When we post online about our research topics, or about things we’ve discovered in the course of our research, how much is too much? Where should we draw the line? What should we and should we not share, in order to protect ourselves professionally?
When we write papers, we of course do not write that paper in a public place, such as a blog or a Wiki, while we’re working on it, nor do we post the completed paper online afterwards,* especially if we’re looking to ever develop that paper further, into a dissertation, or into something to get published. There’s too much danger of being accused of plagiarizing yourself (however that works – I have a hard time wrapping my head around precisely why that’s wrong, even though I sense strongly that it is), and, I suppose, if one is worried about such things, too much danger of someone else stealing your ideas or your research. I guess. So, instead, we keep our research to ourselves, until we’re ready to hand it in to our professor, or to publish it, or whathaveyou.
But I read and research all the time, and write Wiki articles, and occasionally blog posts about topics closely related to my research interests. I don’t post online anything I’ve written formally for a class or the like, copying and pasting directly into a blog post or a Wiki article. But, the fields or topics aren’t that different. I write about one topic for my class, and a different topic on my blog, or on the Wiki. Maybe I write a paper for class about the Yoshiwara pleasure district, and a blog post about a particular kabuki play, and a Wiki article about a particular ukiyo-e artist. But it could have just as easily been the other way around.
I’ve done a lot of work on Ryukyuan history, kabuki, ukiyo-e, and other topics both on Wikipedia,** and on the Samurai Archives Wiki. And while I’m not too concerned about being accused of getting into trouble over the stuff that’s up right now, I know that if I continue to post anything & everything I come up with while doing (admittedly very preliminary) research for my (potential) dissertation topic, it’s only going to head towards a situation where sentences, paragraphs, or even entire pages of my research papers and dissertation end up being extremely similar to what I myself wrote, in my own words, about the same topic, online somewhere.
Let’s suppose I’m reading about a certain specific topic, such as a historical individual, place, or event, and so I write a Wiki article about that topic. This is both “creating content,” sharing it with people, getting it out there, fleshing out / filling in the Wiki a bit more, and, in a sense, taking notes. And, perhaps most importantly, I’m learning in the process – one of the key reasons that I came into my first MA program knowing so much about so many different aspects of Japan is because of my work on Wikipedia. Instead of focusing more or less exclusively on one specific range of topics, I’ve read about, and written about, a whole myriad of different topics, and have very much enjoyed learning about all these different topics in the process. I can then apply that knowledge not only having a fuller understanding of Japanese history to apply to my research, but also to my teaching, and to, for example, if I ever get to be a curator, putting together exhibits on a wide range of topics. Writing on the Wiki also helps me feel like I’m doing something with all this reading I’m doing – helps me feel I’m being a “producer” and not just a perpetual consumer.
But for various reasons, we can’t, or shouldn’t, post too much about our research online. (How much is too much?) Whether it has to do with “scooping” ourselves, making our ultimate formal publication of our research less meaningful, or whether it has to do with self-plagiarism, or some other matter that is somehow escaping me right now…
I definitely enjoy writing on the Wiki, and I definitely do not want to cease contributing entirely. I really hate that being active online should be in any way in conflict with “professional” academic activities, especially when we see the Internet becoming so incredibly prominent in certain fields (e.g. gender studies, new media studies), both as object of study and as a medium within which so many people are producing so much excellent analysis and debate, published freely and publicly accessibly on their blogs. If other people can be successful and prominent, or even be “discovered”, because of their blogs, I’d love to think that my online activities too should not be at odds with my “formal” “professional” activities or persona.
But, where to draw the line? How much is too much to share online? If it was a matter of keeping my argument, my analysis, my new groundbreaking approach, or whatever to myself, that would be one thing. But when it comes to sharing information, data, “facts” (for lack of a better word), online, where do we draw the line?
I have a paper, as of yet unpublished, about a certain series of ukiyo-e prints which, once published, might become, I guess, the most extensive discussion of this particular series out there in English-language scholarship (and possibly more extensive than anything in Japanese, too). In the meantime, before I get published, how much can I say, should I say, about the series? I’m not talking about analysis or interpretations, or revealing anything much about my research, my paper, my approaches, or my findings, but just “facts” that I’ve discovered in the course of my research, about the series itself. Should I not post anything at all, until my article is published? Doesn’t that seem unnecessarily secretive? By adding even just a few lines of the most basic information about the series onto Wikipedia, or the Samurai-Archives Wiki, I’d be making an important contribution towards that website having a more complete coverage of the topic of ukiyo-e, or a more complete listing of print series that were produced in early modern Japan. And that feels good, adding that bit, contributing towards a potential goal. But, if I’m going to post anything at all, then how much can I (should I) post? And what do I hold back? And perhaps most importantly, when someone hypothetically asks me if I know more about the topic and why I’m holding back, what sort of moral, ethical, reason do I give them?
Right now, I am not posting publicly online, for the most part, on topics that I think are of particular relevance to my potential dissertation topic.*** But, while I feel like I’m doing what’s right in the sense of being safe and being careful for my academic/professional career and such, I feel like professional academic me is betraying Wiki contributor / popular history enthusiast me. The grad student is betraying the blogger, saying that some things, some work, is too important, or too scholarly or elite or something, to be allowed to be put out there, or that the world of academia is more important, more “real”, than that of the sharing and interchange of knowledge & information on the Internet. I’m holding back, saving, this information so that it can be funneled instead through the formal channels of academia, so that it – and I – can be recognized within those channels.
As far as I am aware, none of my friends/classmates are in any way involved in editing Wikipedia, S-A Wiki, or the like, but some of them (some of you) definitely do post about topics related to your research on your blogs, or elsewhere. Where do we draw the line?
What are your philosophies or strategies for what you do and do not share online about topics related to your research?
*Well, there’s Academia.edu, but that’s kind of a separate matter.
**I haven’t contributed to Wikipedia in any significant way in quite a few years.
***Well, I recently found a scholar’s website with a ton of great material on it. Since I know I cannot, and will not, cite his personal webpage in any formal academic paper, I figure it’s safe to post stuff from that site on the Wiki (translated, rephrased, etc., and properly cited – not plagiarized, obviously). Perhaps not the most efficient use of my time, though, admittedly, when I could be reading things I will want to actually draw upon for my “real” research.