an assistant professorship, after the chance to give the dissertation a rest, pour your heart into a couple of different projects, and perhaps even land a book contract. Artificial vita cultivation and re-tread scholarship: who really believes there will not come a day of reckoning for these practices?

One of the messages I return to from early in coursework: you can write insightfully and meaningfully about your work from any point in it, whether you are just beginning to find a research question, whether you have written full articles on the matter, or whether you have dedicated twenty years to this or that interest. Could this be construed as a kind of one-trick-ponyism? Perhaps. But it is not easy to decide without knowing better the work in question. Of course it's possible to re-use one's own stuff lazily, but all re-use, all "self-plagiarism," need not fall into that category of suspicion.

I am tempted to leap to personal anecdotes as a way to wander through this question a bit more. Those (i.e., the three of you) who have heard more than one of my conference papers in recent years will recognize overlaps, recurring interests, and ideas that re-appear because they click. But I am not giving the same paper in any two cases. Not exactly. Neither am I writing what I think of as purely original conference papers, since they all rise from an accumulating slosh of ideas and clusters of interests (providing copies of them is one measure of verification, but what about those extemporaneous talks?). The conferencing record is like a listing of cousins, not strangers, not siblings (most certainly not twins, which seem to be the concern of the article). But then again, perhaps I am merely invoking (to the point of abusing?) that graduate student exemption that grants greater leniency to experimentation, to trying ideas and presentational styles on for size, while trudging through all of those pre-professional uncertainties.

I have to stop here, but there are a couple of other matters of interest touched off by the piece:

  • Self-plagiarism as a concept (closely related: self-citation). Also as a hypocritical practice (i.e., teachers forbid undergraduates from re-using papers across the curriculum, but themselves--allegedly--do it). The article does not provide examples, and the only ones I can think of (aside from the obvious sharing of curricular materials, syllabi, etc.) are where an article evolves into a book chapter, but this practice is, as far as I know, widely accepted.
  • Whether publishing formalities apply to the conferencing circuits. If published articles have much greater purchase for tenure, wouldn't self-duplication in formal publications reflect the lackadaisical attitudes toward re-used conference materials? Some of this goes back to acceptance systems, double-blind peer review, etc.
  • What of the practice of re-using conference proposals? Some lore about this circulates--the conference-goer who got in [to XYZ national conference] using the exact same proposal. Ethically objectionable? Change the title, re-submit the proposal. Does it matter whether the conference presentation was "original" if the proposal was a duplicate?
  • Do political scientists study Bakhtin?
  • The table, "Duplicate Presentations, by Year Doctorate Received," is fascinating in the trend it projects: by the year 3,000--for better or worse--all conference presentations will be double-dipped.
Bookmark and Share Posted by at May 20, 2008 9:10 AM to Academe

1. I can't believe you just outed my cocktail party eating habits to the whole blogosphere!
2. Wow. And I felt guilty for reusing a paragraph and a bit of the conceptual framework for my upcoming presentation. Of course, guilt is my middle name. Or is that procrastination?

Posted by: susansinclair at May 20, 2008 1:31 PM

1. As long as you don't put the dipping vegetable back on the tray at the end of the indulgent episode, I'm not saying a word.
2. I guess that's the thing. I am, as I suspect most aspiring professionals are, hyper-aware of my work, how it is written, how it might be taken up, met with criticism, or even rejected. And I find myself returning to certain turns of phrase all the time. The notion that I am stealing from my own first use of such phrases seems preposterous. But where does that end? At the paragraph? The section? The page?

Your mention of re-use reminds me that, at least hypothetically, academics are generally expected to pitch papers that are already written--and most likely in a more formal register at the length of the article or chapter. In this sense, a conference paper is an adaptation; it should bear a strong resemblance to works circulating elsewhere (i.e., for publication, on a blog, etc.).

Posted by: Derek at May 20, 2008 1:56 PM

I have to wonder here - why isn't re-using the same assignments in one class as another a problem in the same way conference presentations seem to be? Isn't it all part of the same academic creative process? By the same logic that all conference papers should be unique and written for the particular event and audience, shouldn't it also follow that every teacher should invent new assignments for every class? Would we buy that as teachers? And if not, why would we be willing to buy it as writer/researcher/presenters? Each aspect seems to hold the same basic traits: research, writing and audience. Is it "stealing" to use the assignment from last year to this year? If so, we all have to work a lot harder. If not, what makes the conference presentation different?

Posted by: chris Geyer at May 21, 2008 4:10 AM

In my research group, we seem to re-use our papers with some regularity for the purpose of dissemination of results to distinctly different audiences. None of the papers are identical, but they certainly bear similarity and may have a sentence or two in common here and there. Each is targeted to the specific conference audience and context, so they sort of build upon each other progressively. After a few such conference papers, we can weave them together into a more comprehensive piece that can be submitted for a journal article. I'm told that this is common practice in the social sciences.

Posted by: Andrea at May 27, 2008 9:53 AM

Certainly there is some hypocrisy here, Chris. But I'm not sure I see it as quite the same problem as exists with duplicated curricula and course materials. I mean that if taken to the extreme, originality imposes the unreasonable onus for new material every time. It risks becoming an abyss of reinvention rather than improvements and adaptations of what is known to have worked more or less well.

Andrea, I tend to think that this scenario is exactly what we should do: tune, improve, adjust. It's more of a slow-growth model of innovation than one where folks are trying to push too hard into new terrain (again and again; overmuch).

Posted by: Derek at May 28, 2008 4:18 PM

Of course the whole thing is idiotic but not surprising. In fact idiotic and not surprising are pretty much synonymous in academia, right? I mean, let's say I was presenting at CCCC in March, C&W in May, and maybe some regional conference during the same season.

My motive is simple: to communicate what I'm doing to a maximum number of people. There are intellectual reasons for doing this (e.g. looking for feedback). Professional-ethical reasons (the obligation to share research). And self-serving reasons as well (building a reputation, albeit in a fairly modest way).

While I'm at it, I'm likely to post my presentation to my blog as well! (god forbid).

No the presentations aren't identical but they all arise from the same research. I mean exactly how many research programs should I be engaged in?

Really the fundamental problem here is in how we evaluate scholarship (and maybe I'll double-dip and post a similar comment at IHE).

Posted by: Alex Reid at May 29, 2008 7:49 PM